The subject matter of racial tensions in America has been firmly on the radar in Hollywood cinema since the 1950s, gradually receiving deeper and more nuanced treatment as increasing attention and funding has been given to productions that explore the 400 year racial drama of the United States. The last few years have produced a string of Hollywood box-office hits – 12 Years a Slave (2013), Django Unchained (2012), The Help (2011), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) – that rework this subject matter with varying but largely genuine, interesting and stimulating narratives.
Categorically, American actor and comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017), marks an abyss-sized rupture in Hollywood’s existing canon of films centring on the African-American experience. A double-whammy in its release to monumental box office success – its budget of $4.5 million made a hefty return of $193 million worldwide – as well as stellar critical acclaim, Peele delivers a refreshingly original and strikingly witty take on America’s race relations in the modern age. The neophyte filmmaker takes contentious subject matter that has been dulled down to a carnival wheel selection of hackneyed plot lines and transforms it into a melange of scarily perspicacious social commentary and ridiculously gripping horror movie moments.
Young, easy-going, talented – and black. Peele’s protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) lives in trendy loft with his comely, attentive – and white – girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). The attractive couple are first seen cocooning in a playful embrace while light-heartedly discussing Chris reservations that Rose’s parents – whom they intend to visit for a weekend trip – are unaware that he is black, a hitch that Rose dismisses as insignificant, embarrassedly declaring that when her father meets Chris he will probably say that he “would have voted for Obama a third time.” A humorously recognisable comment which Peele assumedly drew from his real-life experience. However, it becomes clear as the film delves deeper into its sensationally imaginative, horror-leaden plot that little else is directly taken from any commonplace reality.
Chris, nonchalant and laid-back, stands in stark contrast to his goofball, irreverently humorous buddy, TSA Officer Rodney (Lil Rel Howery), whom the audience first encounters when the couple are en route to Rose’s parents’ suburban estate, an excursion which Rodney frenziedly convinces Chris to abandon, due to his nonsensical mistrust of Rose’s parents due to their race. The couple’s journey is marked by their sudden collision with some road-kill, specifically a wide-eyed deer at whom Chris stares deeply, almost too intently, enough to catch the viewer as faintly odd – it marks the first occasion that this otherworldly, painfully unfamiliar look crosses Chris’s eyes which gradually becomes more frequent throughout his stay. As the trip undergoes a eerie degeneration embodied by the increasingly abnormal behaviour of not only Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), but all the inhabitants of the small town, Chris’s psyche also undergoes debilitating strains.
The film stirs its sharply comedic and downright horrifying elements into a perfect blend, offering a series of impressively unpredictable twists and turns that captivate the viewer from beginning to end. The genius of Peele’s 21st-century meditation on the African-American struggle is that it disregards conventional portrayals of racial prejudice and demonstrates a form of persecution that is superficially inconspicuous and doesn’t manifest itself in visible violence, but in its more subtle and pernicious psychological form. It is hidden under the guise of the familiar, smiling faces you encounter on the street, your kind neighbours with whom you share sweet words, your liberal friends and colleagues; it surreptitiously hides in every crevice of your life. Peele demonstrates with exquisite sensitivity the complexities of present-day racism.