Note: This story contains spoilers from the movie “Get Out.” The plot is discussed in full.
It would be an honor to compete against Jesse Owens, right? Jesse Owens, the black track and field star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, shattering Hitler’s myth of an Aryan ideal by besting the best blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys Germany had to offer. You would be proud just for the opportunity to stride at his side; you might even be honored to lose to him, to watch him achieve on the stage that he did, at the moment when he did it. Just to get to say you were there.
In Get Out, writer-director Jordan Peele’s — allow me to find the appropriate term here — literally perfect “social thriller,” as Peele defines it, a white man who lost to Owens way back when never quite got over it. His defeat is the inciting incident for the nightmare that unfolds in Get Out, though we arrive at the party two generations later: When that man’s granddaughter, Rose Armitage (Girls’ Allison Williams, peak white girl), brings her boyfriend, Chris Washington (Black Mirror’s Daniel Kaluuya), home to meet her parents, Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener).
Chris is nervous about the trip from the get-go, for non-horror-related reasons: Rose says she hasn’t yet told her parents that he’s black. Her (feigned, we later learn) naïveté about how that could possibly be an issue when her parents are so not racist that they would’ve voted for Obama for a third term does little to ease his fears. En route to this awfully secluded home of hers, the couple have two unsettling run-ins: One with a deer, who just about dies on impact with their car; the other with a white police officer, who insists on seeing Chris’ license even though he wasn’t the one driving.
Looking back on the movie, once Rose’s true nature is revealed, I wondered if the police officer was a plant — someone working with her family to help lure Chris into trusting the Armitages — or if he was just a random, racist-enough guy on patrol. That either seem equally likely is a testament to part of what gives the movie its staying power: Each uneasy encounter Chris has with a white person could be run-of-the-mill racism, or it could be something far more sinister. Articulating either concern makes Chris sound paranoid.
After meeting the Armitages’ groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and maid Georginia (Betty Gabriel, absolutely chilling), both of whom are black, Chris immediately notices that something about them — their demeanor, their mannerisms, their diction — is off. But off enough to leave? One of the places Get Out succeeds where so many horror movies fail is that it is entirely plausible that Chris stays at the Armitages’ house as long as he does. He’s not a clueless coed descending into a dark basement where the killer obviously lurks; he’s a guy meeting his girlfriend’s family for the first time, who is used to being made uncomfortable by white people, who is trying to discern if this situation is crossing a line or if he just needs to grin and bear it for the sake of his relationship.
So much of what Chris experiences wouldn’t be out of place in another type of movie. His interactions with Rose’s extended family members are cringe-worthy and darkly funny, not only because of the horror movie context but because they sound lifted from life: A bunch of clumsy, pushy white people sizing up Chris’ muscles, golfing form, and sexual prowess. Later on, of course, this misguided small talk is revealed to have been an appraisal of the merchandise. Through it all, Rose’s discomfort was not the utter humiliation of a young white person who is mortified at the kinds of things her older family members will say — though that, also, rings all too familiar to plenty of people in the audience — but the careful performance of allyship to keep Chris in the dark about what side she’s really on. (That, or she was annoyed at the older people for being too obvious about their intentions.)
So: What is really going on? A Stepford-style science experiment wherein black people are captured or convinced to come to the Armitage house, where a dream team of the hypnotherapist-wife, the neurosurgeon-husband, the son-as-muscle and the daughter-as-bait collude to imprison chosen targets, then remove most — but not all! — of the black victim’s brain so the new white tenant, so to speak, can occupy that black body, and all the gifts that come with it.
What Get Out encapsulates so well is that modern racism can manifest not just as straightforward hate but also as a mix of jealousy and disdain that, in many ways, can be much more sinister. Disgust, on the part of white people, that black people have the audacity to excel at anything, joined with a desire to siphon off that excellence, to restore some rightful order.
Peele’s comedy and horror bonafides are well established from his run on Key and Peele, as is his ability to be deft and analytical about race without sacrificing the joke or the story at hand. Get Out, which Peele wrote and directed, marks his feature debut. He started making the movie when Trayvon Martin was killed; as he told the New York Times, “What originally started as a movie to combat the lie that America had become post-racial became a movie where the cat is out of bag, and now we’re having this conversation.”
Though he expected the movie to premiere in a different kind of America — namely, one with a different president — Peele said this 2017 context made the movie “more relevant. The liberal elite who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists.”