By Christopher Sharrett.
I was curious about Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. I heard rumors that it was a riposte to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), that bizarre mistake by the good-hearted Stanley Kramer, where a young white woman (Katharine Houghton) takes her black fiancé (Sidney Poitier) home to meet her upper-class parents (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the Hollywood couple representing the most wretched co-dependency, Tracy a terminal alcoholic, Hepburn the mistress-enabler so sad she slept by Tracy’s closed bedroom door). The film was a plea for integration, but finally said that the whole situation causes almost too much soul-searching for the aged white parents (who could give a damn about them?), and that blacks can enter white society only after considerable inspection (the Poitier character has a ton of academic degrees) that assures whites that the black man hasn’t a trace of black society. I think of Kramer as an important but not a great filmmaker (he is mostly held in contempt today for his preachy message pictures) whose commitments are mostly missing from today’s commercial films – except when they appear in forms more overly-earnest than Kramer’s.
It would be great fun to see a film about race relations that replaces Kramer’s title with a title like Get Out, as the white parents insult (perhaps slamming the door in his face) and then brutalize the black man, followed by his revenge. Peele’s film has a little promise at its opening, as a black man, lost in the white suburbs, is suddenly dragged into a car. The problem even here is that the tone has a jokey element, as the man continues a run-on monologue on his cell phone. When Rose (Allison Williams) takes her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to see her upper-class parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford), the film shows its unintelligent hand very quickly. The eerie soundtrack and the jump scares appear very soon, making the film’s genre affiliations too obvious – the best horror films take their time, and accept a normal, essentially benevolent world that becomes violated. This is a horror film based very much on current formulae, quickly using familiar devices to jolt the audience, then insulting the audience with obvious clues as to what will come next, ultimately trivializing its social concerns.
When Rose is stopped by a cop for a violation, he asks for Chris’s ID along with Rose’s license. The scene could have been extended, or turned slowly into something else associated with today’s white violence against blacks. The establishing sequence might have taken seriously its basic premise had it not slipped so quickly into the gothic, making the film’s ideas on race seem like a silly aberration.
We soon meet all of the parents’ posh friends, all equally liberal-minded but so dumb that all make the mistake of making some sort of racist crack. The film uses the convention of the Dreadful Village (1975’s The Stepford Wives, 1973’s The Wicker Man), as all the white behavior seems “off,” and the black maid and groundskeeper either hypnotized or brainwashed – the film comes together very fast, since we know the mother is a shrink, the father a neurosurgeon. It is assured that Chris will escape his captors (Rose is part of the plot to kidnap black men to use their body parts – although the issue of race is dispelled, since black is merely the flavor of the week).
Even worse, while Chris is the polite black man – even if he has few credentials and wears a denim jacket – he has a pal, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who stays in touch with Chris via cellphone. Rod talks jive, makes jokes about sex slaves and Jeffrey Dahmer (rollicking moments for the audience) and quickly figures, with no evidence, that Chris has gone missing and is in danger. Rod is determined, even as his colleagues at the TSA bust a gut laughing at him – the TSA as incompetent gets some mileage. But Rod has skills. Do we need to guess how things will turn out? Why is the filmmaker so set on throwing all reasonable emotions out the window?
The film has its boosters, especially The New Yorker, where the Sons of Kael seem to have fallen off their shared rocker. Richard Brody called Peele perhaps the “American Bunuel.” Did Bunuel do anything remotely similar to this rubbish, another short-titled horror film (why do we have films with titles like Don’t Breathe, Lights Out and the like? – perhaps the producers think such seems pithy and therefore more foreboding?) with entirely predictable thrills and spills? Anthony Lane had another, even more effusive go at the film, helping along the box office with the erudite folk who read the magazine but don’t attend cheap horror films – the daily press has mostly already embraced the film, but we’ll see what the first week’s take tells us.
The horror film of the last century has worked well as an apparatus for dealing with political/social issues, but only when intelligent people make use of this (like all) genres. We desperately need more dramas that take on the real existing state of affairs of blacks in America. Comedies might be suitable, but, again, intelligent hands are needed. We’ll wait for those films.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University.