Sunday, March 5, 2017

Movie Reviews: Get Out

Get Out
directed by Jordan Peele
Get Out is a horror movie that has the Black American experience of race and racism at its core. You would think all else equal that more horror films would explore all the rich story possibilities that race/racism allow. I mean what could be more horrific than being kidnapped and treated as subhuman for generations without end. Horror movies quite often reference either directly or more often obliquely social questions and concerns: gender, sexuality, child abuse, feminism, class struggle and many others. But it's rare for a a horror movie to include references to race other than the easy cheap plot device of the sole black character dying first. It's even more unusual for a horror film to tell a story from a black point of view. 

This is very simply because most horror directors and writers are not black. And even those who are are often under pressure to minimize or eliminate black concerns. This isn't unique to the horror genre by any means. There are many black film directors and writers who can tell war stories of having their book covers altered to avoid informing the reader that the protagonist is black or of having producers and studios refuse to greenlight big budget movies with black leads. But the world is changing. Get Out is a film that might not have been made or more accurately distributed and marketed by a major studio ten or definitely twenty years ago. Not only does it have a black protagonist but American racism is the animating theme of the movie. 

Wisely Get Out avoids the normal cheap plot device of having the bad guys be Confederate flag waving, low class, incestuous, pickup truck driving, banjo plucking white people from the land that time forgot. The film is both more ambitious and more subtle than that. As I wrote times have changed. Although recently it seems as if a loud minority would indeed would indeed like to turn the clock back to some time around 1922, I would argue that certain incidents not withstanding that racism as most black people experience it today doesn't include howling mobs bent on pogroms. Things are usually more subtle than that. 

It's the white cop who stops the car just to ask where the black passenger is going and why he's in that white area in the first place. It's the black lawyer who is mistaken for the custodian. It's the black accountant who can't seem to make partner no matter what she does. It's the black corporate employee who listens to his well meaning white peers complain that they can't get promoted from positions that he can only dream of being promoted to. And it's the white friend, co-worker or even intimate who suddenly says or does something that lets their black counterpart know that whatever they might think of that individual black person, they certainly have a stereotypically negative viewpoint of blacks in general. None of these people would necessarily start spewing racial slurs; they might even see themselves as progressive. They might be horrified and offended to have someone declare them to be racist. 

A running gag in Get Out has a character assure others that he's a good guy because he would have voted for Obama again if a third term were possible. And he might even be telling the truth about his voting choices. Get Out is not a cartoon. It certainly has its share of plot holes and implausibilities, especially in the ending. But all in all it's a solid entry in the crowded horror genre. It also tells a story without immediate invocation of ultra-violence and bare breasts.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya-seen earlier in Sicario) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) have reached the point in their relationship where they can honestly say they're in love. Even though it's only been five months of dating I guess sometimes you just know. Chris is black. Rose is white. But as far as Chris can tell they're both into each other for non-racial reasons. He's not trying to get a trophy. Rose doesn't appear to have a fetish for black men. Rose would like to bring Chris home to meet her parents at the upstate family estate. Chris, a photographer, wonders if this is too soon and is worried that Rose's parents don't know that he's black. Rose assures him that it's not too soon and that her liberal parents don't care about race. She saw no reason to mention his background. Despite the misgivings of his best friend, TSA agent Rod Williams (Lil Red Howery) who wonders about Chris being the fly in the buttermilk, Chris leaves with Rose for a weekend trip to meet his possible future in-laws. 

Of course if you are a film enthusiast you know that trips to family estates can often be fraught with all sorts of dangers. What if your special rider's family doesn't like you? What if you make a fool of yourself? What if this? What if that? After an unpleasant encounter with a cop that references the different expectations that whites and blacks have when dealing with police, Chris and Rose arrive at her parents' home without further incident. 

Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon. His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. Dean appears to be a little too eager to show Chris how non-racist and accepting he is. He attempts to use black slang and is just too friendly. Missy is not quite as over the top but is very interested in Chris' family background (he never knew his father and his mother is dead) and Chris' smoking habit. Missy doesn't like smokers. Chris notices that there is a black maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel in an excellent performance) and black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson). Rose admits that the optics of rich white people with black servants do not line up with her parents' liberal tendencies but that both Walter and Georgina helped her grandparents. Chris is accepting but can't help but see that both Walter and Georgina are more than a little weird. Sometimes it seems as if they've been lobotomized. They each move and talk strangely. And Georgina seems to be keeping an eye on Chris. 
After a weird late night encounter with Missy, Chris starts to feel that his grip on reality is not what it should be. And wouldn't you know it but Chris and Rose's visit coincides with a get together attended by all of the Armitage friends and business associates. Feeling even more isolated Chris tries to befriend the only other black man he sees but is shocked when the man yells at him to get out. 

Things proceed in some unexpected ways. Gaslighting is a method by which someone uses psychological manipulation to make someone else question their own memory, perception and sanity. You could make an argument that Get Out is a parable for the black experience of being gaslighted in America. Again this is, ending aside, not a gorefest or excuse to show female flesh. It is also not a film that is racist against white people, some predictable conservative howls aside. It has more than a few comedic elements. Most of these include Rod, who is the voice of caution, reason and realism. Rod may not always be the most articulate man. But his heart is in the right place. This is a clever, enjoyable film that will play with your expectations. Check it out.
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