A new era for horror: The anti-racist claim in Get Out
A modern masterpiece of horror and a piercing social critique at the same time, Jordan Peele's directorial debut brought a new and original voice to the genre, making way for a much-needed reinvention of horror. One that would go on to dismantle the racist foundations from which it was built.
In 2019, Shudder released a documentary called Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. The film was based on the 2011 book written by race scholar Robin R. Means Coleman, and it featured a number of black performers, directors, actors, and actresses, who came together to speak about the ways in which African-American people have been portrayed in horror films from the late nineteenth century to today, emphasizing how they have always had a secondary role in horror movies, whether it be the servant, the loyal sidekick, or “the first one to die”.
The documentary begins and ends talking about one film: Jordan Peele’s history making 2017 debut: Get Out. And that, to me, says it all. Contemporary horror begins and ends with Get Out. Led by an outstanding breakthrough performance by Daniel Kaluuya, the film follows Chris, an African American man who goes to meet her white girlfriend’s family, to soon discover a disturbing secret that will have him frantically looking for a way to escape -or get out of there-. But beyond having to fight the villains in the film, Get Out subtly shows us how Chris finds himself facing multiple microaggressions throughout the film, and ultimately having to survive systemic racism as a whole. Chris embodies the experience of the African American man having to live and transit daily in a white-dominated world like our own.
This is something that is addressed from the film’s opening scene. As the movie begins, we see Lakeith Stanfield as an unknown black man walking alone at night in a typically white suburb. He realizes that he is being followed around by a car, and as he turns around to go the other way, someone comes out of nowhere and abducts him. This is an extremely telling sequence, and one that will reflect on the film’s entire plot, because it shows us two very important issues: On one hand, it addresses the issue of racism head on, depicting in a very simple yet direct way the fear of being a black man in a white neighborhood, of knowing that at any moment he can be stopped by the police and that ultimately he might not get out of this situation alive for no other reason than the fact of being black.
On the other hand, and this is something that speaks directly about the horror genre, Stanfield’s character makes the decision to turn around and leave, and even if, in spite of that, his character eventually does meet his demise, this hints at how our black protagonist Chris will act, which is something that we are not used to watching in horror films, well, because we hardly ever encounter a black protagonist. Chris is smart, he is quick on his feet, and he is more than prepared to fight the racist WASPs. He is not in the movie for comedic relief, as a martyr, or as the sidekick asking the white protagonist time and time again whether or not he is okay. He is the hero, the main character, the final girl in a whole new form: The final black man.
This is what Peele has achieved so masterfully with Get Out. In creating a unique horror story, he also delivers a profound commentary on the structural racism that lies on the foundations of modern society. It is both social critique and a reinvention of the horror genre, fighting off the racist tropes that have been present in it since its origins. Get Out is one of the most extraordinary directorial debuts of all time. Peele made a risky transition from comedy -which, I must add, he completely masters as well- to horror, and he did so in an extremely successful way. Get Out was the horror film we needed at the moment we needed it. And he chose to do that by stepping out of the comfort zone where most films about racism talk from. The Help, Hidden Figures, and Green Book, just to name some of the most recent ones, exemplify a tradition that has been imbedded in cinema ever since we started seeing films revolving around this subject. One that deems the films as accommodating or pleasing to the white gaze, with pieces that often revolve around a white hero that fights for the black character, who is merely there to emphasize the good deeds of the white male. In fact, Get Out does this in such a radical way that not only are white people the villains in this scenario, but it extends to the point that, as it is eventually revealed, there is not even a single good white person in the entire film.
Peele avoids falling into the same formulas and enters the realm of horror to pose an important critique while standing on entirely new ground. The premise alone is highly innovative, but it is made even more genius with the multiple tools used by Peele to show the microaggressions throughout the movie in a way so natural that it resembles the daily experience of African Americans. Moreover, there are also a lot of gestures that show Peele’s genius in not only portraying racism, but also proving he is speaking from a long history of racism. An example of this -one that I must admit I did not get right away- is how Chris picks the cotton off of the chair and uses it as the instrument to obtain his freedom, which translates into him using a historical symbol of oppression to fight the oppressor. Another is Peele’s decision to include Childish Gambino’s Redbone as the background for the second sequence of the film, which is not a coincidence considering that the song’s chorus utters the words “stay woke” over and over again, almost as if Peele is warning the viewer to be aware. And then, of course, there’s “the sunken place”, which Peele has mentioned is not only a depiction of the place African Americans occupy in society, but also of the place they’ve historically occupied in the big screen: One of misrepresentation and oblivion. All of these gestures, developed in the movie with a great mix of wit and thrill, pose a racial criticism that underlies the entirety of the story in a subtle yet very direct and poignant way.
Get Out is a wonderfully crafted horror movie from every viewpoint. The score is magnificent in that it creates an atmosphere of dread and tension, resonating with classics like Rosemary’s Baby. And then, of course, there’s the screenplay. It is only natural that Peele’s impeccable screenplay would get as much praise as it did. But what was an utter surprise was watching him receive the Academy Award for this category. And the thing is, it was a surprise because, even though it was in fact a wonderful job in film writing, no one could ever have imagined that a horror film about racism, made by an African American filmmaker, would be properly recognized by the Academy. And that element of shock from the audience is yet another example of how wrong things are in the world of cinema -and the world in general-.
I could go on to write a full article on Get Out and the ways it has revolutionized the horror genre -something that I actually hope to do so one day-, but this review will serve as a mere appetizer of everything there is to say about Jordan Peele’s cinematic masterpiece. With Get Out, Peele proves there can still be originality in the horror genre. He proves it can, in fact, be more than gore and jump scares. He proves film is still relevant as a platform to speak up, and he proves horror can also be a powerful weapon to keep us woke. And in doing all of this, he proves he is worthy to be named one of the greatest masters of horror from our time.