(spoilers only in the links)
Good horror, just like good satire, isn’t built around the bizarre, it’s built on the familiar.
There are few things more familiar to black people in the West than being the outsider in social or professional circles. Answering dumb-ass questions about your heritage or sporting prowess are just tiresome hurdles to navigate when dealing with large groups of ‘well-meaning‘ white people.
Jordon Peele’s comedy/horror Get Out hit UK screens this weekend after smashing the box office and the comment pages in the US. The film stars British actor Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a young black photographer invited to meet his white girlfriend’s family for the first time – in itself that’s a pretty scary situation. When his girlfriend, Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams from Girls, tells him she hasn’t told her folks that her new guy is black, a more savvy hero would have cut the trip right there. But then that wouldn’t have made for a very long film.
Mixed relationships come with their own challenges, and a lack of awareness from the white partner of the reality of their black partner’s life is a millstone that runs the risk of turning every social engagement into an act of betrayal. If Rose really didn’t think it worth mentioning to her parents that her new boyfriend was black, she’s either ridiculously blinkered or just plain stupid.
Travelling while black is fraught with danger in the US and when the couple are pulled over on the way to her family’s country estate, Rose shows she hasn’t learned to look beyond her own privilege by mouthing off to the police officer while Chris tries to placate the situation.
I’ve been with my white partner for almost 18 years. Some of the scenes from Get Out seemed to have been plagiarised directly from my life experiences. Awkward garden parties where people mistake you for ‘the help’ or networking events where strangers randomly tell you about their love of Bob Marley are just minor annoyances that are common to many black people in the UK.
Jordon Peele is half of comedy double act Key and Peele, and his directorial debut shows all the skills he has honed over the years producing tight comedy sketches. Not a moment is wasted in building the tension making the film worthy of at least two viewings to catch all the inside jokes and hat tips.
Get Out brilliantly taps into feelings of discomfort and then ratchets them up gradually to breaking point. Arriving at the Armitages’ home, the young couple are first greeted by a waving black gardener in a hat before meeting Dean and Missy, Rose’s liberal parents. Even the over-familiar way that Dean greets Chris is totally on point. He already thinks he knows this young man and can’t wait to tell him that he would have voted for Obama three times if he could have. I’ve heard people describe this ‘instant buddies’ phenomenon as a positive thing, ‘what’s so wrong with people being immediately at ease?’ they ask. The problem is they are only really connecting with the two-dimensional version of you that they have already prepared in their heads.
The Armitages have two black staff, who are the very definition of house negroes but when Chris does the natural thing and reaches out to them for connection, he gets nothing but strangeness back. In a scene that has already spurred online craze the Get Out challenge, Chris sneaks out in the middle of the night for a cheeky fag and is faced with Walter, the weird black gardener, running at him full pelt only narrowly avoiding crashing straight into him. Any black person who has started a new job in a predominantly white company knows the feeling of being blanked by the other black face you see in the building. Chris’ attempts to reach out to both Walter and Georgina, the off-key maid who keeps unplugging his charging phone, leave him feeling even more out of place and alone.
The local wealthy white folk turn up and Chris is the star of the show as he runs the gauntlet of inappropriate comments and touches with the fixed fake smile we sometimes have to wear to get through these social ordeals. In real life, the threat is subtle and the danger is to your self-esteem, but for Chris the threat became more and more real, and the danger was to his very being. The thing that the film gets so right is that this group is not overtly racist, they are not Trump voters, they are Obama-supporting liberals and that is where the real terror lies.
If there is a criticism of Get Out, which cost just £4.5m to make, it’s that the story arc is fairly predictable. We know where it’s going we just don’t know how it’s going to get there. This didn’t spoil the film in any way for me. Peele had planned a darker ending but I wonder if that would have been a step too far. He picked the scab, he didn’t need to rub pepper sauce into the wound.
As the micro-aggressions turn macro and the perceived threat manifests into something much worse, the story manages to adeptly walk two paths. It is designed to be a shout-at-the-screen, throw-your-popcorn romp and does not disappoint for a moment. It also manages to contain metaphors for white liberal supremacy ‘Behold the Coagula’, the paralysing effect of racism ‘the Sunken Place’ and even takes a swipe at the NBA’s draft process. Camera flashes and stirring teaspoons are both likely to enter pop culture as signs that someone has either been bamboozled or woke.
Oh and this film needs to be seen in a large cinema with lots of black people.
Maurice Mcleod is a social commentator with Jamaican/Swazi heritage. He is director of his own communications company, Marmoset Media, and writes regularly for The Guardian and The Spectator among other titles. He is also vice chair of campaign group Race on the Agenda. Maurice often appears on Sky News as a talking head and writes about social issues, race or politics. He tweets as @mowords
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