The ending of Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy-hybrid “Get Out” seems almost designed to terrify white people. It looks like something out of a Tarantino movie, not to mention a prejudiced housewife’s worst nightmare. You wonder how they got away with it.
Yet leading up to that ending, everything has been designed to terrify black people. Within this well-crafted, unsettling and disturbingly funny movie, Peele has examined the micro-aggressions of racism and horrors that black people in America experience every day. It’s thrilling entertainment but ironically a great explainer of racial insensitivity.
“Get Out” opens with Peele flipping the script on the white person feeling unsafe in the slummy, black neighborhood. A man (Keith Stanfield) walks through an especially rich white suburb, telling someone on the phone how out of place and nervous he feels, only to get knocked out and kidnapped by a masked assailant. All the while, an old-fashioned song called “Run Rabbit Run” starts playing through the car radio. It’s a ditty once used to poke fun at Germans in World War II, now transformed into a sinister lynching anthem.
We then meet Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a handsome photographer living in the city about to head away for the weekend to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family. Do they know I’m black, he asks? She dismisses the question, saying, “My dad would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve.”
Things get cringe worthy once Chris and Rose arrive to meet Missy and Dean Armitage (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). Whitford is a natural as the stuck up rich white guy who thinks it’s such a privilege to embrace someone else’s culture. He relaxes his posture and exaggerates his slang to feel like one of the guys. “My maaann,” he says. He even repeats Rose’s line about voting for Obama a third time. Chris then starts to suspect that something isn’t right about the Armitages’ cartoonish Uncle Toms of servants, one a toothy, grinning groundskeeper and the other a perfectly quaffed housemaid out of a ‘50s serial.
These characters toe the line between creepy surreal and laughable satire in a way Peele came to master on his sketch comedy show “Key and Peele.” They most specifically recall the dancing, colorfully dressed black people in a sketch called “Negrotown.” But Peele’s gifts in replicating genres and milking them for their comedy serves him well in “Get Out.” His camera swoops down on Chris from all sides as he walks the Armitage home’s hallways or as he focuses on the miniscule details of a spoon stirring some ice tea. It’s all very Hitchcockian with a dash of Kubrick.
Peele even surprisingly cuts away to Chris’s friend (LilRey Howery) dog-sitting back in the city, who frequently calls Chris to warn him about kinky “sex slave shit.” They’re funny, outlandish fears, but based in some scary reality. Peele takes those fears to their most effed up apex.
But the micro aggressions and representations of racism exist beyond the film’s more fantastical horror movie scares. At a large family reunion, Chris does the rounds of the party. The small talk ranges from awkward but innocent to inappropriate to plain insensitive. At one point a party guest suggests that being black is “in fashion,” which leads to the party guests asking Chris if he thinks he’s experienced advantages in life because of his skin color.
That may be a scenario more terrifying than any of the bloodier scenes to come.
A SPOILER Filled Addendum
The fantasy horror plot that Peele concocts isn’t just some gimmick. Catherine Keener’s character manipulates Chris through hypnotism, sending them to “the sunken place,” a metaphorical empty void where blacks are perpetually suppressed and helpless. In sending them there, the Armitages plan to use a surgical procedure to take over their bodies and all of their physical advantages. It’s the ultimate form of gentrification and assimilating black culture.
However, Peele might’ve missed one big opportunity, and that has all to do with the ending. Earlier in the film, Peele hints at how cops have been known to racially profile, asking to see Chris’s license even though he wasn’t driving. Rose steps in to defend him and say that what the cop is doing is bullshit, but it doesn’t get her off the hook. She’s a character who throughout the movie earns some eye rolls (credit Williams’s judgmental tone she’s perfected as Marnie on “Girls”) from her boyfriend, even as she tries to condemn her out of touch family. Even if her character wasn’t complicit in the Armitage conspiracy, it wouldn’t have necessarily made her innocent. But Rose may as well be the ringleader of the whole operation.
In the end, it looks as though everything is about to go wrong, with the police arriving right as Chris has his hands around her helpless throat. She pleads for help, and he looks doomed, but it’s a twist, and it’s Chris’s friend there to save the day. Had the film ended on a down note, Chris would’ve been wrongly arrested, and most likely even shot and killed, despite being unarmed. That would’ve been a highly effective way to show the dark reality of the race problem in America. Maybe that reality is more than hinted at, but it begs the question how audiences would’ve reacted had Peele gone the extra mile.