The Films of 2017: Get Out

The credits sequence for Get Out, the recent horror comedy written and directed by Jordan Peele, is set to a groovy, unsettling piece of music called “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” the lyrics of which are not so much sung as hissed, over ominous shots of a forest as seen from the window of a passing car.  The music conjures up images of witches or Satanists invoking the powers of hell, but the words are Swahili for “listen to your ancestors,” a warning sign aimed at Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer heading to his white girlfriend Rose’s parents’ country home for the weekend.  It’s one of the many ways in which, throughout the film, familiar horror (and comedy) conventions are seen as through a glass darkly, refracted through the lens of race.  In the eyes of the film’s black characters, a tree-lined suburban street is as nervous-making as a dark alley would be to white characters in a different movie, and a McMansion that looks like something straight out of HGTV feels as creepy as a haunted house.  (One convention holds constant: going to the cops for help proves to be an exercise in futility.) 

Peele, whose background is in sketch comedy, has devised an up-to-the-minute satire on race relations in post-Obama America, citing Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives as influences.  Get Out runs on the same nervous-making tension that drive Levin’s novels and the films that have been adapted from them, in which characters find themselves in situations that make them feel like they’re being paranoid—until it turns out that just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t really out to get them.  That’s what happens to Chris in Get Out, as the film takes a turn from social satire into hard-core horror.  In another one of the film’s racial reversals, it casts the young-gifted-and-black Chris as the imperiled protagonist, a role typically reserved for a vulnerable, attractive white woman.  It doesn’t take long for Peele’s point to become blaringly clear: in Trump’s America, and maybe forever, black folks are more often victims than they are villains.

While the twists of the plot in the third act are legitimately surprising, the film is perhaps strongest in its rendering of the awkward tension that marks Chris’ interactions with Rose’s family.  Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener signify white privilege at its cushiest and most toxic—dark variations on character types we’re used to seeing represented more benignly in comedies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Meet the Parents.  Played by Allison Williams, Rose is a slightly different kind of monster: the “woke” white liberal who constantly announces her sensitivity to racism.  Lil Rel Howery provides comic relief of a broader sort as Chris’ buddy, whose suspicions about Rose are aroused from the outset.  Much like the audience, he’s a figure who seems always to be telling Chris “don’t go in the house!” 

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