Back in 1984, Eddie Murphy made a mockumentary for Saturday Night Live called White Like Me. The premise was that Murphy donned whiteface make-up to infiltrate the secret world of Caucasian privilege that exists when black folks aren’t around. He goes into the bank for a loan, and they just hand him as much money as he wants and tell him not to worry about paying it back. He rides a city bus and as soon as the last black passenger gets off, it turns into a swinging cocktail party. Murphy’s film brilliantly lampooned prejudice and our unspoken attitudes about race, exclusion, and otherness in a way that was radical for the time. It toyed with the notion of how others think and act when we’re not in the room. Now, with 30-plus years of additional racial unease behind us, Key & Peele’s Jordan Peele has attempted something similarly subversive and equally ambitious with his directorial debut, Get Out. He’s remade Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a horror movie.
Chris (Sicario’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Girls’ Allison Williams) have been dating for five months, which means it’s time for him to meet her parents. Problem is, Rose hasn’t told her parents that Chris is black before they drive upstate to stay with them for the weekend. One of the film’s earliest gags is that Rose thinks her parents are so enlightened and post-racially cool that it would be racist for her to tell them her boyfriend was black. Plus, she says trying to reassure Chris, her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have! But Chris knows better. He’s not just suspicious of well-meaning color-blind liberals, he’s suspicious of lily-white suburbia in general. It’s like an alien planet whose atmosphere he’s hesitant to trust. And one of Peele’s best jokes is how he turns her parents’ stately, well-appointed, safe surroundings into something ominous and loaded with menace and dread. He makes you feel Chris’ sense of not belonging—the icy fear of being an outsider.
Pulling off a premise like this is a lot harder than it seems. And Peele, in just his first film behind the camera, is in total control of the film’s tricky tone. At least, early on. Get Out manages to walk the tight rope between being laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely scary at times. It doesn’t hurt that he’s cast Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as Rose’s seemingly well-meaning parents. Both actors are absolute pros at goosing whatever line they deliver with a twist of toxic insinuation. When Chris meets them, they seem completely unfazed by his skin color. Almost too unfazed. There’s something that just seems unsettling and off about them and all of their friends who gather for a backyard party that turns into a battlefield of undetonated conversational landmines and loaded innuendo.
Even more off-putting are the black gardener (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper (Betty Gabriel), who both have sunny thousand-yard stares and the odd demeanor of cyborgs or Stepford Wives. The only one who seems to really acknowledge the elephant in the room is Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones, appropriately carrying a frat-boy lacrosse stick), who’s aggressiveness is tolerated with typical, sweep-it-under-the-rug WASP denial. Are all of these people as nuts as Chris thinks they are, or is he being paranoid and overly sensitive?
The first half of the film builds with expertly-cranked white-knuckle tension. And Chris’ periodic phone calls to his hilariously skeptical black friend at home (LilRel Howery) are like a merry-prankster Greek chorus commenting on the whole get-the-hell-out-of-the-houseness of Chris’ situation. But Get Out’s delicate balancing act gets wobbly in the second half of the film when Peele’s conceptually daring premise unspools with a fairly clichéd genre climax. For a film that’s asking hard questions, it takes the easy way out. Still, Peele is undeniably a born filmmaker with big ambitions and an even bigger set of balls. He’s made a horror movie whose biggest jolts have nothing to do with blood or bodies, but rather with big ideas. B