Get Out (2017)
The Dark Humor of White Lies
“Ain't no lions or tigers ain't no mamba snake… Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake… Everybody is as happy as a man can be… climb aboard little one sail away with me”
-Sail Away, song written by Randy Newman, as sung by Ray Charles
“Have you forgotten, that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our names, robbed of our language, we lost our religion, our culture, our God, and many of us by the way we act, even lost our minds!” – Dr. Khalid Muhammad on Public Enemy’s ‘Night Of The Living Base Heads’
“If only we were amongst friends... or sane persons!”
-Janet, The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jordan Peele of the TV sketch comedy duo, Key and Peele, has made an unlikely directorial debut on the big screen. “Get Out” has many funny moments. This is not surprising given Peele’s body of work. However he chose a genre not usually associated with comedians… horror. The director has an interest in the funny bone, but he is also focused on the smashing of skulls and blood spattering. “Get Out” borrows from breakthrough films that expand conventional genre boundaries. “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” can be seen as a parable of the 1950s McCarthyism. In 1975 “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” used standard horror film troupes to hilariously expound on sexual “normalcy”. The same year “The Stepford Wives” made monsters of the misogynist post war ideals of women. “Hannibal” gave a scientific veneer to the slasher flick. Imagine all these threads, and many more, coming together in a “black comedy” about race relations. The key to the films success is that it is a solidly crafted funny horror film, rather than a scold about our social deficits.
Dave Chapelle just made the most financially successful comedy special ever recorded. He gives homage to Key & Peele for following in his footsteps. He also, casually, makes reference to the hard work of laughter. He told a short joke and mused how it was the best one OF THE 40 he had written on that minuscule topic. Note: this was merely less than a minute of a 4 part, multi-hour show. Yet, despite the substantial length, there was an effortless to every second of his performance. Peele has followed this rigorous attention to craft, albeit without the myopic attention to giggles. “Get Out” casually flows through the terror but with the added dimension of occasional laughter. It is only after reflection one realizes they are witness to an intricately detailed story that has careful exposition with many subtle jibes. Seemingly incidental references and props turn out to be part of a fine-tuned plot. A car collision with a deer on the trip to the parents house is tied to our protagonist’s loss of his own mother. Note: our hero uses mounted deer head as a weapon to slay his adversary. The Jesse Owen’s mention upon meeting the overly friendly parents is another passing, yet vital, key to understanding the root of the white family’s relationship to African Americans. The father reveals: my grandfather ALMOST recovered from the loss to the great Olympian. The denouement of the story has a member of the nation’s most ridiculed police agency, the TSA, act as the “white” knight in shining armor. Peele’s commentary on the cold foibles of the rolling class are etched with the knowledge of a keen observer. The writer/director knows that the race is a American is centered around a psychotic relationship. People, literally, embody those they loath. All this speaks to someone whose mastery of the culture is pitch perfect to the point where racial question are merely a device, rather than the focus. This is a wonderful horror film, rather than a wonderful “black” horror film.
The cast of “Get Out” deserves credit for making the magic possible. Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams are exquisite in their roles as the lovers in an early stage of romance. Their fears and reactions to the strains of “meeting the family” are believable. The fact that they are an interracial couple meshes perfectly with the nervousness of making the “right” impression. The family has the benevolent upper class quirkiness of being educated elitists with a soft spot for underlings. The neurosurgeon patriarch, Bradley Whitford, has a funnyman/everyman quality akin to a white Dr. Huxtable. The therapist matriarch, Catherine Keener, has the warm friendliness of a den mother constantly apologizing for her overly social husband. He says the right thing in a manner which makes it the wrong thing. The brother, Caleb Jones, is the only overt hint that we might be on the sinister set of “Arsenic and Old Lace”, rather than the purely wacky world of “You Can’t Take it With You”. He’s a mean preppy drunk with an overt hatred of minorities. Then there are the servants, Marcus Henderson & Betty Gabriel. Not since Mrs. Danvers, in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, have house staff radiated such much pure creepiness. Danver’s is driven to cursing her new mistress before torching the mansion and leaping into the flames but at least she was fighting her own deranged battle. The element that makes Henderson & Gabriel so unsettling is a question of identity.
“Get Out” is about who we aren’t. Race and class are vehicles for the horror/comic editorial on the state or altered state of America. The rigid caste system that undoubtedly exists is a subject that dare not speaks its name. This is perfect fodder for a dystopian comedy. There is only one character that is solidly lower-middle class. The protagonist’s best friend LilRel Howery, a TSA employee, is rooted in the black working class. He is chock-filled with bromides about race, class and acceptance that our “striving” hero chooses to ignore. Unfortunately Howery is, unintentionally, distanced from his friend’s narrative by a performance that is disjointed from the central narrative. He is playing a stand-up gig at home which is intercut with a carefully mannered parody. Howery is a wonderful as a singular performance. There is a jarring disconnect between his clear-headed, hard-nosed cell phone comedy club routine and the set-piece family nightmare. The audience is swept up in the bizarre twilight-zone antebellum country-club only to be whiplashed with a call from a brash stand up comedian. That sense of disconnect is also illustrated in the blood-soaked latter segment. “Get Out” metaphorical verbal fisticuffs morph to, literally, breaking out the ax. The mind games turn to actual brain surgery. Artistically speaking the audience is overcome by the turbulent mechanics of the narrative rather than the helter-skelter nature of the material.
Kaluuya, during the girlfriend family visit, is hit, full bore, with the schizophrenic love/hate of the ruling class toward, ‘the other’. How is he to respond to the family’s loss at the Nazi Olympics? Is the constant praise of African American physicality meant as a compliment? Would they WANT to be black? It is interesting to note that Jesse Owens, reflecting upon his moment revealed: "I wasn't invited up to shake hands with Hitler- but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” The sequence in which our hero is forced into the Hades of submission by Keener’s hypnotic trance, has him seeing things from a bottomless abyss of powerlessness similar to another classic protagonist. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” ended in basement room filled with bare light bulbs. That hero knew the bitter truth that was revealed in the note he is told never to open as he goes from employer to employer. He eventually succumbs to curiosity and reads: “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running”. Kaluuya endures a backyard garden party where he encounters another African American fellow traveler who never opened the note. He is a bizarre, castrated, sex slave whose identity has been erased by a white body snatcher. Kaluuya might not know the truth, but he senses something is off. The TSA agent channels the title of the film, “GET OUT!”. It is a hysterical warning of imminent danger, not a sardonic quip of disbelief. Howery, with all his jocular home spun charm, knows the DEADLY seriousness of the situation.
Gazes and gestures tell a thousand stories. The genius of this film is that they are exactly who they aren’t. When Kaluuya tries to strike up a conversation with Henderson he is the middle of splitting wood. There is no telling where the ax will land next, despite the cool politeness of the interaction. Allison Williams is another odd monster who oozes madness beneath the preppy veneer. Her trophy collection of photos of past conquests is akin to Shelly Duvall in the Shinning discovering her husbands novel is one sentence repeated ad infinitum. The demur, polite Allison is actually a big game warden with the terrifying laissez-faire morality of Daisy Buchanan in the Great Gatsby. Daisy committed manslaughter and let her love be murdered rather than face the music. Allison murders with the same disinterest. She is the mirror image of Howery, who is all heart. The TSA hero who, in his ill-fitting uniform covering his Twinkie filled frame, become the metaphorical white knight. He slays the pretty monsters and the Oreo imposters. Then there is Gabriel’s moment with Kaluuya . If the film could be summed up in one facial expression it would be this domestic servants penetrating, tearful, wide-eyed, glare. There is a quixotic, Mona Lisa quality that projects terror and ambiguity. Should she be embraced as an ally, or scorned as another of the monsters? In reality her place in the orchard of strange fruit, she is both the produce and the purveyor. Even if she had the ability to reveal the truth, Kaluuya’s response would have been an incredulous, “GET OUT!” as in, “you can’t be serious”. Her deadpan response would have been, “while you can”. There is a monster. Not under your bed but directly in front of you. The horror is there… it is question of choosing to see it and responding appropriately.
In our current climate of vastly opposing opinions about the the racial divide it is important to remember that half a century ago interracial marriage was illegal in most of the United States. In the same year those laws were struck down “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” had its debut. The plot centered around a young wealthy caucasian woman’s parents meeting her African American fiancée’s counterparts. The prospect of different colors in the family trees forces an uncomfortable introspections on all sides. Even the white family’s trusted African American servant is against the nuptials as she feels the young man, a doctor, is trying to “get above himself”. Contrast her with the black maid in “Get Out”’. They are both prisoners of their station, but Peele’s servant is a chimera of commentary on race and class. The former is merely a pawn in a set piece drama about the foolishness of bigotry. Early forays into this difficult conversations are important, but they appear stilted in an age where Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” can be read as a companion to “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The paradigm character of social justice, Atticus Finch, is revealed as a more nuanced person informed by his segregationist surroundings. “Get Out” reeks of such ambiguity. Racism is real but it is fiction to believe in Atticus Finch. It is more appropriate to grimace and embrace at all the unsettling contradictions. Andrew Jackson, overseer of the trail of tears, had his life saved by a Native American. Get out! Muhammad Ali, the embodiment of black power, based his public persona on a white 1950s professional wrestler. Get out! The Senate leader of the modern segregationists had an African American daughter. Get out! The pilgrims kept the decapitated head of a Native American on a pike on the outskirts of their village to ward off unfriendly tribes. Get Out! Families were known to attend lynching and postcards were made of the events. Get Out! The nice, white, rich, progressive, country club family are, in truth, depraved, murderous slaveholders. Get Out! Atticus Finch won’t save you… you have to wait for the TSA. Get Out!
“Get Out” is a bloody, belch of uneasy truth. Peele’s gift is that he has shown us that the story of the American original sin lends itself to real tales of horror rather than the safe ghetto of polite conversation. It is to be enjoyed from the slums of East St. Louis, to the art-houses of New York City, to the drive ins of San Diego, to the streaming feeds of Montana, Hawaii, Mississippi…. let horror ring. We can, as a big family…. squirm at last. We can squirm at last! Thank God Almighty we can squirm at last!