Racism is horrifying

March 9, 2017

The movie Get Out turns the racial prejudices, whether cloaked or openly expressed, of so many horror movies on their head, writes Mike Ehrenreich.

WHY DON'T more horror movies deal with racism?

Race, of course, is always lurking underneath the surface, especially from a white protagonist's perspective. In many horror films, the monster is some unconscious manifestation of racial anxiety or white guilt, like the prosperous, Reagan-voting family in Poltergeist, haunted by the vengeful spirits of Native victims of genocide.

Or worse, the monster is a thinly veiled stand-in for a racial menace, a monster that preys on virginal white teens, as in Eli Roth's Green Inferno, in which well-meaning liberal youths are menaced by Indigenous cannibals.

Only rarely does horror give us the perspective of people of color dealing with the racist terror that undergirds everyday life in the U.S. This is what led writer-director Jordan Peele to write horror thriller Get Out.

"I felt like race has not been dealt with in my favorite genre, which is horror," Peele said in an interview with NPR. "Every other human horror has its sort of classic horror movie to go along with it. So I kind of wanted to fill the gap in that piece of the genre of conversation."

Daniel Kaluuya stars Jordan Peele's new film Get Out
Daniel Kaluuya stars Jordan Peele's new film Get Out

GET OUT takes us on a terrifying ride through the racist landscape of so-called "colorblind" America.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young Black photographer, is meeting his white girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) parents for this first time. The first half of the movie is consumed with the awkward, uncomfortable, and at times patronizing and offensive interactions Chris has to suffer through with Rose's family and friends.

Kaluuya excels at communicating Chris's exhausted and bewildered emotional state throughout the film--including his enormous patience and restraint in navigating the myriad insensitive comments, unsure if he is confronting veiled hostility or merely the tone-deaf racism of her liberal family.

It doesn't even occur to Rose that she should mention Chris is Black to her parents. After all, they're nice upper-class liberals who don't waste any opportunity to tell you they would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if they had the opportunity.

In an early scene, the gulf between white and Black experiences with the police is on display when Chris and Rose are pulled over, and Rose repeatedly defies the police officer, while Chris tries to quietly move the interaction along.

Review: Movies

Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams and Lil Rel Howery.

Throughout the first half of the movie, Get Out lays out the subtle ways modern white supremacy manifests itself, while imagery evocative of Jim Crow and slavery establishes a continuity with earlier eras of racism.

It quickly dawns on Chris that there is more going on with the Armitage family than just well-meaning clumsiness. Their Black servants, dressed as if they are hired help from the Jim Crow era, act in increasingly inhuman and erratic ways. Rose's brother, a perfectly on-point frat-boy stereotype, makes the veiled racism explicit, openly admiring Chris's "genetic make-up" and trying to provoke him into a fight.

As more and more evidence stacks up, it becomes clear that some sort of conspiracy is targeting Chris, just as his friend from home, Rod--played by Lil Rel Howery, who provides much needed comic relief--had warned him.

The film leads to a heart-stopping conclusion, as satisfying as it is draining.


WE LEARN that the white people aren't merely brainwashing Black people to make them loyal servants, but are auctioning off their bodies for brain transplants. Not content with just the oppression and subordination of Black people, the Armitages are seeking complete control over their bodies.

It's a twist reminiscent of the first zombie stories that originated in Haiti--of people whose bodies are possessed and compelled to labor for malevolent sorcerers. Not coincidentally, these stories gained more popularity during the U.S. occupation of Haiti and the forced labor that followed.

The white people in Get Out covet the bodies of the Black people they encounter, obsessed with all sorts of racist, pseudoscientific ideas of their supposed physical superiority.

Just as chilling is an art dealer named Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), who is self-aware enough to know that these racist ideas are baseless, but cynical and monstrous enough to use them to his own benefit. "Why Black people?" asks Chris, and for Hudson, there is no special reason, other than the fact that he can get away with it.

The last act reaches a climactic and thoroughly cathartic finish, as the racists continuously underestimate the humanity of their victims and their capacity for resistance. Even with all the ideological and technological tools at their disposal, they could never stamp out the individuality and humanity of their victims.

The theater I was in broke into applause at least five times during the last stretch of the movie. We could barely catch our breath as the film cuts to the credits.

Get Out is not just an opportunity to inject racial issues into horror, but a loving tribute to the genre as a whole. Visual and musical allusions to Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter abound. The film is rich with all kinds of different references I can't wait to unpack on future viewings.

I couldn't recommend Get Out enough to left-wingers and horror geeks alike, especially if you can see it in the theater. Both as a stinging indictment of our racist society and as a thriller, it's a smashing success.

Further Reading

From the archives