Nothing about movies makes me happier than a movie upending mainstream norms to take the box office by storm. There are a lot of big studio movies that I enjoy, but something about seeing the system turned upside down gives me more joy than a well-tailored blockbuster. By all conventional wisdom, Get Out, the new horror movie from Jordan Peele, should not be a hit. It should not have made $162 million domestically. For context, the next highest grossing horror movie with a similar budget in recent years was 2016’s Don’t Breathe, and that made $89 million.
There are a lot of reasons why Get Out has been so successful, not the least of which is how relevant it its subject matter seems on the surface. Get Out follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as she takes him home to meet her family. Rose is white, and Chris is black, but Rose thinks this is no big deal and hasn’t told her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keene). This bothers Chris, but he tries to play it cool. When they arrive, however, It’s pretty clear that something is different about Rose’s parents and the community they live in.
There will be spoilers later in this post, so if you don’t want anything spoiled, stop after this paragraph. But it’s not spoiling anything to say that the weirdness surrounding Rose’s family’s estate has everything to do with their whiteness and Chris’s blackness. At one point, Chris tells a friend on the phone about Rose’s parents and their friends, “They all act like they’ve never met a black person that hasn’t worked for them.”
This directness about the social experience of being a black man in a white world is refreshing and is surely one of the reasons why it has received such great word-of-mouth, and great word-of-mouth is surely the main reason it has been such a successful movie at the box office. It received great reviews (99% on Rotten Tomatoes, 84 on Metacritic), but critics can only have so much effect on audience turnout. Movies outside of established franchises need good reviews from the audiences themselves, and everyone who has turned out for Get Out has gone on to tell their friends that this wasn’t just a good movie, it was a movie they had to see.
And they have to see it, because it is such a unique movie-going experience. There have been plenty of good horror movies released lately, but few that deal so explicitly and effectively with social issues. Personally, I was tempted to be skeptical about how one of a kind Get Out truly was before I saw it. There’s not a shortage of socially conscious horror movies throughout movie history. Night of the Living Dead, the original zombie movie, and Candyman deal directly with race in sharp, striking ways. And two movies that director Jordan Peele cites as influences on Get Out, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, tackle gender equality by exposing a special kind of dread that can only be described as sociological anxiety.
Get Out makes use of the same kind of suspense as those latter two movies, slowly ratcheting up Chris’s paranoia as the weird event tally racks up around him. It’s too soon to compare writer-director Jordan Peele to a director like Roman Polanski (the director of Rosemary’s) or to a writer like Ira Levin (the author of both stories from which those movies were adapted), but Get Out is a truly astounding achievement. Its box office success is a triumph, but it’s more impressive that Get Out is a great movie.
Peele is clearly walking a tightrope. There is a scene near the end in which a black man clearly takes pleasure in shooting a white woman. I was forced to confront my own prejudices in this and in other scenes- seeing a black man do something violent to a white woman invoked a weird discomfort in me, more discomfort than I likely would have had seeing the reverse. I have to face the fact that I have that prejudiced inclination. This movie is full of such challenges to the status quo (read: whiteness), and it wears them with quality.
Get Out is not about to solve any problems or heal any wounds; the only things that can do that are people themselves and time (and God, but that’s another conversation for another post). But seeing this movie may be the first time some white people understand even in the slightest that being black is scary. That in itself is a great argument for diversity in the movie industry. The perspective of a black man like Jordan Peele offers an opportunity for a studio like Blumhouse Productions to expand the spectrum of the stories it tells. That is the lesson I hope other studios take from Get Out‘s massive success.
As my friends and I walked out of our showing of Get Out, someone walking ahead of us said, “I can’t believe we paid money to see that.” They were white, which may be incidental, but probably isn’t. It is hard to confront that your very race predisposes you to certain prejudices that yield barbarity, especially when you grow up in a world that works hard to teach you that it’s the other races that are barbaric. Not every white person is going to commit the kind of atrocities committed in Get Out, but every white person needs to deal with the fact that whiteness is a direct factor in a lot of atrocities.
There have been shitty white people in lots of movies, though, both in front of and behind the camera. The genius of Get Out isn’t in the racial dichotomy at the heart of its thrills, though that juxtaposition is fascinating. The genius is in the universality of Get Out’s white villainy. These villains aren’t Ku Klux Klansmen- they voted for Obama, they probably give money to social justice causes, and they probably enjoy political correctness. It would be easy to resent Get Out for making whiteness the villain, even if Peele was more specifically targeting white liberalism. It is more challenging to confront Get Out‘s central theme, that liberal moralizing is worthless, even dangerous, without first humanizing.