‘Get Out’ created an empathetic viewpoint for societal horror
Ultimate Movie Year finds the best released films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.
Released Feb. 24, 2017
Directed by Jordan Peele
A young black man travels with his white girlfriend to an affluent suburb for the weekend. It’s a promising start for a horror movie, but when “Get Out” was released a month after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump in 2017, racial tensions in the United States were at a level not seen since the 1960s. It could have quickly become another inflammation point in the heated debate, but thanks to director Jordan Peele’s keen insight through the point of view of its main character, “Get Out” gave audiences of all backgrounds a window into the anxieties of being black in America.
The movie opens with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a New York City photographer, preparing for the weekend trip with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Chris wonders if Rose told her parents that he is black, and she dismisses the concern, saying him it doesn’t matter to her or her parents. Peele introduces Rose as an ideal girlfriend for white audiences, thoughtful and empathetic to her boyfriend, and yet offers just enough naivete to concern minority audiences. Kaluuya gives Chris a quiet, confident reserve to be able to handle the situation where he is introduced to her parents while allowing his eyes and murmured responses to express his past experiences when it hasn’t gone well.
Chris soon rides with Rose to her parents’ home in upstate New York, when their car strikes a deer on a rural road. The incident not only reminds Chris of past regret but also brings him in contact with a white police officer who asks him for identification. Rose, who is not asked for her license, immediately protests while Chris seems resigned to this routine with officers. Once Chris and Rose get back on the road, they arrive at the Armitage house, meeting Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). They quickly start peppering him with loaded statements and questions, all of which remind Chris (and us) of his blackness. Visually, socially, and psychologically, Chris is not in his usual comfortable environment. Because Peele frames the movie entirely from Chris’s perspective, we are prone to empathize with him and his situation. No matter how kind and friendly the Armitage family appears to be, every comment, look, and touch treats Chris as a race, not a person.
The Armitages announce they’re hosting a party at their house, which Chris wasn’t expecting. As a large community of older white couples comes to the house, Chris continues to be the focus of unwanted attention who’s less a human than a curiosity. At the party, he spots another black man, Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), who is odd and subdued in his interactions with Chris. Combined with his uncomfortable encounters with the maid and groundskeeper who work for the Armitages, the few black people Chris runs into during the weekend all feel unnatural and artificial. The oasis in this desert of white privilege all proves to be mirages. There is no space to be himself here.
Peele continues to slowly increase the heat of “Get Out” until the final game is revealed to Chris and the audience. By hiding the true motives of its characters until we discover the truth at the same time as Chris, Peele makes the ultimate betrayal truly sting. It leads us to another examination of our shared cultural history as audiences grapple with the idea of the appropriation of black people. Given how carefully Peele has thought out every element of “Get Out,” the fact he made Chris a professional photographer is not an accident. The Armitages may not hate Chris on a personal level, but they also don’t think his existence is important enough to not be taken, dominated, and discarded into limbo.
During the 2010s, Americans became more conscious of the anxiety and resentment between the established authority and blacks after ignoring many issues for decades. The combination of Barack Obama’s election, the economic recession that preceded him, and the angry reaction it spurred from white conservatives started the fire, and the rise of social media enflamed the conversation. Meanwhile, smartphone and body cameras made the interactions between police and black Americans more visible (and shareable) than ever. These elements made it impossible to ignore the issues that continued to exist in the United States, and national politics and mainstream media continued to feed enough outrage to stoke resentments. By the time “Get Out” was released, you couldn’t have a nuanced conversation about the issue online, but with his movie, Peele used horror fiction to document the real feelings of fear, anger, and anxiety of being the only minority in a room filled with the majority.
Roger Ebert called movies an empathy machine, and the art of “Get Out” allows every audience to place themselves in the shoes of another person, one who likely looks different than them. “Get Out” more than quadrupled its budget on its opening weekend in late February, and went onto becoming a worldwide hit, grossing $176,000 million worldwide. It scored high marks with critics and audiences, while earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kaluuya, and winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay by Peele.
The best movies are the ones that involve a high level of craft with a strong point of view but are also incredibly entertaining on their own merits. “Get Out” succeeds on this measure, and the fact that it’s Peele’s debut feature bodes well for his future as a filmmaker. The laser focus on Chris’ perspective and increasing isolation encouraged all audiences to see this horror through his eyes. Peele crafted a tense thriller that uses Chris to speak to the ongoing race conversation in America, at a time when it was desperately needed, and, sadly, continues to be.
The Weekend: While “Get Out” didn’t score the statistics that made last week’s “The Silence of the Lambs” an obvious pick for the Ultimate Movie Year, it’s another February horror movie that became a cultural mainstay almost immediately with box office sales, critical acclaim, and Academy Award honors. It also helps diversify our lineup from the predominantly white male filmmakers that are spread throughout the year, but in this case, color didn’t make a difference. “Get Out” is simply one of the best movies that saw release in Week Eight.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few contenders that could have slid into the top spot, one of which is “It Happened One Night,” an early Hollywood romantic comedy from 1934 that was directed by Frank Capra and starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. While the genres are different, “It Happened One Night” not only shares a February debut with “The Silence of the Lambs,” they are two of only three movies to win the top five Oscars at the Academy Awards. Made before the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code that enforced censorship guidelines, “It Happened One Night” remains one of the essential must-watch classic movies.
The other strong contender for the week was a box office failure that found its audience through cable TV replays and the explosion of the DVD market. Director Mike Judge’s low-key comedy about frustrated white-collar employees baffled the marketing team behind 1999’s “Office Space.” Still, it became a word-of-mouth cult comedy essential that earned new fans with every viewing. I have no doubt that film fans with more modern sensibilities might have gone with Milton and the gang in this week’s slot, but “Office Space” doesn’t quite rise to the level of the other sharp comedies selected through the year.
Besides the top tier, the late February debut isn’t a spot for strong box office launches, despite “Get Out’s” success. Several smaller movies have gone on to have devoted followings, like Robert Harmon’s “The Hitcher” in 1986, Troma Entertainment’s “The Toxic Avenger Part II” in 1989, Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness” in 1993, Jackie Chan’s imported “Rumble in the Bronx” in 1996, Wes Anderson’s debut “Bottle Rocket” in 1996, and Tyler Perry’s run of films that include “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in 2005, “Madea’s Family Reunion” in 2006, and “Madea Goes to Jail” in 2009. Then again, some movies are abandoned by audiences for being so ridiculous, it seems to only exist inside the film of another silly movie. I enter Exhibit A into evidence: 1992’s “Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot,” which finally teamed Sylvester Stallone with … (checks notes) Estelle Getty.
A few other notable films released this weekend include David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” in 1997, the Todd Philips comedy “Old School” from 2003, and Martin Scorcese’s “Shutter Island” finally seeing release in 2010. Finally, if you wanted a double-feature of great films of entirely different genres, you would have had a great time at the movies in 2018 with the debuts of both “Game Night” and “Annihilation.”
While not many of these movies drew huge audiences at the theaters, their passionate fan bases and devoted advocates prove that turning somebody on to a little known flick is one of the great pleasures of a film buff. Cult movies are an essential part of any programming decision, which is why we’ll look to one of the greatest to close out the month.
Next Week: “Hairspray”