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COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES

March 18, 2017

What I Got Out of Get Out

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Get Out is allegedly a horror film, but it’s not very scary. It’s a satire, written and directed by beloved comedian Jordan Peele, but most of the jokes don’t land. It’s pretty bland, but that’s not unforgivable — after all, the production company is Blumhouse, known largely for dreary, drab cheapies that deliver a bare minimum of sensation and make their money back. But what makes Get Out downright disappointing is its failure as a social allegory. Sold largely on addressing racial tensions, the actual allegorical commentary in Get Out is broad, underwhelming, and falls on its face under scrutiny. And yet, the film has been roundly praised for its paltry offerings – the closest I could find to a negative review from a major news service was a Vice article worrying that “liberals” were “getting the wrong lessons” from the film. But the problem isn’t the audience, it’s the movie, and those problems are worth unpacking.

The premise of Get Out is at least fairly novel. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African American man, goes with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her family at their historic estate out in the country. Rose’s old fashioned, performatively liberal family behave strangely around Chris, their interactions progressively awkward and overtly racially charged, while their African American housekeepers act erratically, as if lacking free will. Of course nothing is what it seems — the family members are all evil hypnotists who want to use their talents to restart slavery. What appeals about this plot is its update of the house in the middle of nowhere narrative, a means to explore the horror of the American dream gone wrong in classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, replacing mutant hicks with high society pricks, a ripe space to comment upon race and class in the universal language of survival.

But Get Out is not that film. Instead, we sit through scene after plodding scene of social faux pas, always followed by unbelievable scenes where Chris explains to Rose, who apparently has no understanding of race in America after dating a black guy for months, exactly why that racist comment was racist. These bludgeoning explanations of generally mild observations sap every moment of both humor and urgency, more concerned with pointing out that something important is being said than actually saying anything. This obviousness has the eventual effect of defanging the film: rather than critiquing systemic racism, Get Out instead points at a few familiar forms of microaggression for an hour, quickly ponders whether races should mix at all if white people are so evil, then stops. Therein lies the point where Get Out may even contradict its progressive agenda outright — taken at face value, the film seems to favor segregation more than combatting prejudice. After spending so long pontificating on aspects of its message, the film’s inability to negate this reading becomes problematic in a manner that would be less relevant in a film that spent less time telling you what it is and more time giving you a reason to care.

The spare moments in Get Out that approach something vaguely horrific come in scenes of the possessed African American “help” — their conditioning as conveyed through the performers’ uncanny-valley body language coupled with minstrel-esque attire is genuinely disconcerting. The brief moments of recognition between Chris and these lost souls do function as an emotionally effective communication of the pain caused by systemic racism. However, as the camera lingers — dare I say leers — on buck teeth and straw hats, the scenes begin to carry a different charge, one deeply antithetical to the intended racial politics of the film. Rather than critiquing racist American imagery, the film simply reproduces its impact — they are unsettling because they don’t look normal. Through their narrative and aesthetic dehumanization, the abjection of the help in Get Out serves to demonize them as race traitors, brainwashed by their very proximity to white communities.

The upper-crust family’s revelation to be evil slave-owner hypnotists is telegraphed from the start — if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie — but they have one twist up their sleeves. Rather than being ignorant of her parents’ sinister ambitions, Rose is not only in on the plan but perhaps the worst of the lot, an amoral, unfeeling seductress brought to life by Williams with full dragon lady aplomb. Perhaps this explains why Rose previously could not recognize even the most blatant prejudice taking place in front of her, but the complete denial of interiority in the film’s principal female character reproduces the casual misogyny found in the worst examples of American horror genre. This is egregious to see in a film sold on a social justice theme, but the greater issue in this turn is that it denies the very honesty on racial themes the film sought to pursue. Peele himself is married to a white woman, and clearly intends to depict the anxieties of interracial couples familiar to him, much as how the sketches on Key & Peele often pointedly satirized code-switching. If Get Out is meant to be in any degree personal or political, this cliched and essentialist twist is more of a retreat than a shock, ditching the film’s core theme — how does America’s shameful racial past manifest in the midst of modern love? — in favor of what Peele (or, more likely, Blumhouse) thinks should happen in a horror movie.

That Get Out is a misguided, disappointing film is not in itself a big deal, nor is its popularity. What concerns me is the film’s placement in a popular discourse of empowerment in popular culture. Increasingly, discussions of representation and the social impact of pop culture have been appropriated by the producers of mass media as part of a marketing engine. Themes of social justice are paraded in ad copy, urging audiences to vote with their dollars so diversity can win. Upon the content’s release, a reliable stable of middlebrow publications will pour out effusive praise for the work with little thought put into the content itself, often very corporate in tone. This creates a feedback loop wherein moderate improvements to the production of dreary product are championed without ever wondering why these “alternatives” are so meager and unexciting in the first place. It is within this feedback loop that Get Out exists. So, while it is worthwhile to celebrate the popularity of a mainstream horror movie from an African American creative team, we ought to remain critical viewers, demanding art that moves and excites us while seeking understanding rather than self-congratulation.

 

Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ndc39@cornell.edu.