Horror is so often in the mundane—the turn, in an instant, from a walk in a pleasant suburban neighborhood to violence that can end a life. Horror movies have been built on this trope since the beginning, but it is also a potential daily reality for black America. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut underlines this point immediately, layering both classic horror cues and a situation that immediately recalls the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Having established this metaphor—which is less a metaphor than a brutal, direct statement—we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who are headed to her parents’ estate for a weekend. “Do your parents know I’m black?” Chris asks, thinking ahead to a potentially uncomfortable first meeting. It’s a question that most interracial couples have encountered, if not always out loud. “They’re not racist,” Rose replies. “I would have told you.” The idea that Rose can see her own privilege through the veil of her place within the family made me scoff, sitting there in the theater. Chris let it go. It laid the perfect groundwork for the questions the movie would raise: about refusing to see what is in front of us, and about blinding ourselves with more comfortable or more convenient truths.
At every turn, the film explores how the sinister can be folded into the seemingly ordinary, through the specific lens of racialized interactions. As the weekend progresses, Chris attends a party thrown by the Armitages for their friends—wealthy older white people who wear Chris down with a barrage of uncomfortable comments that feel all too realistic. From an older woman who goes straight for Chris’ arm muscles, to a comment by Rose’s brother containing the phrase “genetic makeup,” there’s a growing burden on Chris to smile through it all. The premise lends itself brilliantly to horror—after all, aren’t moviegoers already primed to feel a slightly sickening sense of unease and dread when it comes to the sight of a young black man alone in a crowd of older white people? We don’t even need the context of a horror movie to know that historically, and in the present moment as well, there is potential for racialized violence there. Is the awkwardness caused by “benign” racism fueled by mere ignorance? Does it mask, like a KKK hood, the real racist beneath? Like all good horror films, Get Out heightens a particular social anxiety to the point of frenzy. In this case, it’s about accurately judging the depths of a person’s discrimination. Being able to tell the difference between an awkward social encounter and a more sinister racist depth is everything.
It also delivers a pointed send-up of the microaggressive well-meaning white liberal, since racism is not, in fact, the sole domain of southern evangelicals. The film makes a point of emphasizing Rose’s sympathy for Chris’ situation and her father’s insistent ally-ism (including an absurdist moment where he discusses an ancestor happily losing to Jesse Owens under Hitler’s watchful eyes). Well-intentioned civility can, and does, coexist with the kind of casual cruelty and uncaring evil that will put the good of the tribe first—even among the educated and self-proclaiming liberal.
These are signs that Chris chooses to ignore, or to subsume, time and time again. In his character, we get not only a stand-in for the threatened black male body (among a white cocktail party, or on the side of the highway facing a white cop), but also a figure for the kind of accommodation that white supremacy exacts. We can get along well, the movie says in the beginning, as long as you’re willing to bend a little. Overlook moments of discomfort so that everything will go smoothly. Eventually, this is a road that leads him straight down a nightmare, as the stakes of his attrition rise higher and higher. Chris spends so much of the movie accepting his own discomfort, in situations that seem plausibly microaggressive, that he can no longer see the true nature of the threat in front of him. The other black characters at the Armitages’ house are so accommodating, genial, and blank that the audience is supposed to know something is wrong—but they’re not the only ones bending over backwards just a little too much.
It’s difficult to discuss the movie further without giving away its biggest plot twists—but rest assured that, though the actual plot isn’t exactly subtle in the end, it is immensely satisfying. There is, as a friend noted when we left the theater, absolutely no redemption for white characters in this movie. And that’s ok. This is one movie, out of hundreds and thousands of movies, where the discussion begins and ends on the side of the black characters. The discomfort is insistent, vivid—a perfect counterbalance to the kind of palliative conversations that revolve around white supremacy and “the alt-right.”
Verdict? Five stars. Watch immediately.