[This is a re-post of my review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Get Out opens Friday.]
In 1967, Columbia Pictures released Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the story of a young white woman who brings her black fiancé home to meet her parents. At the end, the parents are okay with it, and white people in the audience are reassured that if they were ever in Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s shoes, they would be okay with it too.
Fifty years later, Jordan Peele’s Get Out shows that things are decidedly not okay. The racial dynamics at play are sharp, incisive, and at the forefront of his clever, witty, and disturbing directorial debut. In Get Out, white people don’t want to understand interracial relationships or reflect on their prejudices or privileges. By the same token, whites don’t want to exterminate the black race. What white people want is control, and the only thing black people are good for are their bodies. There are false pleasantries and micro-aggressions, but enslavement looms large over Peele’s insightful picture.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer who decides to go with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) at their country home over the weekend. Chris is a little uncomfortable, both from the general anxiety of meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, and because Rose says she hasn’t mentioned that Chris is black. However, her parents are perfectly pleasant if a bit awkward in the sense that her father feels the need to express that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. More concerning is the strange behavior of the family’s two black servants. As the weekend goes on, Chris starts to notice more and more bizarre behavior from everyone he meets, and begins wondering if Missy, a hypnotist, has infiltrated his mind.
Get Out takes the initial premise of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and then twists it with The Stepford Wives to create a compelling, thoughtful critique of white power. Peele, of course, isn’t arguing that white people are out to hypnotize black people. Instead, Get Out is a stinging criticism of the white liberalism that carries itself as empathetic towards blacks, but that empathy only extends as far as white control. Peele isn’t taking aim at neo-Nazis and other whites who would angrily shout the n-word. They’re a lost cause. Instead, he’s looking at those who profess their lack of racism, but only do so if they can maintain their dominance over black people in the most insidious manner possible. As Chris pointedly notes to Rose at party full of white people, “Has anyone here ever met a black person that didn’t work for them?”
If Peele had presented this idea directly, it could have come off as preachy, but he masterfully wraps it inside the horror genre and uses it to maximum effect. Peele, through his powerful direction, lets us share in Chris’ paranoia and anxiety. He wants us to empathize with Chris not just on the level of Chris being black, but that his minority status makes him vulnerable to what Rose’s suspicious parents and their friends have in store. Get Out is scary not because of the specifics of the situation—again, it’s not like the film is warning about powerful hypnotists in our midst—but because of the racial and power dynamic it presents.
Peele, thankfully, lets us catch our breath with his comic timing. Some may be surprised that one half of the comic duo of Key & Peele has come out with a horror film, but there are plenty of intentional laughs to be had, especially from Chris’ best friend (LilRel Howery), a TSA agent who represents every viewer who has ever been way ahead of the protagonist and knew the best course of action. It’s a little meta, but never so much that it breaks the fourth wall or takes you out of the movie. It’s the comic relief in a film that needs these scenes to cut the tension.
The insightful racial commentary will come as no surprise to those who have enjoyed Key & Peele, but even fans will be impressed by Peele’s level of skill and confidence in his first feature. He utilizes the sharp subtext that the horror genre provides to create a cutting commentary on racial dynamics. The film functions like a punch in the mouth to every Obama voter that went to Trump. It strikes at every white person who professes their lack of racism while they idiotically exclaim that “All lives matter.” Peele sees how far white people have come, and points out how little distance we’ve traveled. Get Out isn’t meant to be reassuring. It isn’t meant to be conciliatory. It’s a bucket of ice water, and it will give you chills.