SPOILER ALERT: This article contains major spoilers, PLEASE GET OUT NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.
I am a fan of horror movies. As a teenager I used to sneak and watch films such as Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Puppetmaster, and Poltergeist. I was drawn to the supernatural invading the lives of solidly middle class white people. As I got older I continued to watch horror as the genre evolved and moved away from the narrative of shaking up solidly middle class white lives to psychological thrillers that conjured up their worst nightmares. But for the last 25 years of my life that I have watched horror films, one thing has remained constant, the centering of whiteness that occurs in horror. We’ve been granted a few American horror films that center blackness and make us confront our troubled history, such as Blacula, Candyman and Tales from the Hood. Here blackness is not interested in maintaining a middle-class status or comfort, but in what Toni Morrison in Beloved calls “rememory,” defined as a recollection of what was forgotten. These films depend on rememory and recollecting the blood and gore that is connected to black bodies and personhood in the past and the present. In the end of these films, there is a sense of survival for the black person and for blackness. But these films account for few of the genre’s output. The genre is steeped in the narratives of white lives and the maintenance of the middle class–which can also be synonymous with whiteness. White people and whiteness survives in the genre as people of color get systematically plucked off and sacrificed to the horror movie gods. Even when the white person is near death and the foreboding presence is still at large, he or she survives and comes back in the sequel to tell their story again. This is not the case with Get Out, the latest release in the genre. The directorial debut from Jordan Peele turns the genre on its head and gives us the reciprocity on the reel that we’ve so desperately wanted in reality.
The film follows interracial couple, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), as they visit Rose’s family’s estate. The Armitage’s are neo-horror movie gold with father Dean (Bradley Whitford) as the performatively liberal neurosurgeon, mother Missy (Catherine Keener) the ever-present psychotherapist, son Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) a mad medical school student, and daughter Rose who has no other occupation that we know of outside of entrapping black men. In this Hitchcockian-turn on the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plot, Chris is the black subject in a white world of purported liberalism and is, in the spirit of W.E.B Du Bois, measuring his soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. The Armitages and their friends are looking upon him in amused contempt, pity and, interestingly enough, desire for what his and other’s blackness can grant them. They want to run faster, be cooler, and have access to the vitality that the black body and the genetics of the race offer. And so the movie plays out, making Chris a vessel in waiting to be penetrated by whiteness and made truly acceptable in the eyes of whiteness.
Chris’s journey to being filled by whiteness is a winding road of hit and runs, rubbernecking, and fatalities that almost result in him being added to the body count until he literally takes up the master’s tools in order to save his life. Chris succeeds where many before him in the genre have failed, by killing before being killed and being the last black man standing. Yet his standing as a survivor is not assured to us until the film gives us one last scare in the form of a police car pulling up to the scene of him near a white woman’s ailing body. This is when the audience is sure that this is Chris’s demise. The black man is about to meet his end at the hands of the police, an age-old story for black people in America. But Jordan Peele grants us a reprieve from reality when the door swings open to reveal Chris’s best friend Rod (LiLrel Howery), a TSA agent with next-level detective skills who comes to save the day. This was a reprieve but a slight letdown for me.
As a fan of horror films I am accustomed to endings that are messy, endings where the foreboding figure opens his or her eyes before the movie cuts to the credits and lets you know that it’s far from over. Given this, the neat ending of Get Out that has Chris and Rod riding off into the moonlight was jarring. I was ready for Chris to be slammed down to the ground and beaten within an inch of his life, possibly even killed, because that’s what I am accustomed to in the genre of horror and the horror of being black in America. Chris wasn’t supposed to get away with slaying this solidly white upper middle class family even though he had just cause. There is no world where Chris could do what he did with impunity, not in the tradition of the horror genre as historically conceived and surely not in reality. Yet Jordan Peele constructs such a world with Get Out, a world where the old rules of the genre don’t apply. In Peele’s world of horror blackness survives with very little trace of its antagonist surviving in its path of destruction. In this world the last face we see is that of two black men who survived against all odds and drive away while a dead white body lies unattended in the street for what will certainly be hours if not days. In this world Peele joins Blacula, Candyman, Tales from the Hood and other black-centered horror films to disrupt the trajectory of the genre and de-center whiteness.
Peele grants viewers, especially black ones, the kind of reprieve we’ve been hoping for as citizens of a world hell-bent on ensuring that our lived experience is one of horror and not happy endings. It’s not an ending everyone wants, and even Peele had an alternate ending that more closely mirrored reality, but it is the ending that many needed. I sensed just how much it was needed the second time I saw the film.
The first time I saw Get Out was with a predominantly white audience in an affluent part of Atlanta. Their reaction to the ending was reserved, not an eruption of cheers and applause but also not dead silence. I read their affirmation of Chris’s victory more as a concession to the narrative arc of the film rather than welcoming a reprieve from reality. Yet, the second time I saw Get Out, with a predominantly black audience in a solidly middle class part of Atlanta, the reaction to the ending felt different. When the police car pulled up guttural groans filled the theatre and everyone braced themselves for what they thought would happen next. But when the car door swung open to reveal the letters TSA, the theatre exhaled and erupted into applause and cheers that felt like more than a concession to the plot. Instead it was a signal of collective relief and gratitude for being able to see what it looks like when someone truly makes a black life matter. As I sat there surrounded by such a community of witnesses situated at a distance from whiteness, my reaction changed. I too exhaled, erupted into applause and cheered. I also got emotional and teared up because of how far we had to come to survive the horror that centers whiteness and how far we have yet to go in the genre and in reality.
Nicole Symmonds is Senior Editor of Sacred Matters and a PhD student in Ethics & Society at Emory University. Her research interests are virtue ethics, sexuality and culture, and ethnography. Her website can be accessed here and she can be followed at @nicolesymmonds.