Get Out is a Race Film. Not because writer/director Jordan Peele is black, but because of its concise subject matter and precise aim. A Race Film is considered a film made by (usually) African American filmmakers, featuring predominantly non-white casts, and marketed for non-white audiences. Get Out has a goal: to showcase the anxieties still prevalent to the modern life of African Americans. It is specific in this goal, and though I can’t speak personally to the truth of its depiction (white as I am) you can’t help but feel the authenticity beneath the extravagant exterior on display.
Though assuredly, white audiences will love Get Out (I certainly did), it is most certainly not “for” them. It is not directed at them, it is not made for them. What separates Get Out as a Race Film from “a film about race” is that it refuses to pull its punches. We see this all too frequently in modern films depicting true stories of racism, discrimination, and bigotry. Notice that there is always a sympathetic white character to applaud the struggle of black characters in such films. Hell, sometimes black characters aren’t even allowed to be the main protagonists of their own stories (looking at you, The Help). Get Out espouses such methods and half measures, not merely in actually having a black actor, Daniel Kaluuya, as its lead, but by carefully showing the imperfections and transgressions of its white characters.
So to speak any further is to speak of SPOILERS, and honestly, you shouldn’t be reading this until you’ve seen the movie. So please do, engage with the film first and then come back here and finish up.
So yeah, every single white character in the film is straight up evil. Not a single one is redeemable, none are misunderstood, and none have a change of heart. But, very importantly, none of them are evil because they are overtly racist. They don’t refer to any black characters with the n-word, they don’t spout off about racial superiority, they don’t even seem that uncomfortable by the presence of our hero Chris. But Chris is uncomfortable. Not because they are treating him unfairly, not because they are looking down upon him, and not because they are suspicious of them. Chris is uncomfortable because he knows he is The Other.
The Other is usually defined as someone existing in a state of being different or alien to the perceiver. To oversimplify: The Other is whoever is not You. But more often, The Other is someone who is inherently different to the group, to society, to culture. Often the reaction to The Other is characterized by suspicion, tension, unease, and/or fascination. To wit: you might consider Syrian refugees or muslims as the current Other in modern American society.
From the word go Chris is on edge with his white girlfriend’s family. Even as she assures him they are simply eager and enthusiastic, even as she recognizes some of the little offenses, it’s not about whether they like him or not, but that because he is simply different there will always be a wall in place. It’s not the anger, hatred, or scorn so often used to depict racists in film. It is the mere fact that Chris knows that the family will always see him as being different, and will never define him by anything other than that difference.
In fact, they try to overcompensate.
Peele utilizes early scenes with the Dad (Bradley Whitford) to showcase this, and comes to a head at a party scene near the midpoint. Again, the white characters of the film are not depicted as racists, but as woke, conscientious, and progressive.
“I would have voted for Obama for a third term.”
But it’s like running something past your black friend to make sure it’s not racist. It’s voicing your progressive opinions on race to your non-white friends loudly and proudly. It’s forcing your black friends and relatives to constantly remember and be defined by their race, instead of their actual personhood.*
And it all comes to a head at the party sequence. Chris is shown around and introduced to various family and friends, all very polite, some charming, others incredibly awkward. But no matter what the circumstance, the guests bring the subject around to race:
“Do you play golf? I love Tiger.”
“Black is in, nowadays.”
Peele gets incredibly specific in this sequence. And what is remarkable about specificity in storytelling is how it becomes ubiquitous. We’ve all been the odd-man out at some time in our lives: a Democrat amongst Republicans, a Jew amongst Christians, a Trekkie amongst Star Wars fans. This sequence becomes the focal point of the entire picture, because it’s when Peele takes his Race Film and makes it universal. It’s where he pulls in audiences that weren’t initially relating, forces them to empathize with Chris, before confirming every suspicion he’s had.
And yet, these topics and criticisms of race do not falter or fall away once the horror conceit is fully realized. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, perhaps, but Jordan Peele takes great care in how he has characterized his villains. The Armitage family is never revealed to be Klan members or Nazis. They don’t harbor hatred for black people, and in fact, seem to actually want to become black. And despite the detail that the Armitages have abducted primarily black people for their experiments, no overt reason for this is ever given. Even Stephen Root’s character, the blind Jim Hudson, makes mention after purchasing Chris that “It makes no difference to me that your black. I just want your eyes.”
The only clue we really get is through Chris’s best friend, Rod (Lil Rei Howery), who acts as a sort of Greek Chorus for the majority of the film. Chris consistently updates Rod about the goings on at the house, voicing his suspicions until Rod exclaims his amusing theory: “They’re turning black people into sex slaves.” Rod makes this comment after Chris mentions seeing another strangely behaving black man at the party (Keith Stanfield) who appears to be married to a much older white lady. But what is played quiet sneakily for laughs may actually be hiding the truth to these proceedings: the Armitages targeting of black people is not fueled by anger, hatred, or resentment, but as a power play. While they don’t appear to dislike black people in any way, the Armitages and their colleagues instead see black people as objects, as tools, as their personal playthings. The Other, dehumanized, to do with as they please.
And because the film refuses to have a redeemable white character, because it refuses to make excuses or move the goalposts, Get Out never lets its white audience off the hook. Whereas most films depicting racism love to show horribly racist white people alongside the good white people, they allow white audiences to leave the theater with an attitude of: “Whew, at least I’m not like them. Good thing we solved racism way back when.” Not that that is their goal, nor the literal thoughts of white audiences, but it is the effect. Instead, Get Out will have white audiences leaving the theater nervous, embarrassed, and unnerved, because they will recognize themselves in one of the many white antagonists.
While Jordan Peele certainly made Get Out primarily for black audiences, he’s smart enough to know that white people will still see it. He knows that white people will try to project themselves onto the character of Chris to no avail. Peele has crafted a film where white audiences will be constantly reminded of how they are the unwitting antagonists. Because even if you have black friends, latino or asian friends, gay friends, trans friends, muslim friends, anyone who is distinct from yourself, there is no true reconciliation if you only see them for what they are instead of who they are.
*I am aware there is a Catch-22 of a white person decrying the overcompensation of progressive racial views while, underhandedly, overcompensating with his own progressive racial views. I’m not saying I’m better, I’m just recognizing the problem here.