American Horror GENRE AND THE POST-RACIAL MYTH IN GET OUT: Rife with symbolism and social commentary Jordan Peele's debut feature effectively employs and subverts well-worn horror tropes, constituting a work that is as entertaining as it is politically charged As ANTHONY CAREW explores, the film functions as both a scathing satire of liberal racism and an evocation of the everyday fears that African-American people must endure.
Though it was released--and, eventually, won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay--in Donald Trump's America, Peele penned Get Out as a response to Barack Obama's presidential reign, during which the election of the first ever president of colour, in 2008, had been hailed as a symbol of a nation shaking off its racist past. We were in a period where a lot [of] people [were] saying racism was over,' Peele explains. 'I was writing during the Obama era, the era of the post-racial lie.' (2) Here, Peele dismantles this post-racial myth in both comic and horrific ways: from social settings full of microaggressions--those tiny faux pas that speak of greater prejudices--to his grand gambit, in which Rose's family turn out to be masterminds of a wealthy cabal that transplants the brains of ageing white people into young, black bodies. Rose's father, Dr Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), proudly boasts that he would've voted for Obama for a third time if he could, all while participating in an inhuman plot with grand racist echoes. He's a poster boy for self-satisfied white liberals, the chief proponents of the post-racial myth.
'I felt like there was this void in the way we talk about race [...] like racism was not being called out sufficiently,' Peele says. (3) Get Out's pitch-meeting premise (one Peele was sure he would never be allowed to actually make: 'On paper, what you have is something inherently unpleasant--the victimization of black people, the villains being white people' (4)) turns the horrors of racism into a horror movie, its key manoeuvre being the literalisation of black fears in a white world. 'I'd never seen my fears as an African-American man onscreen in this way,' Peele offers. (5)
Peele eventually settled on calling his film a 'social thriller', (6) essentially landing somewhere between psychological thriller, satirical parable and nightmarish horror movie. He took influence from a pair of classic paranoid thrillers based on books by Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) and The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975), in which the protagonists' slowly growing paranoia is dismissed and minimised by a micro-society enacting a grand conspiracy around them. It was a dynamic that Peele himself had felt: As a black man, sometimes you can't tell if what you're seeing has underlying bigotry, or it's a normal conversation and you're being paranoid. That dynamic in itself is unsettling.' (7)
Peele admits to being 'obsessed with the idea of race', (8) due largely to growing up as biracial. Born in New York in 1979 to a black father and a white mother, he was raised by his mum on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Like many mixed-race children, he felt like an outsider, belonging neither to his tony neighbourhood nor to the black culture he saw around him, yet having other people always judge him by his appearances and upbringing. 'Knowing [that his] identity was a representation of the absurdity of the idea of race' meant that Peele could interrogate race, along with its central place in America's history, national identity, social hierarchy and even geography (the effects of segregation are still literally drawn on city maps). (9)
Peele became known for this capacity to audiences through his work from 2012 to 2015 on sketch-comedy show Key & Peele, which found him and co-star Keegan-Michael Key--who is also biracial --comically addressing many of their social observations while skewering racial stereotypes in popular culture. On the show, Peele achieved renown for his impersonations of Obama; one famous recurring skit featured Key playing his 'anger translator', who said the things--in the most profane ways--that the president never could. Key & Peele also prepared Peele for his work as a debutant director: Peele having served not just as performer, but writer, producer and showrunner, knowing production inside and out. 'The similarity between comedy and horror is the importance of pacing,' Peele offers. 'In both genres you have to build tension and release it very strategically.' (10)
Growing up, as an outsider, Peele was drawn to horror. It was, he'd recount, 'something that, for the first portion of my life, as a kid, was really crippling in how terrified it made me, but still drew me to it'. (11) Both Get Out and the director's follow-up feature, Us (2019), draw influence from and feature references to an elaborate array of thrillers, chillers and mind-benders: from Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives to the famous TV anthology The Twilight Zone (which Peele revived for US television in 2019 (12)); to masterworks like The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980); and to cult arthouse provocations like Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997), A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003) and Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008). There are also the films that have used the prism of horror to explore class, race and inequality: 'black horror' predecessors like Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968), The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991) and Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992). While horror has at times been marred by its "B-movie," low budget and/or exploitative reputation,' writes Robin R Means Coleman in her book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, 'one cannot discount its unique skill at exposing the issues and concerns of our social world, to include our racial sensibilities.' (13)
While horror can be--and has been--used to interrogate race, so often it hasn't; the most prevalent trope regarding black people in horror movies, indeed, has been that they're the first to die. This was part of the motivation for Peele to make a meaningful contribution to his favoured genre. 'Black audiences are obsessed with horror films but consistently frustrated with them,' he says. 'There is a heightened awareness that black Americans have developed in looking out for racism and the real horrors that we've been subjected to for years.' (14) Peele sees Night of the Living Dead as having given rise to this idea: its lead character, Ben (Duane Jones), as a black man who has grown up in segregated America, is used to existing in a state of heightened fear and danger, which makes him well equipped to deal with a zombie uprising. Similarly, Peele points out that, in Get Out, 'Chris, in his racial paranoia, is onto something that he wouldn't be if he was a white guy and there was a similar thing going on.' (15)
Get Out opens in this position of fear: Andre (LaKeith Stanneld) is a black man lost in a white neighbourhood, his anxiety mounting as he walks the vast suburban streets. He's stalked--symbolically--by a white German luxury car, which plays the eerie World War I-era ditty 'Run Rabbit Run'; the song evokes a hunt, a 'sport' that is stacked against its ostensible victim (it also, now, foreshadows the creepy use of rabbits in Us). Andre is soon abducted, in a classic horror-movie 'cold open' in which a victim falls prey to a menace that we don't yet comprehend. From there, we move to another black man, Chris, a photographer who's packing his bags to the sound of a far-different song, Childish Gambino's 'Redbone', which exhorts its listeners to 'stay woke'.
As he packs, we see Rose choosing from pastries, lingering over a chocolate one, this echoing a later scene in which she is seen browsing for her next victim, having Binged (!) 'Top NCAA prospects'. As she goes hunting online, she eats dry Froot Loops from a bowl with milk served alongside in a glass--a great, subtle symbol of colours being kept separate from whites (coincidentally, around the time of Get Out's release, milk became a newly embraced symbol for white supremacists"). At first, Rose seems like a sweet and supportive girlfriend, the one who is on Chris' side, wary of bringing him to meet her less-sensitive family. Peele cast Williams so as to play up to audience sympathies, feeling that viewers would have fond associations of the actress from her time on TV's Girls. In further deliberate misdirections, her character evokes both the horror trope of the fragile 'Final Girl' and the figure of the 'white saviour' in movies about race ('It's Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013]. It's [Kevin] Costner in Hidden Figures [Theodore Melfi, 2016], the character that lets the white audience think "I'm not one of the racist ones",' says Peele (17)). Rose seems to be a defender of Chris, like when she talks back to a highway patrolman who, following an accident, wants to see his ID even though he wasn't driving. Chris, conditioned to a lifetime of prejudice, is all too happy to comply with the belligerent police officer: 'You're already seen as aggressive if you're a young black male,' Kaluuya offers. 'You have to have a veneer of coolness [...] There's a cost for standing up for yourself if you're black.' (18) But, if you're watching her in full knowledge that she's a willing participant in the evil plot that will be revealed later on, you realise that Rose is clearly just trying to make sure there's no official police record of Chris travelling with her. Where there's a long, ignominious cinematic history of offsetting the supposed 'fragility' of the white woman against the supposed 'brutality' of the black man, (19) here that dynamic is inverted: Rose is the villain, using her sexuality as a weapon, taking down innocent men (Chris isn't the first) with clear-eyed sociopathy. As a grand subversion of familiar tropes, this is only truly revealed in the final act, making a repeat watch illuminating. On a second viewing, Peele notes, 'everything she does has a different meaning'. (20)
The accident has come after their car has struck a deer. This is the first use of deer as a symbol in Get Out. Chris heads out into the woods and watches the deer dying, a moment that is soon tied to the suppressed childhood memory of his own mother's death, at the hands of a hit-and-run driver. The deer--literally a 'black buck', a racist term traditionally directed at African-American males--also symbolises the animalising fetishisation of young black men for their physical gifts. Accordingly, the head of a buck is mounted as a trophy in the basement of the Armitage house: a symbol of upper-class white privilege and cruelty. And when Chris and Rose finally arrive at this house, Dean celebrates their unintentional killing of a (not-so-sacred) deer: 'They're taking over; they're like rats destroying the ecosystem,' he rants. 'I see a dead deer on the side of the road, I think to myself: that's a start.' This speech openly echoes racist broadsides: the evocation of 'rats' recalls Nazi views about Jews, (21) while the image of a dead body by a roadside suggests lynched men.
The movie's central location, the Armitage house, is itself a grand symbol of racism. Though Get Out is set in upstate New York--so as to situate it in a liberal climate--it was filmed in small-town Fairhope, Alabama, deep in the Deep South. With its imposing white columns, the family home looks like a plantation house, thus evoking the horrors of slavery. Given Chris' strong, black body will eventually be sold off to white bidders in a silent auction, the film hardly consigns the spectre of slavery to the past; the family, too, has black servants, housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson). At first, Chris wonders if he's being judged by them for being in a relationship with the family's white daughter: 'The fear of dating outside of one's race [...] brings with it a loaded group of fears. Am I abandoning my blackness in some way? Am I turning my back on my roots in some way?' Peele offers. (22)
Instead, we realise that he's being appraised--that Georgina and Walter are the black vessels now inhabited by Rose's grandparents. The appraisal continues throughout a party staged for the auction of Chris' body, where the assembled guests are all white and elderly, arriving in a fleet of gleaming black cars ('They all [arrive] in black cars, like the black bodies they're going to ride away in,' Peele notes, dryly, of the symbolism (23)). The party guests try and bond with Chris by talking of Tiger Woods and Obama, and by enthusing that blackness is 'in fashion' ('Do you find that being African-American has more advantage or disadvantage in the modern world?' one even asks, aloud). When Jim (Stephen Root)--the blind art dealer who'll eventually 'buy' Chris's body, so as to make use of his eyes--talks about how people yearn to be 'stronger, faster, cooler', he's evoking the cultural/pop-cultural associations of blackness with trendsetting and athletic supremacy; and, in turn, how Chris' artistic talents and upwardly mobile social status make him even more attractive for white appropriation. 'With your frame and your genetic make-up,' exhorts Rose's loose-cannon brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), at dinner the night before, 'if you really pushed your body--and I mean really train, no pussyfooting around--you'd be a fucking beast.'
The word 'beast', again, summons the racist's view of the black man as animal, laudable only for his athletic prowess. The family's patriarch, we're told, lost to Jesse Owens in the qualifiers for the 1936 Olympics. Now, having invented the brain-transfer procedure and occupying the body of Marcus the gardener, he has his own black body to run around in, something seen in one of the film's most famous (and memed (24)) moments, in which he runs flat out towards Chris, and the camera, only to swerve away at the last moment. In a pre-surgery 'explainer' screened for the luckless victims once they've been imprisoned in the Armitage basement, this grandfather--back in his old, white vessel, preserved in wobbly VHS video--explains: 'You have been chosen because of the physical advantages you've enjoyed your entire lifetime. With your natural gifts and our determination, we could both be part of something greater--something perfect.'
Chris has been imprisoned not through brute force, but something far more insidious: hypnosis, a great symbol for the forcible loss of one's own autonomy. When he is first welcomed into the Armitage house, Rose's mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), offers to 'cure' his smoking habit via hypnotism. But, when she sits Chris down, she instead interrogates him about his feelings of guilt and shame over his mother's death (the film suggesting the manifest horrors of repression/neglect/subjugation that Peele brings to the forefront in Us). Via her careful words and the rhythmic stirring of a spoon in a teacup--a silver spoon, the director says, functioning as 'a connotation for me of clinking a teacup to call a slave' (25)--she sends Chris down into the 'Sunken Place', a brilliant visual symbol of oppression. It's a black, airless space that feels at once underwater and like some all-consuming oblivion; while frozen in his body, he descends into some isolated location in his mind, unable to make a sound (representing for black Americans, Peele states, that 'no matter how hard we scream, the system silences us' (26)). It's 'this state of marginalization that I've never really quite had a word for,' Peele explains. 'The ["Sunken Place"] is the prison-industrial complex, it's the dark hole we throw black people in.' (27)
Eventually, Chris manages to pull himself out of the 'Sunken Place' and out of his dire straits, seizing symbols of white privilege, racism and oppression--croquet mallets, the mounted buck's head, picked cotton--and using them for his own insurrection and liberation. This climactic stretch is where Get Out most resembles a horror movie: a star-cross'd hero forced to fight their way out of a nightmare, dispatching villainous figures one by one. He leaves behind a bloodied trail, leading to a climactic confrontation with the film's 'final boss': Rose. Just as he overcomes her, though, he is startled by the wail of a vehicle-mounted siren. Where the vision of flashing lights at the end of a movie usually symbolises the re-establishment of law and order after a spell of lawless insanity, here you're sure that Chris is going to be hauled away, not seen as victim but charged as perpetrator. Indeed, that was the conclusion that was initially filmed for Get Out. 'I love the original ending,' Kaluuya enthuses. 'It was great because of what it said about life --there's this black guy who's really cool and went through this trauma, got through all this racism, and in fighting for himself he gets incarcerated.' (28)
Peele conceived this ending as the final gut-punch in a movie that was going to be a wake-up call for Obama's America. But, by the time Get Out came out, Trump had just ascended to office, the
delusion of a post-racial climate having died during an election campaign that had catered to and emboldened racists. So Peele reshot the film's ending, the flashing sirens ultimately belonging to Chris' friend, the film's comic-relief figure, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who works as an airport-security officer. 'It was clear people had a certain fatigue from those horrors, and needed a hero, an escape, as well as a way to confront it,' Peele said of the change. (29) Get Out felt all too timely in its arrival, released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement entering the public consciousness, naturally becoming part of a greater cultural conversation. Peele's great trick was to take trenchant sociopolitical ideas and put them into the 'safe' prism of a genre movie, addressing loaded themes through weighty symbols, knowing humour and cinema's natural disposition towards eliciting empathy. 'We can discuss race all day long, but if you see a movie that successfully puts yourself in the shoes of somebody different than yourself, you see the world differently,' Peele says. 'I think the power of story is greater than the power of conversation.' (30)
Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.
(1) Jordan Peele, quoted in Max Weinstein, '"Society Is the Monster": Jordan Peele on Racism as Horror, Writers' Block and More at 2017 Film Independent Forum', MovieMaker, 31 October 2017, <https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/directing/society-is-the-monster-film-independent-forum-2017-jordan-peele/>,
accessed 29 March 2019.
(3) Jordan Peele, quoted in 'Jordan Peele on Exploring the "Deep Horror of Racism" in Get Out', CBS News, 15 November 2017, <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jordan-peele-get-out-movie/>, accessed 29 March 2019.
(4) Jordan Peele, quoted in Mike Fleming Jr, 'Get Out Director Jordan Peele: Scaring Up Racial Dialogue by Fusing Genre with Polemic', Deadline Hollywood, 17 November 2017, <https://deadline.com/20i7/ll/get-out-jordan-peele-oscars-interview-news-1202208902/>, accessed 29 March 2019.
(5) Jordan Peele, quoted in Cara Buckley, '"I'd Never Seen My Fears as an African-American Man Onscreen'", The New York Times, 6 December 2017, <https://www.nytimes.com/20i7/i2/06/movies/jordan-peele-get-out-african-american-biracial.html>, accessed 29 March 2019.
(6) Jordan Peele, quoted in Jada Yuan & Hunter Harris, 'The First Great Movie of the Trump Era', Vulture, 22 February 2018, <https://www.vulture.com/20i8/02/making-get-out-jordan-peele.html>, accessed 29 March 2019. Jordan Peele, quoted in Jason Zinoman, 'Jordan Peele on a Truly Terrifying Monster: Racism', The New York Times, 16 February 2017, <https://www.nytimes.com/20i7/02/l6/movies/jordan-peele-interview-get-out.html>, accessed 29 March 2019.
(8) peele quoted in Buckley, op. cit.
(9) Jordan Peele, quoted in Steve Rose, 'Jordan Peele on Us: "This Is a Very Different Movie from Get Out'", The Guardian, 9 March 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/f1lm/20i9/mar/09/jordan-peele-on-us-this-is-a-very-different-movie-from-get-out>, accessed 29 March 2019.
(10) Jordan Peele, quoted in Jennifer Brett, 'Our Interview with Get Out Director Jordan Peele', The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 January 2018, <https://www.ajc.com/blog/buzz/our-interview-with-get-out-director-jordan-peele/IIkClTPST3WuaqofveG7tL/>, accessed 29 March 2019.
(11) Jordan Peele, in Sky Cinema's 'Us: Special', which aired on 23 March 2019.
(12) See Matthew Rosza, 'Jordan Peele Is Bringing Twilight Zone Back, and Not a Moment Too Soon', Salon, 30 March 2019, <https://www.salon.com/20i9/03/30/america-needs-jordan-peeles-twilight-zone-now/>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(13) Robin R Means Coleman, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, Routledge, New York & Abingdon, UK, 2011, p. xix.
(14) Peele, quoted in Yuan & Harris, op. cit.
(15) Peele, quoted in Zinoman, op. cit.
(16) See Jen Yamato, 'Jordan Peele Explains Get Out's Creepy Milk Scene, Ponders the Recent Link Between Dairy and Hate', Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2017, <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-get-out-milk-horror-jordan-peele-allison-williams-20170301-story.html>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(17) Peele, quoted in Weinstein, op. cit.
(18) Daniel Kaluuya, quoted in Yuan & Harris, op. cit.
(19) See, for example, Hubert Adjei-Kontoh, 'From Blacula to Get Out: The Documentary Examining Black Horror', The Guardian, 8 February 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/20i9/feb/07/horror-noire-documentary-black-horror>, accesse 1 April 2019.
(20) Jordan Peele, in 'Jordan Peele Breaks Down Get Out Fan Theories from Reddit | Vanity Fair', YouTube, 1 December 2017, <https://youtu.be/hBvcngHRTFg>, accessed 5 April 2019.
(21) See Archie Bland, 'Rats: The History of an Incendiary Cartoon Trope', The Guardian, 19 November 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/shortcuts/2015/nov/18/rats-the-history-of-an-incendiary-cartoon-trope>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(22) Jordan Peele, quoted in Terry Gross, 'Get Out Sprang from an Effort to Master Fear, Says Director Jordan Peele', Code Switch, NPR, 15 March 2017, <https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/15/520130162/get-out-sprung-from-an-effort-to-master-fear-says-director-jordan-peele>, accessed 1 April 2019, emphasis removed.
(23) Peele, in 'Jordan Peele Breaks Down Get Out Fan Theories from Reddit | Vanity Fair', op. cit.; there's further symbolism in that, at the party, Chris wears a blue shirt, and Rose, a red-and-white-striped one, the two combining to visually evoke the American flag, suggesting that this phenomenon--the subjugation and exploitation of black bodies--sits at the bedrock of US nationhood and identity. It also situates this phenomenon, and this cultural identity, in the modern-day context of late capitalism, in which wealth and consumer power mean that problems can be bought away, and in which globalism has entrenched old systems of exploitation --outsourced offshore sweatshops an easy equivalent for modern-day slavery.
(24) See 'Get Out Challenge', Know Your Meme, <https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/get-out-challenge>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(25) Jordan Peele, quoted in Cameron Williams, 'Jordan Peele on the Origins of His Dark Satire/Thriller, Gef Out', SBS Movies, 21 April 2017, <https://www.sbs.com.au/movies/article/2017/04/21/jordan-peele-getting-make-his-favourite-film-didnt-exist-get-out>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(26) Jordan Peele, Twitter post dated 17 March 2017, <https://twitter.com/jordanpeele/status/842589407521595393>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(27) Jordan Peele, quoted in Ricardo Lopez, 'Jordan Peele on How He Tackled Systemic Racism as Horror in Get Ouf, Variety, 1 November 2017, <https://variety.com/20i7/film/news/jordan-peele-get-out-systemic-racism-1202604824/>, accessed 1 April 2019.
(28) Kaluuya, quoted in Yuan & Harris, op. cit.
(29) peele, quoted in Fleming, op. cit.
(30) Jordan Peele, quoted in Jack Giroux, 'Interview: Get Out Director Jordan Peele on His Filmmaking Debut & the Power of Story', /Film, 24 February 2017, <https://www.slashfilm.com/get-out-jordan-peele-interview/>, accessed 1 April 2019.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2019|
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