I’ve enjoyed leading discussions of so many brilliant and entertaining films at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas through the years, but the anticipation for the May 16th screening of Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out was positively electric. It’s not that the crowd was particularly large, not for a film that was one week away from release on DVD and Blu-ray. But those in attendance were visibly eager to see it, whether they were first-time viewers or returning for a second or third look. That desire makes sense, as Get Out rewards repeat viewings, inviting us to observe the subtle ways that the film comments on the state of racism in post-Obama America.
In his March 15 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Peele refers to his directorial debut as a “social thriller.” He argues that race “in a modern sense, hadn’t been touched [in horror] since Night of the Living Dead 50 years ago,” and that the current racial and political climate made for an ideal time for this film, initially drafted during President Obama’s first term, to be released. The story finds a young black New York photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) invited to join his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her affluent parents at their country estate. The visit begins with the mundane awkwardness of her father trying too hard to relate to Chris by assuring him he voted for Obama twice and inappropriately using black vernacular language. But it isn’t long until Chris finds himself fighting to preserve his life and his consciousness.
Our discussion was all the richer for the presence of my guest co-host, Dr. Saladin Ambar, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Lehigh University. His insights on such past SteelStacks films as I Am Not Your Negro, Selma, and 12 Years a Slave have proved invaluable and leading to stimulating conversations with an engaged audience. We were also privileged by the company of some newly minted Ph.D.’s from the Lehigh University English Department and a current graduate student, most of whom had seen the film before and all of whom wanted to join the conversation.
Although there is enough to say about Get Out to fill a book, which we will see soon enough , there are a few elements of the film that stood out in our conversation. Dr. Ambar observed, on his third screening of the film, the excessive degree of deference Chris demonstrates through much of the film, both to the police officer who asks for his license even when he wasn’t driving, and to Rose’s family, who cannot stop making inappropriate remarks concerning his race. Chris practices a learned obeisance to whiteness, not out of some internalized self-hatred, but out of a desire to get by, to avoid conflict. America may have seen its first black president in the last ten years, but it’s also seen a wave of high-profile killings of young black men and boys at the hands of police and neighborhood watch vigilantes. Get Out reminds us of such violence at the beginning, by showing a black man lost as he walks through an affluent suburb at night. We aren’t given any backstory for him at first, so we’re even more likely to map onto him what we know of Trayvon Martin’s murder. As a car follows him, its radio playing Flanagan and Allen’s 1930s song “Run Rabbit Run,” we share the dread of a racism that is both decades old and jarringly contemporary.
A number of audience members also observed the ways that Peele applied classic horror conventions to the racialized context of his film. For example, it’s commonplace in horror films that the police are not helpful to the protagonist facing the monster. Typically, they’re incapable of handling the threat, or they just don’t believe that the threat exists. Get Out works in the latter tradition, and that doubt takes on a whole new resonance. Chris’s friend, a TSA agent named Rod, goes to the police with his theory that Chris has been kidnapped by his girlfriend’s family to be hypnotized into becoming a sex slave. Granted, Rod doesn’t quite get it right, but he’s not that far off. In fact, one of the white women who places a bid for her husband to take over Chris’s body asked if it was true that sex with black men was better. An audience member pointed out that the three police officers who won’t believe Rod are all members of racial minorities, including two black people. It was a good observation, and I think it reveals a cultural anxiety among African Americans that any police officers represent a threat, regardless of their race.
That anxiety marked the culmination of both the film and our discussion about it. In that final scene, Chris strangles Rose, who had been trying to kill him. We hear a siren and see what looks like a police car pull up. Chris rises and raises his hands in the air, expecting to be arrested or possibly shot. We might in a more conventional Hollywood film see the police finally arriving as an end to the threat, but Get Out reminds us that African Americans don’t necessarily experience that sense of security. The film defies our expectations, however, as we see that it is a TSA vehicle, and Chris’s friend Rod emerges from it. The duo drives off together, leaving the sadistic Rose to bleed out alone.
Recent reports have emerged that Peele originally ended the film with the police arriving and Chris being arrested. Lacking enough memory and evidence about what actually happened, Chris languishes in prison. As we discussed this alternate ending, audience members debated over whether it would be more impactful for its realism, for its message about institutional racism. Others countered that we already expect the more depressing conclusion, both from black characters’ poor treatment in horror films and black people’s widely reported encounters with police. We’ve written it in our heads as soon as we hear the siren. Ending the film with the rescue from Chris’s friend not only defies expectations. It offers hope.