The Horror of North America
Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which premieres nationwide this Friday, is one of the few black horror films not about Africa to feature both possessed black people and the deep wilderness. This cinematic tradition can be traced back to the early twentieth century. In 1940’s all-black Son of Ingagi, a doctor is murdered by a creature she brought home from the African jungle. Seventies blaxploitation flicks like Blacula, Abby, and Bill Gunn’s art-house hit Ganja and Hess (later re-made by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), featured various African spooks: a resurrected African prince-turned-vampire, a young woman possessed by a Yoruba orisha, and an anthropologist corrupted by a cursed African dagger, respectively. As Colin Dickey wrote in the New Republic, a strain of horror films about Indian burial grounds addresses the anxiety that (mostly white) Americans feel living on stolen land. Similarly, many black American horror films that focus on the concept of a “cursed” Africa sometimes deal with the scourge of chattel slavery and its legacy, and at others exploit misconceptions about the continent.
Get Out, which debuted to much acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, relocates the racial fear from Africa to America. The wilderness here is not the racist African “bush” or even the horror-cliché forest; rather it’s, as Malcolm X once put it, “the wilderness of North America.”
The wild here is one of North America’s signature totems: the all-white enclaves that make up some suburbs and exurban estates. The film’s title resembles a phrase you hear from online trolls, Trump supporters, and even U.S. congressmen: “Go back to Africa.” In Peele’s version, a black man at a mostly white party yells it to Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who brings to this much the same glazed-over resignation he brought to his breakout role in the second episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror.
The plot points of this movie echo the tropes of American white supremacy in obvious ways: kidnapped black people show up in all-white spaces; there’s anti-black roadside discrimination; police respond callously to reports of missing black people (even though the people in power who reject these claims are also black); stereotypes about black men’s sexual prowess teem. There’s even a guilt-ridden liberal white character bragging that he would have voted for Obama’s third term if he’d gotten the chance. The title also recalls the saying used to respond to an incredulous story with a hand wave and a chuckle: get out. Both meanings apply here, especially since the plot is outlandish in a way that speaks to long-standing black American anxieties.
The film’s premise is classic: photographer Chris Washington and his college-student girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) visit her parents’ home in Upstate New York so that he can meet them. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks. Even though Chris is Rose’s first black boyfriend, she elects not to tell her parents about his race; with patrician liberal swagger, she insists that her family will be totally comfortable with her dating a black man. This could be the setup for a millennial update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—except that Peele is determined to build the ominous mood of a horror. Their trip to Rose’s hometown is beset by foreboding events. Some of the creepy stuff is run-of-the-mill horror fare: in a phone call, Chris’s best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) jokingly scolds him for going to a secluded all-white space and moments later a deer crashes ominously into the couple’s windshield. The other menacing stuff comes from particular black experiences in this country, as when the couple calls the police about the deer and the cop demands Chris’s ID even though he wasn’t driving.
It makes sense that in a film treatment of contemporary American race relations, obliviousness is the ultimate faux pas.
Later, microaggressions abound. Rose’s father Dean, a neurosurgeon played with such total comical uncool that you can’t imagine anyone other than Bradley Whitford in the role, speaks to Chris using misguided slang. He calls Chris “my man,” and the couple’s relationship a “thang.” Rose’s mother Missy (a taciturn Catherine Keener), is a hypnotist wound up about Chris’s cigarette habit. She’s routinely rude to one of the two black people employed at the Armitage home, their maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Rose’s unhinged brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), a med-school student, grills Chris about his physical fitness and interest in mixed-martial arts, eventually blurting out that with Chris’s “frame and genetic makeup,” he could be a “beast” if he trained more.
The black people are just as strange and discombobulated. On the eve of the Armitage family’s annual garden party, the estate’s other black resident, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson), runs an animated set of nighttime laps in the family’s sprawling backyard while Chris tries to sneak a smoke. Georgina, who’s always popping up randomly, absentmindedly strokes her hair as she unselfconsciously stares at Chris.
In a truly frightening sequence, Missy hypnotizes the hesitant Chris, ostensibly to help him quit smoking. The next day, a black man we see kidnapped in the film’s cold open (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield) shows up at the party. He’s transformed into a high-bourgeois black suburbanite—but he still retains enough residual allegiance to his past that he ends up warning Chris to leave the Armitage home—and this is where your reviewer must leave off with the plot summary, since Get Out plunges into a series of alternately scabrous and chilling horror-movie twists. It’s not a spoiler, though, to note that the Armitage family’s party takes a decidedly sinister turn. The almost exclusively white guests prod Chris about his experience as a black American—while also prodding him in the literal sense, touching his muscles and appraising his body. It would also not be giving too much away to say that Missy and Dean’s professions play a crucial role in the ensuing story.
Get Out mainly works to highlight the surreality of one eccentric place instead of the ambient terror of living in America as a black person.
Get Out does, however, stray from a key convention in horror plotting: the systematic and brutal punishment of the nosey. In most standard fare, characters who go down dark hallways or open doors they were admonished to avoid always pay a steep price for their curiosity. But Peele rewards his characters for their inquisitiveness. Indeed, that trait proves crucial for Chris and Rod, a TSA agent who grows increasingly concerned about his friend’s safety and sets off to help him. Chris’s ultimate fault is his willful ignorance, which stems from his genuine desire to gain social acceptance.
It makes sense that in a film treatment of contemporary American race relations, obliviousness is the ultimate faux pas. Chris fails to pick up on the menacing undercurrent beneath Rose’s seemingly naïve color-blindness. He also doesn’t register the import of the deer omen, which has some relation to a traumatic incident in his life, and laughs off his friend’s playful warnings about the trip. (At one point, Peele winks at this character flaw by showing Rod see a TV ad that ends with the United Negro College Fund’s classic tagline: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”) While the couple is driving upstate, a chanting song that sounds like an old black spiritual scores the ride. A choir sings the word “brother” and hums with rapturous intensity as footage of the woods rolls by the car windows. You wonder if the song is meant to be yet another signal Chris misses; if so, he literally can’t see the forest for the trees.
But neither, ultimately, can Get Out. For all of its attention to microaggressions and justified black fears of the police, Peele’s message film ends up feeling just as narrow-minded as the claustral confines of its action. It really is about one black man’s terrifying journey into a strange subculture of white race fetishism. In the portentous and over-signifying world of Get Out, Chris’ mounting panic over his new surroundings could be a really big metaphor for cultural appropriation—or a platform for a series of knowing asides that run through the screenplay about clichéd white racial exoticism (the preternatural attraction of white women to NCAA basketball players is one such touchstone here). The oddly formalist character of this racial allegory means that Peele misses an opportunity to showcase more wrenching moments from quotidian black life like the ID scene, which was prominently—if misleadingly—featured in the film’s trailer. Perhaps Peele, like other black artists, worried that too broad a focus on the daily tribulations of blackness in a white-dominated America would risk pathologizing the black experience altogether. But as matters stand, his decision to segment these horrifying real-life terrors off into isolated incidents feels like a missed chance to make other connections between horror and the more banal indignities of everyday life.
Rusty Cundieff’s overlooked 1995 black horror film, Tales from The Hood, was one of the first entries in the genre to home in on issues plaguing black America without trafficking in horrible gothic African clichés. Cundieff’s film focused on four loosely connected stories, each dealing with a particular menace: a young boy and his mother physically abused by her boyfriend; a white racist politician murdered by the ghosts of slaves trapped in a painting mounted in his home; a black cop doing nothing as a black man is harassed and then killed by the cop’s white colleagues during a traffic stop; and a gang member confronting the murders he committed by encountering the dead souls in a strange echo-chamber. Tales from the Hood came at the end of the early nineties blaxploitation era; it referenced the high-profile murders of black people from the mid-eighties as well as the Rodney King beating. And by appropriating the conventions of horror storytelling, it permitted viewers to experience the real fears of violence in the urban black community while also wrestling with cinematic portrayals of it. It’s no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it deserves credit for directly engaging the quotidian racialized horrors of nineties America in a way that very few films of the time bothered to try to do. In Cundieff’s estimation, it was America, not Africa, that was cursed.
Get Out is after something else altogether. It’s more in line with the hyper-self-aware horror stylings of The Cabin in the Woods or Drag Me to Hell—movies that pivoted on highly stylized, scary set pieces that were on the whole more funny than they were chilling. By adopting a similar conceit here—one that is, in essence, a high-concept, next-level Key and Peele setup—Get Out mainly works to highlight the surreality of one eccentric place instead of the ambient terror of living in America as a black person. And on these fairly straitened terms the movie largely succeeds. Get Out gives viewers (and some characters) a VR-style perspective into the dangers that can abruptly overtake anyone who happens to be black in this country. At the same time, though, it stops well short of a more detailed, more damning, and perhaps more truly inventive survey of regular black fears. It spoke volumes, for instance, that the multiracial audience at the screening I attended laughed comfortably at the main action, with its frequent jump scares and sight gags—but bristled uneasily when the cops showed up, and the racial menace on screen threatened to become all too real. And that suggests, in turn, that there’s still ample room for anyone setting out to pick up the broad cinematic challenges outlined in Tales from the Hood and adapt them to the scary new cultural mood of the Trump years.