For better and for worse, “Get Out” is the most cogent summation of the political now. For his directorial debut, comedian Jordan Peele bemusedly shrugs at an America bitterly divided, the liberal America hopelessly self-enclosed. Its juicy scenario (white girl takes black boyfriend to meet her parents who live in a suburb where young black men go missing) sends up the paranoia that people of color feel about liberal white America at this moment. Color, one’s identity, now makes the next person squeamish and uncomfortable, with Peele exploiting this fear to grand effect — perhaps, perversely enough, to the delight of the very same liberals “Get Out” wants to attack.
The fashionable snark of “Get Out” has been in the movies for decades; it’s only now making its obvious, full flourish. What springs to mind is Richard Pryor’s dicey, explosive script of “Blazing Saddles” (still a prime example of Hollywood race comedy — “How did they get away with this?”) and Regina Hall’s scene-stealing brilliance in “Scary Movie” (2000) as a noisy black woman heckling a horror film and the trashy/bougie “Shakespeare in Love.” In their layers of addressing the institution of American racism and how it has pervaded every factor of American life (from the church to the moviehouse), they are spiritual models for Peele’s comedic horror (not a horrific comedy).
With “Get Out,” Peele adds to a long lineage of Black comedians (Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chapelle, Mo’Nique, Chris Rock) who have raised the art of taking the piss out of bourgeois, white America. To achieve their in-the-system assault, these pioneers cultivated their image across several media. From Pryor’s albums and his 1979 filmed-stand-up masterpiece “Live in Concert,” to Foxx’s “Sanford and Son” and ’60s/’70s nightclub acts, to Chris Rock’s and Kevin Hart’s HBO comedy specials and mainstream Hollywood flicks — they all refused to let the Black image be repressed by popular culture. Now, Peele makes analogous strides by taking his sketch TV vision to the silver screen. With “Get Out,” he makes clear to his upper-middle-class (dutifully liberal, mostly white) audience know exactly how he feels about them.
But “Get Out” isn’t going for the lingering, gnawing-under-the-skin creepiness of “Rosemary’s Baby”; it wants a broadly comic effect (like a shotgun trained at “Black/White America”) that exaggerates whiteness to the point of almost overkill. Bingo-playing, Arnold Palmer-drinking, Black-muscle squeezing—Peele’s whites are Looney Tunes-ian grotesques reflecting an image of a divided America back to moviegoers, funhouse-mirror-style. (Is that even our America? Why, yes, yes it is.) It does not work in the “Certain Women”-“Love & Friendship” strand of radical humanism that finds commonality amid social difference, and with unflashy and unfashionable methods (drawing on Chantal Akerman in Reichardt’s case, a crisply literate movie-script in Stillman’s). “Get Out” is not a drama or comedy of reconciliation; it’s one of comedy of separation, opening wounds that we’ve been told have been healing for some time (the sharpest never bought that malarkey). The final “Get Out” image unambiguously shows us there’s no way out for White and Black America. The chasm may be too big to cross — with Peele’s emphasis not on the hopeful “may be,” but on the cynical “too big.”
That said, “Get Out” shouldn’t be an invitation to bow down to its unassailable insight. Style-wise, it is a meandering movie (delicious opening and closing, with snakes through “Pantheon” and “expendable, why-is-this-scene-so-long” throughout). It is sort of like a Key and Peele sketch stretched to 100 minutes. There was something so tight, snappy, termite-like about K&P sketches—bite-sized, perfectly grooved for TV (even better on a smartphone), able to make its points with Gangbusters flash. But the conscious overkill of K&P’s best TV material gets excessive and languid in a movie context. Peele’s frank, piercing vision doesn’t hit home in the cathartic (arthritic?) finale, a cheerless and wallowing spectacle that gets our murder-juices flowing to uncritical degrees. (Near the end, when one person in particular gets offed, the audience erupted into cheers and hoots that made my skin crawl.)
As with so many comedies, Peele’s vision bites the best in mini-moments, three-second beats between big “statement” scenes. Item: Erika Alexander’s black detective, so confident and casual in her mercilessly funny eye-flogging of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent, stops the movie in the best way possible. She doesn’t swish lines around in her mouth like she’s hopped up from a wine-tasting class; instead, she sips on the lines, refusing to make a big deal out of them. (“Oh white girls—they get you every time…”—Peele’s masterful comic timing adds dimension to the brilliantly delivered line.) The obvious satire of certain lines (“My dad would have totally voted Obama for a third term”) is less interesting than the buried satire of an unsignposted performance (the stark difference between Daniel Kaluuya’s centered naturalism and Allison Williams’ creepy, plastic, “knowing” smile, her exacting deliveries of lines—“Of couuuurse, babe. Not gonna let anyone fuck with my man!”—presenting a clueless, white-girl liberalism which symbolizes the bubble of bourgeois liberalism itself). Two punchlines about policing are the most bone-chilling, effective and scariest parts of “Get Out.” I wish the film had ended with that second policing punchline, as dark and cynical as it is, since that is the instant when realness invades the popcorn-munching bubble.
When we look back at what late 2010s cinema was all about, “Get Out” may be the first to signal a dramatic new shift in America comedy. It doesn’t recognize the human foibles that tick beneath a surface. Instead, Peele undoes the racial box, exposing what he takes to be pure surface area. We’re in a state in our culture where cinematic reconciliation (an image of a unified humanism), is not only unfashionable, it seems dishonest. If “Get Out” is any indication of the future, then it will be a long time before suture will be possible. It chooses a bleak route; I remain hopeful.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.