Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
You can take the horror film out of the city and out of the suburbs, and racism for black people will still be scary.
Complicit in the new critically acclaimed horror film Get Out is an understanding that Americans’ nerves are still pretty raw from back-to-back-to-back summers of high-profile police killings of black people. Our expectation is that when a black man gets entangled with a police officer, there will be a bad outcome. Between black and white people, we won’t agree on who the victim will be in such encounters, but we will agree that the result will likely be off-putting. This agreement is used as a tension-boiler throughout the film, but not in a Heat of the Night, or Glass Shield kind of way. In the age of Facebook Live, we don’t need more dramatizations of how this usually plays out.
In one of Get Out’s early scenes, a police officer interacts with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya of “Black Mirror”) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, from “Girls”), who are stranded on a woody road in the middle of nowhere. The couple hit a deer while driving to Rose’s parents’ house and now blood is splattered all over their car’s headlights. Before the cop arrives, Chris stands over the deer, glaring deeply into its eyes as it whimpers dying breaths. Soon after, Chris sits on the car’s hood while his girlfriend sparks an argument with the patrolman called to the scene. The cop asks for Chris’s license even though he wasn’t driving, and you immediately sense danger: Chris is passengering-and-dating-white-while-black in an area that looks like a place where black men were noosed up on oak for a whole lot less.
This encounter could have gone grisly, but instead it ends peacefully, with no one arrested or maimed. Chris doesn’t end up roadkill like Mr. Deer, but as the couple drives off, it’s difficult to feel like anything was truly resolved or that Chris is now safe. A Violet Liuzzo tragedy still seems imminent. But Chris is not worried. Despite collisions with deer and cops within the first 15 minutes of the movie, he’s still happily determined—excited, even—to continue up the road to meet the parents. He’s a little wary about how Rose’s parents will accept his blackness, but he otherwise doesn’t feel out of place. It’s not Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The audience’s expectations might still be raw, but Chris is expecting wine and venison.
It shouldn’t feel surprising that Chris—a black man with features that could stand in for Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”—feels normal in a non-urban setting that promises to have almost exclusively white guests. While racial segregation is far from over, it is not uncommon to find African Americans at leisure in areas far outside the city, and it hasn’t been uncommon for a while—just look at the history of places like Oaks Bluff and Sag Harbor. When they arrive at Rose’s parents house—a mini-plantation buried in a forest—Chris is neither apprehensive nor impressed. He reluctantly accepts a tour of the manor with a look on his face that says he simply doesn’t care. The days of the Fresh Prince arriving at Bel Air with a Wowsa! look on his face are over. It’s 2017, and the Get Out writer and director Jordan Peele (of “Key and Peele” fame) is helping catch Hollywood up.
What Chris does end up falling into on this sprawling estate is what makes for truly compelling horror. I won’t go into all of that for fear of spoiling the plot. What I can say is that it’s the people, not the place, that turn the experience creepy for both Chris and the audience. It’s the madness of listening to Rose’s white father, who can’t seem to divorce his plantation lifestyle from his liberal politics when he speaks. It’s the anguish of both of Rose’s parents trying to get into Chris’s black head. It’s the shame of Chris being sized up by party guests like he’s on the auction block. It’s also the dread of Chris meeting a handful of black people at the otherwise all-white soiree, and then finding no connection with them. Non-empathetic white people might not find these situations the slightest bit frightening. Indeed, they do run like a catalog of micro-aggressions for black people trying to operate casually in white settings.
However, Get Out is a much-needed departure from the all-too-common suburban narrative of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or the urban lore of Candyman, or even the emerging ruin-core elements of Don’t Breathe and It Follows. Chris isn’t trying to navigate his way through place—he’s struggling with navigating through people who remind him, painfully, that they live where they live to get away from people who look like him.
The Get Out message seems to be: No, black people are not afraid of the outdoors, or the suburbs, or anywhere else previously made off limits for us. But we are constantly reminded that there are always people who are determined to make visiting or living in these places a horrific experience for us.