by Érico Lotufo
BU News Service
So much of a horror film is built on its premise: a hook that is strong enough to interest audiences and allow the filmmakers room to develop interesting scenarios. Jordan Peele (yes, from Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele”) picked probably the simplest – yet most effective – horror villain for a film starred by a black actor: rich, suburban white people.
The story follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), a white college student. Five months into their relationship, Rose invites him to visit her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) in their home, located in what’s probably the whitest suburb in the world. Chris is a bit worried, of course: she hasn’t told her parents that he’s black.
As you would expect from a liberal white family, they go out of their way to prove to Chris that they aren’t racist. Hey, the dad would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could! His father was a fan of Jesse Owens too! And the black workers at their home? Oh, they’re family.
Peele is smart enough to craft these instances of covert racism and have the main couple react accordingly. While Rose gets flustered by her father’s exaggerated attempts to make small-talk with Chris (he keeps calling him “My man!”), the photographer isn’t fazed: it’s just white people saying white people stuff to black people.
What freaks Chris out, instead, is how every black person he meets on the trip acts very strangely. They seem too content to be where they are, talking in old-fashioned ways and uncaring about their shared race (and the baggage that entails). In a way, they are acting too “white” for Chris’ liking. It’s the “Stepford Wives,” but from a race perspective instead of a gender one.
This is where “Get Out” amps up the creep factor, much like “Stepford Wives” did. The way Georgina (the Armitage’s maid, played by Betty Gabriel) and Walter (their groundskeeper, played by Marcus Henderson) act is unsettling for both the protagonists and the audience, and most scares are built around it.
That said, it is unfortunate that the reason for their creepiness is too easy to guess. A few lines of dialogue and a couple of visual cues in the first half-hour should be enough for the audience to piece everything together.
Even if “Get Out” won’t be remembered for its plot twists, it will be hard to forget its characters. Daniel Kaluuya’s down-to-earth performance as Chris gives his character depth (especially in scenes about his childhood trauma) and charisma, smiling off various subtly racist remarks from other guests in the Armitage house.
The highlight, however, is Rod (Lil Rel Howery), his best friend that works for the TSA. Rod is both comedic relief and pivotal to the film’s overarching theme. He’s a black man that isn’t surprised that something is going wrong in Suburbia: rich white people simply can’t be trusted, a sentiment echoed by many black citizens in the United States today.
Don’t let the term “comedic relief” sound demeaning too. Rod is very funny, a character straight out of a “Key & Peele” sketch put into a horror flick, with enough distance from the scary stuff to clearly see how messed up of a situation Chris is in. If this were a true “Key & Peele” sketch, Rod would be the perfect Keegan Michael-Key comedic foil to Jordan Peele’s straight man.
Peele has said that the transition from comedy to horror isn’t very hard, and that they have similar storytelling processes. He isn’t wrong, but “Get Out” ends up being more consistently funny than scary. We have a man in an intensely creepy situation, while at the same time we see a normal person reacting to that: it’s just funnier to watch Rod go on about how absurd everything in the Armitage house is. When Chris mentions that he went through a fringe hypnotherapy session with his girlfriend’s mom, his friend’s reaction is what you would expect from a regular human being: “That’s effed up, man!”
Calling a horror movie “not very scary” may seem to be a deal-breaker for many fans of the genre. However, there is a reason why this movie was released in Feb. and not Oct. It fits more snuggly into the conversation of Black History Month than it would as a run-of-the-mill Halloween scare-fest. Its horror conventions are just an interesting way to dress-up something much more sinister: the stereotypical and racist perception of African-Americans in society by white people.
While “diversity” has become an overused buzzword in Hollywood these days, “Get Out” is proof of the importance that it can bring to filmmaking. Not just in the casting, but in every step of the process, such as writing and directing. How else would we get sharp racial satire in what would otherwise amount to just another haunted house thriller?