What was it, exactly, that the all-media screening audience at the new movie Get Out was cheering for when the black protagonist killed an entire family of white folks one by one? Get Out isn’t simply a revenge thriller; it’s a state-of-the-divided-nation movie. In this horror-comedy, 26-year-old middle-class black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to her family’s idyllic exurban home and discovers a racist cult intent on siphoning black men’s mental and physical energy. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Rosemary’s Baby meets Meet the Fockers. Hollywood high-concept goes low — and unfulfilled.
The horror side of the story shows writer-director Jordan Peele (Keegan-Michael Key’s costar on Comedy Central Network’s Key & Peele) imitating the slave-era terror of 12 Years a Slave. Peele’s plot jacks up that film’s existential paranoia, a modern response to the helplessness of enslavement that politically naïve kids now dread as a modern American reality.
The comedy side churns out trite “post-racial” ironies that have defined political humor for the past eight years (protecting and defending former president Obama) and that now threaten to continue in bizarre guises like this. Rose informs Chris that her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) “would have voted for Obama a third time if they could.” Any audience who laughs at that is either scornful or regretful, so why the applause at the murderous finale?
Peele wants to have it both ways, as in the TV series Key & Peele, in which the biracial duo capitalized on how Obama’s biracial identity was reformulated as “black.” As if celebrating social enlightenment, they concocted unfunny routines deriding black paranoia and white superstition. Get Out shares that opportunistic misconception. Its slug’s-pace opening (using an inept subjective point-of-view angle) replays the Trayvon Martin incident: A lone black male (LaKeith Stanfield) on a cellphone walks through an unfamiliar suburban community when he’s attacked. The movie never clearly explains the Stanfield character’s origin; the implications of both his introduction and reappearance merely set off obsessive social fears. In Larry Cohen’s more coherent horror-comedy Wicked Stepmother (1989), Bette Davis reappears in the person of Barbara Carrera, but the change is clearly presented and fully explained, while the introduction and reappearance in Get Out are not.
Get Out is an attenuated comedy sketch in which serious concerns are debased. Pushing buttons that alarm blacks yet charm white liberals, Peele manipulates the Trayvon Martin myth the same way Obama himself did when he pandered by saying, “Trayvon Martin could have been my son.” That disingenuous tease is extended in Peele’s casting of Daniel Kaluuya. Son of Ugandan parents, the handsome, round-faced, British-born actor triggers sympathy (he has the young, clean-cut buppie co-ed look that brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis rocked in the ’80s).
But Kaluuya’s strongest historical associations must come from Peele’s subconscious: The actor’s dark-skin/bright-teeth image inadvertently recalls the old Sambo archetype. Kaluuya frequently goes from sleepy-eyed stress to bug-eyed fright. Surely Spike Lee would have recognized the resemblance to Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, and Willie Best, the infamous comics who made their living performing Negro caricatures during Hollywood’s era of segregation. Peele seems too caught up in exploiting modern narcissism to notice old repulsion. Sambo lives matter. Question: Will Kaluuya’s wild-eyed consternation be equated with James Baldwin’s bug-eye perspicacity in I Am Not Your Negro?
Peele’s self-congratulatory revenge humor has one particularly notable irony: It’s tailored to please the liberal status quo.
In Get Out, just as Obama did, Peele exploits racial discomfort, irresponsibly playing racial grief and racist relief off against each other, subjecting imagination and identification to political sway. Get Out’s routines — Chris identifying with a wounded deer, Chris being introduced to clueless, suspicious, patronizing, dishonest, and rapacious whites — paint a limited, doomed picture of race relations. Like a double-dealing demagogue’s speech, there’s just enough pity to satisfy black grievance and just enough platitudes (Rose back-talking a white cop) to make whites feel superior. When an Asian party guest asks Chris “Is African-American experience an advantage or disadvantage?” it reveals Peele’s own biracial anxiety.
That question is too heavy for a film so lightweight. Peele depicts Chris’s sense of isolation, of “living in a sunken place.” (After Rose’s mother hypnotizes Chris, he’s shown adrift in a limbo without any attachment to the real world except a sorrowful memory of his parents’ death.) Chris’s detachment from real-world social status brings to mind the cluelessness of the Hope & Change generation, in dire need of a reality check; instead, Millennials rely on the Obama era’s civil-rights bromides and social-justice aphorisms.
Get Out does not rank with America’s notable race comedies — Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, Ossie Davis’s Gone Are the Days! (Purlie Victorious), Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback, Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat, Skin Game or any of the genre spoofs by the Wayans family, particularly the ingenious Little Man, or the recent Eddie Murphy films (The Klumps, Norbit, Meet Dave, A Thousand Words) that are so personal and ingenious, they transcend racial categorization.
But unlike Eddie Murphy, a masterful actor with a mature sense of humor, Peele fails because has not created credible characters. Chris and his ghetto friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who works for the TSA, are attitudes, not complex beings. The other blacks Chris encounters as servants on Rose’s family estate are no better than Trayvon Martin–type effigies — zombie-like when not sorrowful and tearful. Exploiting black people’s tears, paranoia, and pain without providing reflex is offensive — whereas the great “Be Black, Baby” sequence of Hi, Mom! caught audiences in their own racial prejudices and forced them to laugh. (Here, LaKeith Stanfield’s impersonation of comic Dave Chappelle’s still-puzzling neurosis is too alarming to laugh at.)
Peele’s self-congratulatory revenge humor has one particularly notable irony: It’s tailored to please the liberal status quo. His pace seems slow largely because the jokes are obvious: Bitch-goddess Rose trolls black sports websites in her bedroom, which is covered with basketball posters, recalling Scatman Crothers’s Afro erotica in The Shining. Chris even gets confined in a symmetrically furnished den with a 1960s TV console, Kubrick-style.
Once again, the 1960s serve as a race hustler’s vengeful reference point. But when the get-whitey genre was initiated in those blaxploitation movies made after the turmoil of that decade, artists from Melvin Van Peebles and Larry Cohen to Bill Gunn and Gordon Parks toyed with various genres to dramatize American social and economic circumstances. Black political consciousness was being realized on screen for the first time. Get Out is the recrudescence of Obama-era unconsciousness. Reducing racial politics to trite horror-comedy, it’s an Obama movie for Tarantino fans.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.