Dark Side: Jordan Peele's 'Get Out' mixes horror and social satire
Universal Pictures’ Get Out is not a funny movie. Yes, Jordan Peele is a funny guy: Born and raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, he performed with Chicago's famed Second City troupe and later joined the cast of “MADtv,” where he met Keegan-Michael Key; their Comedy Central series “Key & Peele” ran for five audacious seasons. (Remember Peele as President Obama and Key as his high-strung "anger translator," Luther?) Their kidnapped-kitten movie, Keanu (2016, co-written by Peele), was an unexpected delight that hinges on the sight of an itty-bitty, big-eyed kitty in full gangsta drag.
And Get Out could have been funny: The setup—wealthy white girl Rose (Allison Williams) brings her African-American boyfriend, up-and-coming photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), home to meet her parents, who are so proudly liberal that if her father could have voted for Obama a third time he would have—suggests that audiences are in for a queasy comedy of bad manners. But Get Outisn't funny—at least, not funny ha-ha. It's a sneaky horror movie with a pointed message about smug, liberal white people who swear they "don't see color."
"We have a blind character…who also claims to not see color," Peele chuckles, the joke being that even the blind guy most certainly does "see" color; Get Out has a razor-sharp message and isn't afraid to use it. That in and of itself is pretty unusual these days, when genre filmmakers are all too often focused on spectacular special effects rather than character or plot, and Peele admits that Get Out reflects a throwback sensibility, one that especially looks to horror movies of the 1970s.
"I came up with the movie when we were in a different racial climate, one that I call the post-Obama, post-racial lie. During the Obama administration there was this sense that, 'OK, well, we have a black president, how much less racist can America be?' It almost felt like calling out racism was taboo…as though talking about it was a step backward and that's what I sort wanted to help pull the skin back from, this idea that anybody who feels like they or we are above racism is not looking close enough.
"The Stepford Wives was a huge influence—both the movie and the book, for discussing gender issues in a very entertaining, thrilling, messed-up way. It's one of the reasons I knew this movie was possible. And Rosemary's Baby—essentially all the Ira Levin films and books have this slow burn towards a horrific end. Cinematically I was also very influenced by The Shining, by Halloween, by…David Lynch and David Cronenberg—his remake of The Fly was one of the first horror movies I saw when I was younger and he thematically wove fears about the AIDS epidemic into its mythology. His work is so visceral and so scientific and so weird."
Peele had the idea for Get Out nearly ten years ago, but development was an attenuated process: "The hardest part was knowing that it relied on a pitch-perfect tone," he says. "I felt that if I got one thing wrong the whole thing would fall apart like a house of cards. I constantly had to step away from the script as a writer and really experience it as an audience member. That's something that you have to do with every film, but with this one I felt it couldn't be just a lecture or a series of dark ideas…it had to be a fun movie, a movie that even if you don't want to go to the movies and think hard, you can still get an emotional ride and a fun experience.
"So at one point I realized that I had to rethink the last third and it had to become what it is now, which is essentially giving the audience everything that they've been patiently waiting for."
What that thing is should remain a secret, but Peele is totally willing to ’fess up about the origin of the title: It's a shout-out to Eddie Murphy's famous 1983 Delirious riff on white folks in horror movies, the ones who persist in hanging around after the spectral voices start intoning, "Get out!"
"Yeah, 'Too bad we can't stay, baby!'" he laughs. "The title was very much an in reference to that.
"I also think that this movie is very much about he lack of representation of black people in the genre…certainly of black protagonists in the genre. It's also about the lack of representation of our values as black people who may or may not be prone to yelling at the screen when some character does some stupid shit.
"I wanted this movie to address the notion that this character can be the most perceptive character in the film. That the lead in this situation can be smart, make informed decisions and not fall into the same old horror trope of being a dumbass. So yeah, this movie—besides being about race within the plot—was for me about filling in a gap within the genre and for honoring what all horror audiences want from a lead character, which is someone intelligent and perceptive.”
Peele also made Get Out with an eye to rejecting the “Grab ’em by the throat” pacing of many contemporary thrillers and action films, movies that hit the ground running and sprint to the finish, leaving little time for either character development or for viewers to notice the details.
"I just love the pace of thrillers and horror movies that take one step at a time. I think that if you go too big, too fast, you have nowhere to go… It also makes it hard to keep the characters in that situation. So I think it's an underused style—to allow a mystery to unfold slowly and carefully.
"I think what is exciting about the Blumhouse phenomenon is that it is in a way a throwback to this idea that the art of the scare and thrillers is a genre that you don't need a super-huge budget to pull off. Horror is something that can happen with technique…with lines, with acting, with the visual language. Love it or hate it, a movie like Paranormal Activity is a master class in how little you need to create a really effective pace for a horror film." (Since 2009, Blumhouse Productions, led by Jason Blum, has been bankrolling lean, mean, low-budget and highly profitable horror titles, including the Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Purge series.)
True to his word, Peele has a light hand with special effects—one of the film's most nerve-wracking sequences involves Rose trying to fish her car keys out of a bottomless shoulder bag—while employing slyly pointed dialogue. A throwaway line about insidious "black mold" here, a reference there to African-American servants Georgina and Walter that includes the phrase "couldn't let them go," a vaguely discomfiting conversation between Chris and Rose's father about Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics—Rose's grandfather also competed and her dad is honored that his dad apparently won nothing but, you know, bore witness to the Olympics where a black American proved that Hitler's ubermenschen weren't all that. It's a wonder the guy doesn't dislocate his shoulder patting himself on the back. And no, as Peele—who's married to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”star Chelsea Peretti—made clear at Sundance, Get Out is not about his in-laws.
Interestingly, Get Out's star, Daniel Kaluuya, isn't American. He's English. "That was tricky," says Peele, "because this movie is very much about the African-American experience. But I'm a huge fan of Daniel's: I love ‘Black Mirror,’ I love Sicario…so early on I had a Skype session with him and I expressed my concerns. I said, 'Look, this is about being black in America' and he assured me that though being African-American is a unique experience, it's not far off from race in the U.K. And then, of course, the guy comes in and delivers the best audition I've ever seen.
"Now that this movie's coming out and I've had more time to think—I realized that it was a mistake to look at this as a uniquely African-American experience. Race and the concept of the other is a global experience; whether it's the question of light skin and dark skin or some other kind of faction definition, human beings are tribal beings.
"In the end, I wanted to make a movie that has at least two watches in it. The first time you know as little as possible and you just get hit by a series of revelations or twists.
"And then the second time you go back and notice that every plant has a payoff. To me, that's what exciting about the comedies of Edgar [Shaun of the Dead] Wright: Everything that gets set up has a payoff."