Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Get Out.
Get Out is the directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele, and it’s also the first film role for Girls’ Allison Williams. The 28-year-old actress plays Rose, the girlfriend of our hero Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who’s about to go on a weekend trip to meet her parents. A child of privilege, Rose has never brought a black man home before, but she assures Chris that there’s nothing to worry about: Her parents are the good kind of white people, nice suburban liberals who would have voted for Obama a third time if they could.
As soon as he arrives at the bucolic family home, Chris senses that something is amiss, and his suspicions only grow as the weekend unfolds. Because this is a horror movie, we know that Rose’s family is up to no good, but as the tension builds, viewers are left parsing whether or not Rose herself is in on their scheme.
It’s easy to hope she’s not. In a movie that makes a psychological thriller out of the microaggressions of everyday racism, Rose is the touchstone of normalcy for white viewers. She’s the character we’re meant to relate to, the one who argues with a policeman about racial profiling, the one who rolls her eyes at all the other white squares. But as Chris’s circumstances become more desperate, Rose becomes the mirror through which we examine our own biases, a look at what happens when our best intentions become dangerous naïveté.
The casting is brilliant. Williams is nearly the platonic ideal of idealized white beauty: thin and fair, with a broad smile and eyes that flash like polished glass. Her hair falls in waves, which softens her stately jawline. She is tall enough to not be short, but short enough to not be alienating. She’s feminine and delicate, but she’s also brassy and has got jokes — as well as an Ivy League education. She is progressive, well-bred, well-mannered, and has an aesthetic straight out of a Pinterest board. She’s got a husband who physically complements her so perfectly, you’d confuse them for siblings if outlets like People and Vanity Fair hadn’t posted photos of their wedding online — a wedding that was officiated by Tom Hanks. And before you ask: Yes, her dog is a golden retriever mix, and it is perfect.
Williams understands that her aspirational packaging is exactly what makes her “part of the problem,” both in real life and in the movies. She also understands that, in a professional context, it’s what makes her so hard to buy as anyone other than Marnie from Girls. But instead of her role in Get Out feeling like more of the same, it’s so aggressively on-brand for her it becomes a meta-examination of her own star image. “We are using the thing that I was finding so sticky to flip the bird to the audience, basically, and say ‘Ha! You trusted me so much because I’m so WASP-y,’” the actress told Vulture recently. “But I just thought, how brilliant this is to use horror as a means of having a frank conversation about race. I wanted to be the person that the white viewers were relating to, until they realize that they’re actually in Chris’s shoes, and we’re with Chris on his journey to get the fuck out.”
A casting choice this obvious shouldn’t feel so inspired, and yet by putting Williams in the part of Rose — a character whose intentions constantly keep the audience guessing — Peele uses her image as a stand-in for the dangers of white complacency. In mainstream media, Williams’s type of whiteness represents safety, security, and comfort. But in the context of a horror movie, it’s exactly what makes us feel most safe that puts us in mortal danger.
For a white viewer, this is the most terrifying aspect of Get Out: Regardless of her motivations, Rose is on the wrong side. If she’s the well-intentioned ally she seems to be, her assurances that everything will be all right convince Chris to ignore his carefully honed instincts about dangerous white people. But if Rose is as malicious as the rest of her family, then she’s the most dangerous one of all: a seemingly innocent woman whose appearance gives her access to almost anything she wants. In either case, Rose enables the movie’s cavalcade of horrors. She’s a villain, and in the case of white viewers, she’s also us.
“It’s not a version of racism we see depicted frequently,” says Williams. “That is the much more subversive version of the story, and thus I think is much scarier, because it’s harder to run from. It’s harder to talk yourself out of. ‘Oh, this would never happen in my town.’ Well, would it? Because we never say where this happens. ‘Oh, this wouldn’t happen with the people I grow up with.’ Wouldn’t it? Because I don’t think these people were who you expected them to be. They weren’t wearing white hoods. It takes all of your excuses away, so hopefully people are just forced to deal, and sit in the discomfort with it.”
Most people are not evil racists who hunt black people for sport. But many well-meaning white people, especially physically nonthreatening white women, are the best-case version of her. They’re the “good guy” who doesn’t see the danger in a perilous environment, and inadvertently becomes a road block to true progress. As Roxane Gay puts it, “the problem with allyship is that good intentions are not enough. Allyship offers a safe haven from harsh realities and the dirty work of creating change. It offers a comfortable distance that can be terribly unproductive.”
The word “performative” comes up a lot in discussions of woke white people, but Peele takes the concept to its furthest possible conclusion: It turns out that Rose has been literally putting on a performance for Chris. In the film’s final stretch, her benign obliviousness is revealed to be a facade that masks her true role as the family’s “retriever”: She lures black people into the neighborhood so their bodies can be used by ageing white people in need a fresh vessel to keep on living.
Rose is fully aware of the benefit of the doubt afforded to beautiful white women, and she has weaponized them to lull black partners into a state of surrender. After the reveal, Williams snaps into her character’s true identity with military precision — she even wears a pair of jodhpurs that would put Taylor Swift to shame. It’s a fantastic metaphor: If the history of white America is a series of pleas of racial innocence despite all evidence to the contrary, then Rose makes the subtext text. In most “good white people,” the desire to hope for the best, to see things as rosier than they really are, is best understood as a subconscious mental block. Here, it’s an intentional act of psychological manipulation.
Thanks to an excellent script by Peele and a note-perfect performance from Williams, Rose will be in the conversation as the most destabilizing villain of 2017. Sure, it’s only February, but what could be more frightening than your best friend or your girlfriend — or worst of all, yourself — contributing to so many people suffering harm? Peele has said that the villain of his movie, the true monster, is the white liberal elite that have perpetuated a culture of permissiveness when it comes to systemic racism. That’s what makes the figure of Rose so uncomfortably timely, and also so tragically timeless.