sundance 2017

Jordan Peele’s Genius New Horror Movie Shows the Terror of Being Black in World Full of White People

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Photo: Sundance Film Festival

You think it’s scary being a black person? Just wait until you see the nightmare scenario Jordan Peele cooked up in his genius new horror film (and directorial debut) Get Out, which premiered to raucous applause at a surprise midnight screening at Sundance last night.

By far the most entertaining movie I’ve seen this festival so far, Get Out is a taut look at what really happens when a black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meets the liberal parents of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams). Peele, an avowed horror fan, says he envisioned the movie as a piece missing from his beloved genre. “I wrote this with the idea of making my favorite movie that doesn’t exist, and very quickly realized it’s a movie no one will ever make,” he said in his intro. So he made it himself, with the help of Blumhouse, the horror studio behind Insidious and The Gift. Horror has long been a conduit for exploring gender stereotypes and social fears, but no matter how progressive the film, there’s usually one role that always holds true: If you’re a black dude in a horror movie, you know you’re going to die, quickly. Just by making a black man the protagonist, Peele’s movie is already revolutionary.

It also happens to be one of the sharpest commentaries I’ve ever seen on what it’s like to be black in a white world. The movie opens not with Kaluuya’s character, but with another black man, played by Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield, walking down the eerily empty street of a rich white suburb. He’s lost and he has a bad feeling. “I stick out like a sore thumb,” he tells a friend on the phone, his voice quivering. It’s a brilliant send-up of the white fear of having black people in their neighborhoods. This will not end well for him.

Peele knows that in this genre there are no throwaway moments, so when that opening scene cuts to a second black man, Chris (Kaluuya), you’re already afraid for him. [SPOILERS AHEAD.] He’s packing to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Williams), but she hasn’t told them he’s black. It’s okay, Rose assures him, “My dad would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could have.” (Williams really knows how to play white liberals, with just the right blend of innocence and self-congratulation.) Still, Chris’s best friend, a fast-talking TSA agent played by comedian Lil Rel Howery, has reservations: “Don’t go to a white woman’s house!”

As promised, Rose’s parents welcome Chris with open arms. Her neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) does indeed tell him he would’ve voted for Obama a third time. But he also tells him that his father, and Rose’s grandfather, lost at the Olympics to Jesse Owens and has Aryan nation leanings. GET OUT! Her psychiatrist mother (Catherine Keener) offers to hypnotize him so he can quit smoking. Okay, so that’s a little weird. GET OUT! Then the unsettling questions start to pile up. Why do the family’s two black servants walk around with blank stares, fixed smiles, and unwavering obedience? Why is it that Georgina, the housekeeper, keeps petting her hair in the window? And why did Walter, the groundskeeper, seem hostile when asking Chris about his intentions with Rose? And why do we see that same black man from the opening scene at Rose’s family’s party, dressed like he’s from the 1950s, as the romantic companion of a woman 30 years his senior? GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!

Chris is smart enough to know that something is very wrong, both with these zombified black people and his girlfriend’s super-over-accommodating white family — and, boy, is it fun watching him figure out what amazing evil lies in the suburbs. “I just watched it for the first time without getting to fiddle with it, and that’s a fucking crazy movie!” said Peele as the lights came up. The only clue I’ll give, which is pretty obvious in the trailer, is that one of Peele’s favorite movies is The Stepford Wives: “The way it dealt with gender is something that made me think, Hey, that’s proof that you can pull off a movie about race that’s [both] a thriller and that’s entertaining and fun.”

Peele has been working on this movie for eight years, and he’d like to make it clear that it’s not based on his wife Chelsea Peretti’s family (he started writing it before he met her), though he predicts that after the movie’s out “she will claim it’s based on her family because she wants to fuck with them.” The idea actually started, he said, when Barack Obama and Hillary were facing off in the 2008 Democratic primaries: “All of a sudden the country was kind of focused on black civil rights and women’s civil rights movements and where they intersect, and there was kind of this question of, who deserves to be president more? Who’s waited long enough? Which is an absurd thing — that civil rights are even divided.” Thinking about those two groups’ intertwined fates got him thinking about The Stepford Wives, and the implications of having similarly submissive black people, whose ancestors had once been enslaved, as the paragon of perfection.

“For a while when we had a black president,” Peele reminded the crowd. “We were living in this sort of post-racial lie, this idea of, ‘We’re past it! We’re past it all!’ But all black people know there’s racism. I experience it on an everyday basis.” In one scene in the film, older white women stroke Chris’s biceps, and old white men ask if he knows Tiger Woods; as Peele put it, “there’s this monster of racism lurking underneath some of these seemingly innocent conversations and situations.”

Because he started writing Get Out in the Obama era, the movie is not a direct commentary on the 2016 election. Still, Peele said, because the movie is “coming out in a very different America than it began in … it’s more important and interesting now.” The film may not change the minds of anyone in a Make America Great Again hat, but it may make some of the “good white people” who went to anti-Trump protests reconsider how racially progressive they really are.

“It was very important to me for this not to be about a black guy going to the South and going to this red state where the presumption for a lot of people is everybody’s racist there,” Peele said. “This was meant to take a stab at the liberal elite that tends to believe that ‘We’re above these things.’” In other words, before you point fingers at the white people in Get Out, ask yourself if you, too, ever done anything that might have made a terrified black man bash your head in with a croquet ball.

Jordan Peele’s Genius Horror Movie at Sundance