Get Out is a taut horror thriller from Jordan Peele, famous as half of Comedy Central’s sketch comedy duo Key & Peele. In Get Out, Peele makes his debut behind the camera, directing fresh-faced Daniel Kaluuya (Black Mirror, Sicario) and Allison Williams (The Mindy Project) with his original script. But rather than comparing it to horror classics, I found it instructive to compare Get Out to another story with a relationship at its center – 2015’s film adaption of the hit musical The Last Five Years, starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. They’re both masterful in the way they use characters to hone a sense of perspective. And Lord knows, when it comes to racial issues, evangelicals could use a healthy dose of the black perspective.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally meant for a mainstream Christian publishing site, but after some healthy dialogue with an editor, I decided this was a better home for it.]
The Last Five Years chronicles a marriage gone bad, but there’s a narrative twist — her songs start at the end of the relationship, while his start at the beginning. This construct allows you to get to know both of the characters and understand both of their motivations. Ultimately, there is still a protagonist and an antagonist, but those identities are revealed slowly and with nuance.
Get Out, on the other hand, is a more straightforward narrative about a young woman bringing her apprehensive boyfriend to meet her parents for the first time. Yet both stories involve white women with ethnic leading men, where the relational breakdown is part of the premise; viewers know up front that the relationship will fail, it’s just a question of how and why. And in both films you can’t fully appreciate the story without engaging the storyteller’s perspective on race.
The Last Five Years places race and ethnicity a bit closer to subtext. Jewish writer Jamie falls in love with goyim Cathy because he finds her a refreshing alternative from the ladies at the Jewish Community Center. But as the movie goes on, it seems that perhaps he loves more the idea of her than Cathy herself. And for Cathy, it becomes clearer as the movie proceeds how her insecurities end up triggering his, and the things she found endearing in the beginning are, at the end, maddening.
Get Out, on the other hand, places race front and center. Sensitive, withdrawn protagonist Chris is concerned about not being accepted by carefree girlfriend Rose’s family, because he’s black and they’re not. This inciting premise allows Peele to reframe all the familiar horror movie tropes from a black male perspective. So when Chris meets the black housekeeper who works for the family, and instead of sensing a warm recognition of solidarity he’s senses unnaturally docile servitude, his suspicions grow. When he finds out his arrival just happens to coincide with a gathering of the family’s other white friends in the area, and those friends end up admiring him, touching his hair and chatting him up with awkward questions, he feels even more outnumbered and unnerved.
Eventually, the audience understands Rose, her family and their friends, but we do so through Chris’ perspective. So even though many of the story beats in Get Out have little to do with race per se, they all add up to form a powerful commentary on 21st century racial dynamics. On a basic entertainment level, Get Out is a pulse-pounding thrill ride punctuated with effective comic relief, but its racial observations are as sharp and unsparing as anything this side of Between the World and Me.
Ironically, its incisive observations primarily target white liberals. Jordan Peele has admitted as much in interviews, but his casting choices confirm it. Allison Williams (as Rose Armitage) is famous from HBO’s feminist comedy Girls, and her onscreen father Bradley Whitford made his name portraying a Democratic deputy chief of staff on The West Wing. So, by the time their family secret is laid bare, its horrific nature is underscored by their patronizing motivation – that is, they truly think they’re doing something good. All of this suggests that the intermingling of wealth and privilege with racism is not an exclusively conservative problem, but in fact cuts across ideological lines. If America can be described as an outbreak of racism without racists, then the palatial Armitage family estate is ground zero.
[SIDE NOTE / SPOILER ALERT – a few Christians I’ve run into have shared misgivings about seeing Get Out because they’ve been told there are occult influences. I would say that’s not true. Hypnotism is involved, but there are no channeling of spirits, no Ouija boards, no demonic manifestations. Get Out is primarily about racism and neurology.]
As a black man who who’s had to navigate mostly white spaces while married to a white woman, this film resonated for me big time. I’ve felt the awkwardness of being the only black person in a sea of white people, becoming the center of attention without asking for it. It’s no wonder that in his review, Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper dubbed the film, “Attack of the Well-Meaning White People.” Though heightened for dramatic and comic effect, I’ve experienced firsthand the kind of micro-aggressions depicted in Get Out. They are real, and exhausting.
Over time, these interactions can cloud your judgement, causing you to question your sense of reality. As black people, we’re constantly wondering, is this what I think it is? Or am I just being paranoid? In an era of “alternative facts,” where the POTUS speaks as though Frederick Douglass is still alive, Get Out resonates for black folks and other people of color because it serves as a respite of vindication against what feels like an onslaught of racial gaslighting. Over and over, Rose gives, in her conversations with Chris, typical, well-meaning white responses to black concerns over racial incidents, things like, “are you sure that’s what happened?” or “maybe this is just a misunderstanding?” In Get Out, the answers are clear: yes I am, and no it’s not.
A Neighboring Perspective
One of Jesus’ most famous parables resulted from a basic question: who is my neighbor? In His answer, Jesus revealed that the questioner’s perspective was shackled by his societal position as an expert in the law, seeking a loophole to justify his behavior.
This is why I think white evangelicals should go out and see it, because Get Out is an intense injection of critical perspective, especially for people who think they’ve got this race thing figured out. It’s no coincidence that Chris is a photographer, for his is quite literally the lens through which the viewer takes in the film. It captures a consistent, ominous sense of foreboding, followed by intense betrayal, which mirrors the way many black evangelicals like me continue to feel about many of our white counterparts. Trump and his election are only the latest example, but over and over, as we continue to experience racialized outcomes in criminal justice, health care and education, we end up feeling just like Chris. I thought we were neighbors, but when the stakes matter, this is how you treat me?
In the end, Get Out cannot heal the racial divide or fix America’s broken politics. And frankly, I’m mildly concerned about how popular it’s become, because without faith as an anchor, the takeaway from this film for some black people could be, see, that’s why you don’t trust white people. That’s not a lesson that will serve us well in the long run, because solving our biggest problems will require collaboration, which also requires trust.
But it’s my hope that evangelicals will go see it anyway, because a discerning screening of Get Out can spur us on to ask better questions help us become more invested in making sure our neighbors are treated justly no matter what their color.
More than anything else, Get Out demands an answer to the big question vexing our American experiment:
What can we do when getting out is not an option?