“What’s Actually Happening”: Looking for History in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”
By Ryan ColemanJune 24, 2020
Get Out by Jordan Peele and Tananarive Due
With Get Out: The Complete Annotated Screenplay, L.A.-based Inventory Press has made way for a deeper level of engagement with one of this century’s landmark popular texts. This svelte, softcover, pocket-sized volume memorializes Peele’s Oscar-winning script for the first time in print. Proceeding from a new foreword by Peele, 150 gorgeous black-and-white stills thread through the screenplay and into an appendix rich with brand-new material, including cut dialogue, deleted scenes, and Peele’s annotations on the whole production. But the Annotated Screenplay’s most ingenious intervention into the dense critical discourse around Get Out was to tap Tananarive Due to author its proper introduction, an essay titled “Get Out and the Black Horror Aesthetic.” Due is a leading scholar in the emerging study of Black horror, and even teaches a course at UCLA on the subject called “The Sunken Place.”
This new framing unlocks a deeper level of engagement with the film, inviting the reader to ask for themselves, “What’s actually happening?” That is the question that arises in response to a series of unsettling, racialized experiences Get Out’s protagonist Chris (Kaluuya) has over a weekend at his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family home. Chris’s attempt to connect with Andre (Lakeith Stanfield), the only other Black guest at a garden party thrown for the Armitages’ old white friends, goes horribly wrong. He begins to believe he may already know Andre, who’s not only acting strange, but is being called “Logan” by his shifty, much older white girlfriend. When Chris snaps a surreptitious picture, the flash momentarily suspends the hypnotic hold on Andre long enough for him to lunge into Chris’s face and scream, “Get out!” Chris doesn’t hesitate, taking off toward the edge of the Armitage property with Rose following close behind. Rose tries to backpedal on Chris’s mounting suspicion without giving herself away, asking, “What’s happening?” At the same time, intercut scenes reveal the party for what it actually is, a slave auction. Chris turns to her with an anguished mix of paranoia and disbelief on his face and says, “It’s not about what’s happening, it’s about what’s actually happening.”
It is the film’s most succinct moment of self-description, a disclosure of both Peele’s narrative ambition and the formal strategies utilized to achieve that ambition. Get Out’s cunning subversions reach past the conventional fodder of genre expectations, grasping at the racial ideologies that structure horror’s very core. Chris and Andre actually trust their instincts, abiding, as Peele says, by “Black common sense” rather than “horror-movie common sense.” They get out, repeatedly, only to end up in increasingly crushing versions of the same trap. The film’s white villains don’t instrumentalize loathing to control their Black targets, but love — wafer-thin admiration papered over a bottomless well of cultural insecurity and sociopathic self-abnegation. Here, the conventional logic of the horror allegory is collapsed: the monster is not a metaphor for whiteness, the monster is whiteness. It has been said that Get Out succeeds because it dispenses with all the conventional rules of horror filmmaking. It would be more accurate to say that Get Out cleaves to a different set of rules, rarely seen on horror screens — the rules of Black survival in a game of white supremacy.
This is the rule book of Black horror. In her definitive work on the genre, Horror Noire, Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman simply defines Black horror as “the story of Blackness, told through horror.” Black horror films aim to express the more inarticulable stories of African American life through the unique cinematographic and narrative technologies of the horror genre. “A genre that enables viewers to reframe true-life trauma on the screen as imaginary monsters and demons,” Due writes in her introduction, “is tailor-made for the Black American experience.”
To say nothing of how Black filmmakers have historically fared getting horror projects off the ground, Blackness fits into horror hand in glove. Horror has always been relegated to the ugly stepsister role in the family of film forms, passed over as too melodramatic for serious attention, yet derided for exploring the night side of human experience too directly. “To a remarkable extent,” high priestess of the feminist analysis of the horror film, Carol Clover, has written, “horror has come to seem to me not only the form that most obviously trades in the repressed, but itself the repressed of mainstream filmmaking.” But even the genre of the repressed operates under the house rules of the film establishment, predicated as they always have been on the dictates of white supremacy. Throughout film history, Black horror projects have faced a disproportionate amount of resistance at every stage of the process — passed over when they’re pitched, starved of resources when they’re greenlit, and restricted to limited runs when they’re released. (The calls, you could say, have not been coming from inside the house.) The result is a bottlenecked history, resplendent with some of the brightest gems in the whole genre, yet littered with as many corpses of the fantastic films that could have been.
Peele himself never invokes Black horror history in the annotations to the screenplay. The cinematic lineage he situates Get Out within again and again is that of the “social thriller,” a concept-driven subgenre whose imperial period coincided with the birth of New Hollywood. “[I]n the spirit of an Ira Levin story,” he writes, “we disguise the monster as something more common place, more relatable and almost comforting.” Peele’s guiding lights are the influential Levin adaptations Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975). He also makes reference to Halloween (1978), in the construction of the white-flight refuge of suburbia as a site of terror, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), of which he goes as far to call Get Out a “remake.”
Get Out is not a self-conscious work of Black horror in the way Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) was a self-conscious deconstruction of the slasher, even if Peele describes his film as “Scream for Black people” in the foreword. Get Out was not written under the direct influence of Black horror benchmarks like Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus (1941) or James Bond III’s Def by Temptation (1990). In this case, the influence exerts the opposite way. The Black horror frame Tananarive Due closes around the screenplay compels the reader to look past “Chris’ story on the surface,” as she writes, into “the deeper, and much older story underneath.” What resonances can be found across the long years, between Black horror’s grisly roots in the earliest experiments with motion picture technology, and Get Out becoming the highest-grossing original debut ever made? In the essay “Looking for Modernism,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. asked a similar question. How could Looking for Langston, a Black British film from 1989, yield more insight on the Harlem Renaissance than anything made by an American? He writes: “Our histories may be irretrievable, but they invite imaginative reconstruction.” Black horror history is there — it just takes a nudge like Get Out to turn around and face it.
Where do you begin to look for the history of Blackness, represented through the idiom of horror? In film, you can start before the very beginning. Film historian Donald Bogle once wrote of the origins of Black representation in American film, “In the beginning, there was an Uncle Tom.” It’s true that in 1903, a Black face appeared for the first time in American narrative cinema as the Tom character in an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the actor who portrayed Tom was in fact a white man in blackface, and either way, Black men had already been appearing in horror films, of sorts, for years.
In Horror Noire, Means Coleman writes about two 1898 films which contain some of the first images of Black people on film. The Edison Manufacturing Company’s Shooting Captured Insurgents and Biograph’s An Execution by Hanging were both short, single-subject documentaries. They were also both snuff films. Insurgents consisted of “real footage of four White soldiers executing four Black men,” while Biograph “hailed Execution, which documented the hanging death of a Black man in a Jacksonville, Florida jail, as the only live hanging ever captured on film.” The first Black men in film were murdered, and the first Black man portrayed on film was actually white. As Due observes in her introduction, “Black History is Black Horror.”
The first popular film to treat Blackness with horror, rather to treat Blackness as horror, was D. W. Griffith’s epic revisionist history of the horrors of Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation. Released in 1915, Birth did for American cinema what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for American letters — emblazon upon the firmament of the medium a set of archetypes so pejorative and grotesque, yet so forcefully projected, that you can detect traces of struggle against them in a film like Get Out, made over 100 years later. In the first dinner Chris has at the Armitage home, Rose’s lusty, unhinged brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) asks Chris: “You ever get into street fights as a kid? […] ’Cause with your frame, your genetic makeup? If you really pushed your body […] you’d be a fucking beast.” Jeremy crosses an unspoken racial fault line, invoking a centuries-old tradition of racist phenotyping and sexual projection that found its last, most vigorously complete articulation in Birth. Jeremy calls forth and projects onto Chris the specter of the “buck,” a savage and hyper-sexualized archetype personified by Birth’s Gus, an emancipated slave (portrayed again by a white man in blackface) driven insane by a lust for white women. The buck paints a picture of uncontainable Black male sexuality in order to justify its boundless extermination. But by hewing the film’s perspective so close to Chris’s subjectivity, Get Out repels remarks like Jeremy’s back onto him. Their innate savagery and mindlessness are disarticulated from the Black man beneath the buck archetype and replaced where they belong, with the projector.
Get Out hails Black horror history in one way by recapitulating hateful, 20th-century visions of Blackness. As the genre moved into the 21st century, the old “pantheon of Black gods and goddesses,” in Bogle’s words, was heavily reworked and at times thrown out altogether by a new wave of independent Black filmmakers. Figures like Pam Grier, Ernest Dickerson, and Duane Jones destabilized the legitimacy of those early archetypes by presenting bold new visions of Blackness that could be seen, as Means Coleman puts it, “as mature, God-fearing and otherwise resistant to evil, whole and full, wise and aged, in full combat against evil, and at or near the center of constructions of goodness.”
Get Out signaled the arrival of a new era of Black horror. Like the hall of mirrors in Peele’s latest feature, Us, 21st-century Black horror reflects not just the funhouse distortions of a period where Black images were held hostage by white image-makers, but also the revolutionary shadows cast during the period of fervent Black horror filmmaking that followed. Means Coleman draws a direct link between Chris and the character who kicked off (and died for) Black horror’s first renaissance — Ben, the stalwart protagonist from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), played by Duane Jones. “When Chris lives in the end, that’s Ben’s justice,” she writes. Get Out’s twist on the mad science subgenre echoes the “Hard-Core Convert” segment of Rusty Cundieff’s visceral and prescient anthology film Tales from The Hood (1995). The film’s musical leitmotif “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” meaning “listen to your ancestors” in Kiswahili, recalls the score of Bill Gunn’s 1973 arthouse masterpiece Ganja & Hess.
This month would have seen the release of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake, but Universal pushed the premiere out to September due to COVID-19. Peele co-wrote the script with DaCosta (and Win Rosenfeld) and is executive producing through his company Monkeypaw Productions, in partnership with MGM. The 1992 original was a popular but controversial entry in the saga of ’90s Black horror. The news that DaCosta had signed on to reimagine it constituted a boon to the repressed, of the repressed, of the repressed genre — Black women horror filmmakers. Peele’s involvement also enacts on an industry level something similar to what Get Out performed on an individual level. Five years after Candyman premiered, its most criminally underused costar, Kasi Lemmons, went on to write and direct the magnificent Eve’s Bayou (1997), a horror-tinged opus of Black women’s storytelling. With the new Candyman, it’s as if DaCosta has been summoned to bring justice for Lemmons’s unjustly slain character Bernadette in the same way Chris avenged Duane Jones’s Ben. The repressed, the great scholar of the horror film Robin Wood once noted, always finds a way of returning.
Ryan Coleman was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, where he writes fiction and film criticism.
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