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Fear of a White Village

by Ross Douthat

In Get Out, a horror movie and race-relations satire that’s become the surprise hit of the season, there is, shall we say, a great deal going on. The movie’s premise is basically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Rosemary’s Baby, in which a gracious white family welcomes their daughter and her black boyfriend to their country home . . . and gradually he realizes that they have something unguessably monstrous planned for him.

As conceived and directed by Jordan Peele, half of the popular sketch-comedy duo Key and Peele, the plot of Get Out turns on two of-the-moment racial anxieties — the black fear that whites will always find a way to exploit and brutalize “black bodies” (to borrow the locution of Ta-Nehisi Coates), and the white fear of ethno-cultural displacement, of a future that belongs to “other people’s babies” (to borrow the words of Iowa congressman Steve King) while whiteness gets swallowed up in death.

The black body at the center of Get Out belongs to Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented photographer with a white girlfriend, Rose (the WASP-y Allison Williams, co-star of Girls and daughter of a certain fabulism-inclined network anchor), who gets invited to a weekend with her folks in an unspecified bucolic community, the sort of place where everybody complains about how nobody does anything about the deer.

Chris is a little uneasy about the trip — they’ve been dating five months, but she hasn’t told her parents that he’s black, and his buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery) keeps busting his chops with jokes about how bad it’s going to be. But if anything, it seems as if the main thing he has to fear is white-liberal overcompensation. Rose is the sort of woke young thing who berates a cop who asks for Chris’s ID, her dad (Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame) is the aggressively friendly sort who wants Chris to know that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he’d had the chance, and her mom (Catherine Keener) wears loose-fitting outfits and offers understanding smiles and a therapist’s wisdom to her potential son-in-law.

There are just a few things that don’t quite fit. First are the servants, Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel): a black couple, a groundskeeper and housekeeper, who seem to belong more to the world of The Help than to that of the enlightened liberal bourgeoisie and whose mien is awkward, robotic, servile, strange. (They took care of Rose’s grandparents, it’s explained, and stayed on after the old folks passed because they were practically members of the family.) Then there is Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), unkempt and combative, who drinks too much at dinner and makes a lot of strange comments about Chris’s athletic build. Then there is the offer to have the therapist mom do a little hypnosis on Chris, ostensibly to cure his cigarette addiction — an offer Chris declines at first and then takes up late at night, when she catches him sneaking out for a smoke.

The hypnosis is a very strange trip, and so is the entire next day, which brings a collection of jovial white people to the house for some sort of vaguely defined reunion; they, too, like Jeremy, can’t stop making peculiar comments about Chris as a physical specimen, along with other strange remarks about how black is cool and the future belongs to blackness.

It’s weirder even than the white awkwardness he expected, and weirder still is Chris’s encounter with the reunion’s lone black guest (Lakeith Stanfield), a skinny twentysomething with a white dowager on his arm and the clothes and manners of a doddering preppy, who after several awkward interactions suddenly has a break or fit that ends with him grabbing Chris by the shoulders and screaming the movie’s title, with about a dozen exclamation points attached.

And get out is what Chris finally tries to do, with what seems like the willing assistance of the baffled Rose . . . but of course he’s in a horror movie, his white hosts have a plan to appropriate his blackness that’s rather more literal than the usual uses of the term, and the only way to actually escape is through a slasher-flick-level bloodletting, which the last act of Get Out gleefully delivers.

If this climax is grisly, it’s also silly, and the movie succeeds because it manages to have things both ways across the board. On the one hand, its premise touches all the live wires of race in a think-piece-ready way, letting critics reference Trayvon Martin and Between the World and Me while they lavish it with praise. On the other, its plot is so ridiculous that it also works as a send-up of race-related anxieties, wringing a kind of absurd comedy out of Coatesian fears and alt-rightish racial fixations alike.

The movie also succeeds because it’s simply stuffed with clever race-related details. Watch how Rose eats her Froot Loops; listen to her dad’s disquisition on his family’s interesting relationship to Jesse Owens; wait for the crucial roles played by a tuft of cotton and the antlers of a buck; meditate on the fact that Chris’s prescient pal, Rod, works for the TSA.

You can argue back and forth about the deep political message of the movie, how seriously it takes its own horrifying flight of fancy. But one message comes through loud and clear: As a filmmaker, Jordan Peele is smart.

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