GET OUT and the Invention of the Social Thriller

***(Sort of) SPOILERS BELOW (nothing that bad)***

Many commentators wonder how Jordan Peele’s representation of interracial romantic relationships has gone over with his family, seeing as his father was black, his mother was white, and Peele’s own wife, Chelsea Peretti, is white. Robert Jones, Jr. wonders “if this film operates, in some ways, as Peele’s cry for help.” This is based on his reading that the protagonist, Chris, represents “both an indictment of black men and our possible savior. … He’s a guy that sees a white woman as the only thing he has left.” Michel Martin of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered asked him if the relationship was meant as a commentary on his relationship with Peretti. (A: Um, no.)

Law Ware, in the excellent conversation with Jones linked above, claims that in Chris “Peele gives us a protagonist who is just as unwise as the protagonists in your typical horror film, but his problematic actions stem from a desire to enter into this white world.” Terri Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, when interviewing Peele about Get Out, completely missed this reading. She suggested that Peele avoided having a dumb protagonist and that this was different from other horror movies. In fact, anyone who watches horror knows that the best protagonists are both smart and dumb. They are clever, but they try to solve too much, or fix the situation, rather than just fleeing it. Chris, consumed by the desire for white acknowledgement, refuses to abandon the insufferability of his girlfriend’s family or the pathological blandness of Rose herself. Rose is the most disturbed one, as Aisha Harris over at Slate has pointed out, because she’s “not just a psychopathic racist; she’s also a canny manipulator of the subterranean, systemic racism in the world at large.” Chris’ allegiance to whiteness prevents him from seeing this, and the audience relies on his friend Rod to expose it through his phone conversations with Chris and Rose. (Rod is only once depicted physically close to Chris and Rose, near the end.)

Chris’ illusion of the possibility of coexisting with white supremacy is, perhaps, most clearly demonstrated by his encounter with the blind art gallery owner. Here, Chris’ desire for white acceptance reveals that it’s the necessary means for Chris (and black people more generally) to achieve his other desires, namely admission to the art world, future career prospects, artistic expression, etc.

That’s why one of the most fantastic aspects of Get Out’s popularity, for me, has been watching Peele determine his own genealogy. Peele cites a wide variety of films whenever he’s interviewed on mainstream, predominantly white media. (He’s been interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air, and a report on Get Out’s success also appeared on NPR’s Marketplace program). He frequently cites Night of the Living Dead as another horror movie that deals with race, the only other “woke horror movie,” but claims more directly the psychological horror of Rosemary’s Baby, the slow-burn drama of The Stepford Wives, and the social commentary in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He’s essentially invented a term for this collection of filmic forebears: the “social thriller.” The “social thriller,” he says, “is a genre I’m particularly obsessed with. To me, it’s about the notion that to find the scariest monster we need look no further than the human demon. And when I talk about the human demon, I’m talking about the evil we’re capable of collectively.” These films have been around for a long time, and many of Peele’s favorites are from the 1960s and 70s. But by uniting this rather diverse set of films together under a new generic denomination, Peele claims a singular critical approach to his own film, which has largely been followed by the laudatory mainstream (white) press (at least at NPR, the Guardian, and the Village Voice; Richard Brody at the New Yorker views Peele’s film as “radical,” thus breaking it from antecedents all together).

Peele is the first black writer/director to make a debut film that grosses $100 million dollars, an impressive feat. As Ware and Jones point out in their conversation, this is likely due to the fact that it is a movie for black audiences that white people happen to like, too. At the same time, we should acknowledge another incredible achievement: Jordan Peele, a black man of multiracial heritage, invented an analytic category for his own art. This is something the character Chris can’t do, instead accepting the appreciation of the white art dealer who physically embodies Chris’ own ideological blindness.

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