REVIEW: Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Ostensibly a film rife with race-baiting, intending to highlight the white liberal elite’s crypto-antebellum attitudes toward blacks, Jordan Peele’s Get Out inadvertently stumbles on something far more sinister than the tired clichés of racist white caricatures and hyperbolic political grandstanding. 

But before all that, I should be clear: based solely on his short commentary and original ending to Get Out, I’m not convinced Peele is the most clever director around.  Typical of the nihilistic malaise that inundated ‘The Obama Era’ (his own words), his original ending had him trampling on the legacy of a post-racial America that was inaugurated with Obama’s ascendency to the highest office in the land.  What this actually means is hard to really make out; presumably, his point is that racism was more alive than ever even though America had seemingly triumphed over it with the election of Obama.  Naturally, his method of going about this involved an evil white woman being strangled to death by an innocent black man, our hero, who was subsequently put away for the rest of his life without hope of his story ever being made public.  It’s fortunate that, during the production of the film, he decided to change this ending; it reeks of the sort of petty nihilism that struggles to be poignant in a film that’s otherwise watchable.

Alternate endings aside, our story begins with Chris, a strangely wealthy black man living in a spacious urban apartment.  He apparently affords this opulent lifestyle by selling his photography, which we can only assume is good based on what people say about it later in the film.  Most of what’s hanging on his walls isn’t much to look at, but it’s not like the urban art collectors who would be cutting him checks are known for their taste.  As we get our introduction to our main character, his white girlfriend arrives to pick him up; they’re going off for a weekend to visit her parents.  He’s anxious because she hasn’t told her family that he’s black, she dismisses his fears by repeating hollow liberalisms like “my dad would have voted for Obama a third time,” and off they go.  Along the way, we learn that this girl Rose is domineering and somewhat disrespectful of her man’s agency.  And she’s kind of a bitch.

It’s only after they arrive that the film turns into a twilight zone episode.  Most of the people are pretty weird: her brother’s a drunk psychopath, her mom hypnotizes people, and her dad seems like the sort of boomer who likes blacks so much that he listens to rap and bought tickets to every performance of Hamilton he could get his hands on.  It’s all meant to be cringe-inducing, and the obvious message is one of ridicule: look at these walking rich white liberal stereotypes!  They aren’t even aware of how stupid they sound!  You can draw one of two conclusions from this: either a) Jordan Peele and the intended audiences of Get Out have such a low opinion of rich white people that these strawmen seem adequate enough in realism to make the rest of the film a convincingly threatening horror movie, or b) they’re intentionally depicted beyond the scope of realism in order to suggest something otherworldly.

Because of Peele’s political posturing in the past, coupled with what he talked about in the alternate ending commentary, it’s most likely that Peele’s intentions fall under the former conclusion.  He believes quite sincerely in the benefits of using hyperbolic race-baiting horror films as a meaningful way of communicating the complex relationships between middle-class blacks and upper-middle class liberal whites.  There’s no denying the cultural differences between the two, nor the fact that some of the liberal elite profess an insincere advocacy for a post-racial America while they meanwhile trot out blacks to fill quotas and operate with a genuinely antebellum sense of racial superiority.  Far from the right-wing lunatics who, more often than not, treat racial disparities with admittedly broad strokes, it is the elitist left who has the tendency to reinforce those assumptions in practice even as they pay lip service that denies its existence.

Get Out is about as subtle as a whipping post when it comes to this stuff.  The obvious disdain for effete, college-educated, well-to-do white liberals is injected into every line of dialogue that comes out of a white character’s lips.  There’s almost a desire to paint it as specifically anti-white, and yet there is never a normal white person depicted in the entire film.  Maybe Jordan Peele views all white people as this fundamentally twisted and unsympathetic—and given how much time he spends in Hollywood, I probably wouldn’t blame him—but that would seem to sell short a movie that manages to work as something bigger than a hackneyed attempt at race-baiting.  It’s more interesting if the answer is this: Get Out isn’t an attack on whiteness so much as it is an attack on the liberal-materialist worldview in its entirety: a depiction of the demonic.

Placed in such a context, the racial conflict evaporates and is replaced by a conflict between a small group of hollow and morally bankrupt elites obsessed only with a very shallow sense of aesthetic appreciation for images, and literally everyone else.  In the entire film, only Chris comes across as a normal, reasonable character—aided no doubt by Daniel Kaluuya’s charisma—while his plucky, relatable sidekick offers throwaway improvised lines to try to keep the film’s tone on the level.   They’re the only good guys.  They’re the only characters whose actions and reactions reflect a common ground with the audience.  We’ll return to this point in a minute.

In any case, the movie continues and, at this point, everyone now knows how it turns out.  Crazy white people have taken all the right cues from the eugenicists of the past and decided to up the ante: instead of breeding a stock of perfect humans, they’d just combine the supposed peak physicality of young blacks with their own big-brained intellect through a complex brain transplant procedure.  Our hero, having been caught and drugged by the nefarious cult of mad scientists, manages to escape and kill all the bad guys—and girls—in the process.

As I mentioned before, there are two ways of looking at this film.  You can buy into the racial hype, in which case the film is little more than a black man’s empowerment fantasy that concludes with him killing a bunch of surreally evil white cultists at their remote ranch, including his bitch of a white girlfriend.  That’s the Blaxploitation route—an amusing piece of racist propaganda that lacks all the charms of its cousins from the sixties and seventies, even if it scrapes by with its moments of entertainment simply because it was a by-the-book example of how to make a decent thriller.  But as entertaining as this could be, anything meaningful it says would be by accident, and at no point is it possible to enjoy the film as anything other than a sadistic portrayal of an evil, racially divided and predatory culture.  If such is the case, it’s trying too hard to make a point.

On the other hand, the film also functions as a decent lesson in how a secular elite views the rest of the people over whom they draw power.  This is crystalized in a particular scene near the end of the film, where—somewhat unimaginatively—the entire procedure is explained to Chris after he’s been kidnapped.  The first step involves hypnotic suggestion; the unconsciousness must be made aware of the possibility of the subversion.  Step two, following from that, is deliberate and conscious engagement; after the idea is allowed to gestate under the surface, a foreign agent must engage and talk directly about the possibility of subversion with the subject.  The last step was, of course, the physical transmutation—for the sake of the film, a literal brain transplant serves as an appropriate metaphor.

If you’ve been paying attention, this is the pattern of every subversive plot in history, whether dealing with individuals or large groups of people.  Look at the Soviet’s massive propaganda efforts to affect foreign countries in order to spread Soviet Communism throughout the cold war: infiltrate art and music communities, engage with and fund subversive cultural entertainment, and then work directly with political activists and revolutionaries.  Phase three, the actual transformation of the host state, ends up accomplished whether an armed revolution succeeds or not, if the operation is a success.

For the sake of the film, the eeriness of the characters and distinctly cult-like setting also evoke another similar theme, which includes that of demonic possession.  The whites in the film are interested in straight-up possession of the blacks’ bodies, not merely in an economical sense but a physical, literal one.  The few blacks in the movie are depicted as fallen men with understandable problems and concerns in life—as I said before, fairly normal people.  But the whites, unequivocally, are evil characters interested in the subversion, manipulation, defilement, and contortion of that sense of normalcy.  The only way Peele could have depicted the whites as any more demonic and satanic is if he’d literally put horns on their heads and given the father figure a pitchfork.

And that’s the rub; for the film to function effectively as a horror movie, the audience has to believe in one of two things: either the unnaturalness and evil that is characterized by the whites in the film are believable qualities that white people have, or those same qualities are meant to evoke the images of literally demonic people.  If you can believe that a group of white people could be so jealous of blacks, purely the basis of race, to be exaggerated into this Twilight Zone affair, then the film’s dramatic tension stays strong—but the only people willing to believe that are pretty much the same urban liberals the movie would be attacking.  On the other hand, demons who take the form of human beings are pretty much always frightening.

Aside from the confusing message involving white people and crypto-Satanism, the film relies on a decently-written script and plenty of inane musical cues for some of its more obnoxious jump scares.  There are some pacing issues that force certain events to happen much too suddenly—such as the first hypnosis scene and how much of Chris’ backstory is related—and the film relies on exposition too often when explaining important plot points.  But it at least reveals an attempt to make a movie with characters that do things resembling a plot for a measurable payoff—something that can’t always be said for, say, Disney’s recent and over-bloated projects that have budgets comparable to the GDPs of developing countries.  If anything, the fact Get Out actually plays like a real movie, even if a slightly substandard one riddled with moronic political signaling, likely has more to do with its success than anything else.  Why it’s being considered for the Academy Awards on the other hand… well, we already know how bankrupt that ceremony is.

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