Oh, those smooth-talking, self-congratulating white liberals. Listen to them moon over Barack Obama. Look at how widely they open their arms to a black visitor. Don’t be duped. They’re wolves in L.L. Bean clothing. There’s danger under the fleece.
That’s a principal theme in the most surprising movie hit of the year so far, “Get Out,” whose box office haul in America crossed the $100 million mark last weekend. Heck, that’s the premise.
The black protagonist heads with his white girlfriend from an apartment in the city to a house in the woods, where he’s gushingly welcomed by her parents. But their retreat is no colorblind Walden, not if you peek into the basement. I won’t say what’s down there. I don’t want to spoil the fun or sully the chill.
Besides, I’m less fascinated by the movie’s horrors than by its reception. The most ardent fans of “Get Out,” many of them millennials, don’t just recommend it. They urge it, framing it as a “woke” tribe’s message to the slumbering masses, a parable of the hypocrisy that white America harbors and the fear with which black Americans move through it.
The enthusiasm for the movie says a whole lot about how one group of Americans views the other, and it underscores the distance between them. I’m tempted to call “Get Out” a movie for the age of Trump, perhaps the movie for the age of Trump.
For his opponents, it has the right timbre of foreboding. For his supporters, it brims with what they surely see as lefty paranoia. If anything ever cried out for a Frank Luntz focus group, it’s “Get Out.” I'll bring popcorn along with my tape recorder.
But the movie’s African-American writer and director, Jordan Peele, conceived and began developing it well before the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency came into focus. He wasn’t responding to stark examples of racism like that infamous tweet last week in which Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican, warned against trying to “restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
He wasn’t reflecting the fresh currency of the phrases “white nationalism” and “white supremacy.”
He was moved by the myth that, with Obama’s election, we were entering some postracial era. No small number of liberals bought into that, and “Get Out” is an all-out assault on their complacency, a bloody mockery of it.
“Obama was elected, and all of a sudden we weren’t addressing race or there was this feeling like, if we stop talking about it, it will go away,” Peele told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross during an appearance on her program, “Fresh Air,” last week. He added that he was concerned about “a denial of the reality of the African-American experience and the horrors” attached to it.
“Get Out” is being categorized as a horror movie, though Peele prefers the neologism “social thriller,” and it’s more eerie than violent, with superb pacing that critics are rightly praising. It’s also a reminder that the best horror movies are intensely topical, putting a fantastical, grotesque spin on the tensions of their times.
I could subject you to my whole long riff on Vatican II and “The Exorcist.” (Don’t worry: I won’t.) I could link abortion to “Rosemary’s Baby,” women’s liberation to “The Stepford Wives” and Black Lives Matter to “Get Out,” in which black lives matter to the main white characters in only a ghoulish fashion.
The ingeniously plotted details of “Get Out” – not just what’s in the movie, but what’s left out – gather and distill complaints that black activists, writers and intellectuals have brought to the fore over recent years: the objectification and violation of black bodies; white people’s appropriation of black culture; the trope of the white savior.
“Get Out” has proved to be unusually rich fodder for commentary, a Rorschach test in which shadows and strands of the past and present are visible. It “perfectly captures the terrifying truth about white women,” according to the title of an essay in Cosmopolitan by Kendra James, who wrote, “American history is littered with the bodies of black men jailed, beaten and killed due to the simple words of white women.”
An article in The Atlantic theorized that the crucial role of photography in the movie may evoke “how important camera phones and video recordings have been for many African-Americans experiencing police violence.”
An article in Vox pondered the “benevolent racism” of “Get Out,” while one in The Muse observed: “The real horror, exemplified many times over, is the weapon of white privilege and pretense.”
A BuzzFeed list of “22 secrets” hidden in the movie even noted that Froot Loops cereal in one scene could be symbolic of miscegenation.
But to understand fully the feelings that “Get Out” stirs up and the chord it strikes, you have to turn to social media. A typical Twitter post: “What if the blind man in #getout represents white people who claim ‘not to see color' but still end up contributing to oppression and racism.” It was retweeted more than 1,000 times and liked more than 1,700.
Kellik Dawson, an 18-year-old freshman at Ithaca College, wrote on Facebook that the “catharsis of watching that black man” fight back against white oppressors “saved my life.”
I swapped emails with Dawson, who is black, on Friday, when he told me that he’d seen the movie twice and would probably buy it as soon as it’s available on DVD. He said that “Get Out” meant so much to him because it “shows the dangers of racism from white liberals” and because white audiences were embracing it even though “it rejected the oldest horror movie formula of the black person dying first.”
That white audience is a notably young one: Exit polls revealed that nearly half of all the people who saw “Get Out” when it opened on the last weekend in February were under the age of 25. Data from the survey organization CinemaScore suggested that this group of moviegoers was especially taken with “Get Out” – they gave it an average rating of A+. Moviegoers of all ages awarded it an A-, which is still well above the norm for the horror genre.
Peele, who is half the TV comedy sketch duo “Key & Peele,” has set a precedent with “Get Out,” becoming the first black writer-director whose debut movie hit that $100 million mark.
He’s in fact biracial – his mother is white – and he’s married to a white woman. His biography bridges the racial divide, a territory that apparently seethes with more misunderstandings and greater malice than most Americans care to admit. Just check out the basement.