Get out to see Get Out in the theater
Earlier this month, my students wrote film reviews of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma.
I pulled sentences from each of them and projected them onto a screen, asking the class to help each other repair grammatical errors in some of the weaker sentences. (This is a great exercise. The class wakes up because the broken sentences might be their own. It becomes like a contest, each student striving to discover the best fix for each problem.)
One of the sentences was missing a semicolon.
But one of the students said, “I see a bigger problem than that. The writer makes a reference to how she is learning to empathize with ‘the African American community.’ It would be so much better if she said ‘African American communities.'”
I nearly choked, I was so startled. I had been so focused on grammar and punctuation that I had overlooked a far more important issue. In a review reflecting the writer’s respect for the Civil Rights Movement, the writer had committed a faux pas that I am almost certain I’ve committed in the past, reducing a complex population into an unfair generalization. Yes, there are as many kinds of ‘African American community’ as there are kinds of ‘Caucasian community’ or ‘Christian community,’ and by bundling them all into one perceived culture, we can — with the best intentions — make our problems worse.
I admit it — even though I’m on a minimum-wage income as an adjunct university writing instructor, I’m among the most ‘privileged’ populations in the world. I’m a white, middle-class, American male. No matter how much I embrace ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all, I can’t escape my past. I marinated in my community’s racial and cultural ignorance and self-righteousness.
Perhaps if I had read my student’s paper more closely, I would have seen the problem in this sample sentence that needed the most urgent attention. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, I was more a student than a teacher in that moment when an attentive student — yes, an African American — took the rest of us to school on a hurtful complication in the composition at hand.
I felt this way again and again and again through the first hour of Get Out, the directorial debut of the extraordinarily talented Jordan Peele (of Key and Peele). It’s probably better categorized as a thriller than as a horror movie, but it was horror that I felt as I recognized the behaviors of the villains in this film, even as many in the theater around me laughed in recognition, clearly familiar with such misunderstanding, disrespect, and abuse. Peele comforts the afflicted whose experiences correlate with those of its protagonist, and he afflicts the rest of us, the comfortable, who — often naively — perpetuate racist behaviors and terminologies even when we have the best intentions.
The first hour of this movie follows Chris Washington and Rose Armitage, a young couple who spend a catastrophic weekend with Rose’s white and wealthy family. Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is black, and Rose (Allison Williams of Girls) is white — and Chris is anticipating problems in when he meets the parents. Rose quickly dismisses his concerns.
But when they arrive at the Armitage homestead, even the family’s most flamboyant and boastful claims of progressive values — they would have voted for Obama if he could have run for a third term! — cannot conceal the remnants of racism in their language and behavior. And even more disturbing than the obvious, lingering forms of cultural prejudice are the self-righteous and self-congratulatory displays of support for Chris as a representative of “the African American Experience.” Chris has to grin and bear it as the mere fact of his arrival has white people declaring their admiration for Tiger Woods.
The second hour takes wild twists and turns as the Armitages’ community descends upon the homestead for an annual party, exponentially increasing Chris’s challenges and troubles. The bizarrely condescending nature of this community confirms our suspicions of wickedness at work, but confounds our expectations about what shapes the evil might take.
I could easily spend the rest of this review lecturing about the importance and timeliness of movies like this. But I’d rather not, if only because I almost skipped Get Out for that very reason. Don’t get me wrong — I know the need for prophetic, truth-telling art. But I must admit that when I want to head out for a few hours of escapism and imagination at the movies, the last thing I’m looking for is yet another lesson in the obvious.
I’m up to my eyeballs in editorials, essays, and books on the ongoing reality of racism in America. I read it in the news, I see it in almost every move that the Trump administration makes, and I see alarming harm in the lives of my students and my community. I read authors like Eula Biss and Claudia Rankine in eagerness to discover how I’ve been conditioned in cultural racism since birth. Why? I want to believe that I study these things because I take seriously Christ’s desire for me to love my neighbor. But it’s also likely that I’m more frantic to avoid the appearance of evil and to distance myself from the crimes of my cultural heritage than I am to actually achieve holiness.
And it’s because of that doubt about my own intentions that I think it’s best for me to back off from sermonizing. These are lessons I would do better to receive than deliver.
And besides, I’m delighted to report that, while the buzz about its “cultural relevance” was valid, the accomplishments of this film on almost every other level of filmmaking craft are substantial. Bring on the future of Jordan Peele cinema! The man can write, and the man can direct. The meticulous pacing, the precarious and precise balance of its discomforts, the ingenuity of its premise, the (sigh) timeliness of its social commentary — these are all commendable. But most impressive of all — Peele clearly has a fantastic gift for directing actors. Get Out is a near-miraculous triumph of ensemble acting.
I have a hard time imagining this movie working with a different cast than this one. Everyone is so perfect for their roles, demonstrating remarkable complexity.
Be warned: What follows in this review contains moderate spoilers. I’m praising this film more for readers who have seen it than for those who haven’t.
Bradley Whitford’s knack for horror-movie roles surprised me in Cabin in the Woods, and as the mad genius Dean Armitage — Rose’s father, who immediately embraces Chris with such fervor that we are immediately suspicious — he impresses me even more. In fact, this performance reverse-engineering his West Wing work so that his Josh Lyman character now seems far more intelligent than he once did, and far more capable of steering a presidency in dangerous directions.
Catherine Keener proved her capacity for unsettling audiences way back in Being John Malkovich, and she does it again here by backing away from her tendency toward hard-edged flourishes. She’s subterranean here, a malevolent spider luring prey into her web. She plays Missy Armitage, Rose’s mother, as half-doped on sleeping pills, dwelling in some “Sunken Place” of her own where monsters dwell. (Perhaps that’s because she apparently waits up all night in the dark, hoping some unsuspecting visitors will stumble within reach of her powers.)
Allison Williams’s go-for-broke performance is brilliantly convincing even if her character, as written, is as close as the film comes to a storytelling cheat. She makes Rose into a beauty both alluring and menacing. As the film progresses, that spark of audacity and danger in her eyes intensifies, and eventually we understand why. She’s like Kellyanne Conway 30 years younger — before the compulsive lies and appetite for destruction became so obvious. She’s all teeth and jaws and flaring eyes, like some cross between Amanda Peet and an Anglerfish.
The supporting cast earn their screen time by making priceless moments out of their characters’ important contributions. Stephen Root (always magnificent), Marcus Henderson, Short Term 12‘s Lakeith Stanfield, and especially Betty Gabriel — I can’t say enough about all that they accomplish in their limited screen time.
But highest honors go to Daniel Kaluuya himself, who says so little aloud, and yet is able to perform such a broad range of emotions and bewilderments. There are several scenes here in which he makes long journeys, thinking through the implications of the behaviors and mysteries all around him, and he doesn’t say a thing. He’s a maestro of reactions, double-takes, self-control, and telltale twitches. I can’t think of a performance in any fish-out-of-water story that drew me more powerfully into the protagonist’s misgivings, angers, and fears. As the situation becomes increasingly far-fetched, so Kaluuya’s performance becomes more and more impressive; thus, I remain emotionally invested in his progress of solving the mystery and, well, getting out.
I do wish that the revelations of the last act were clearer. The amount of exposition necessary to help us understand the full extent of Peele’s sci-fi ideas is, well, distracting… and unsuccessful. I never fully figured out how the villains’ conspiracies worked until I started digging deep into post-viewing debates among viewers who had clearly seen it more than once and become somewhat obsessed. (I’m delighted, though, to discover that the villains’ motivation has less to do with race than it does with a lust for immortality — even though racism gets more play).
Nevertheless, the cast did more than just suspend my disbelief. When the focus was on their nuanced, exquisitely crafted performances, they had me gasping for air and cringing through a wild variety of discomforts. As the film’s storytelling wandered too far into the weeds and got too tangled for this viewer’s tracking, they kept me caring and hoping for a dozen different resolutions, only one of which occurred, sending me back out into the night jumpy, twitchy, anxious, upset, and yet buzzing with the rare experience of having been completely absorbed by a horror film.
I’ll leave any further commentary on Get Out’s cultural relevance for others who can speak with more authority and wisdom than I can. Besides, if I narrow my consideration of this movie to those issues, I am doing this movie a disservice. Get Out is worth seeing in a theater for more reasons than the urgency of reaffirming America’s commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” Jordan Peele has just proven not only that he is an important voice in a time of a national identity crisis, but that he also knows how to craft an edge-of-your-seat thriller.