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“Why Black People?”: Horror and Comedy in Jordan Peele’s Get Out

Although horror and comedy may seem to be polar opposites on the emotion spectrum, film fans know better. A 2014 Flavorwire article on the enduring appeal of horror comedies like Young Frankenstein (1974) observes that “laughter and fear are two of the most visceral reactions we can have to events on a movie screen.” (1)

Such a symbiotic relationship makes it perfectly logical that comedian Eddie Murphy would partly inspire Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy hit Get Out. Anyone who grew up watching Murphy’s Delirious on repeat in the 1980s remembers the bit when the ghostly voice tells the family to “get out” and Murphy quips, “Too bad we can’t stay, baby.”

The segment takes on a decidedly less humorous tone when one considers how rarely black folks show up in mainstream horror films and how frequently they are the first ones to be killed, often unceremoniously, without even being named. In fact, the site Black Horror Movies.com has a section called “Dying Young” which asks, “If there were no black people, who would die in horror movies?” (2)

Yet African-Americans make up a larger percentage of the horror film audience than white folks. A 2015 Nielsen report notes that “horror fans… are 15% more likely to be African-American” (3) while a Movio survey indicates that “16% of ticket-buyers are African-American versus 12% for an average movie.” (4) It should not be a shock then, that as of 8 June, Get Out has grossed a staggering $251m worldwide and on a budget of $45m, no less. (5)

The plot is deceptively simple: a young couple – Chris Washington and Rose Armitage (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams) – have been dating a few months and the time has finally come for Chris to meet Rose’s parents. Chris is nervous because he is black and Rose is white and he’s unsure how her family will react.

On its face, this could be the set up for a broad Farrelly Brothers comedy or even a particularly obnoxious sitcom. What makes Get Out different is the way in which Peele (who wrote and directed) makes everything seem utterly normal… until it’s not. Indeed, as the film progresses, it becomes the furthest thing from normal that one could imagine.

To call Get Out a horror-comedy is a bit of a misnomer because there hasn’t been a film quite like it before. While structurally it follows a similar path to 2015s The Invitation – right down to the wounded deer, mysterious cult, and indoctrination videos – the racial aspect transforms it into something utterly original.

Get Out also doesn’t feel like the more-funny-than-scary Ghostbusters, nor does it fit within the umbrella of over-the-top gore plus laughs movies like Deathgasm or Evil Dead. The tone is not unlike the Key & Peele comedy sketch “Pizza Order,” in which a stereotypical loner nerd pretends to orders a pizza for a group of friends. When his lies about how many people are at his apartment spiral out of control, things quickly get dark and uncomfortable.

And so it is with Get Out. That isn’t to say that the more sinister elements at play in the movie don’t reveal themselves immediately; they do, in an opening scene when a young black man is abducted from a well-manicured suburban neighborhood by a man wearing a mask. Why this is important will not be revealed until well into the movie, but it’s enough of a jolt to make audiences realize that this isn’t the latest installment of the Scary Movie franchise.

Although Get Out fits somewhat uncomfortably in the horror-comedy pantheon, it doesn’t shortchange audiences on horror imagery. The visual tropes of horror are present, from the lighting to the framing to the music cues, even though they are window dressing for the true horror of the narrative. That said, the “sunken place” is brought to terrifying life in a genuinely spooky and masterful way.

On the other hand, many of the film’s comedic elements come from Chris’s best friend Rod, who is physically removed from the film’s horror even as he is narratively significant to the way it plays out. It’s clear that Rod is the guy who will say the most outrageous things just to get a laugh, and when things in the film become grim, Rod will make an appearance to ease some of the tension.

More complex is the humor in the scenes with Rose’s parents (Dean and Missy). When Rose’s Dad tells Chris to “call me Dean, my man,” his attempt at sounding like he’s “down” is cringeworthy; when he brings up how he would have voted for Obama a third time (even though Rose has already told Chris he’d probably say that), it definitely generates a massive eyeroll.

Creepier is the scene when Chris and Rose tell Dean and Missy that their car accidentally hit a deer on the way over. Dean’s response is flat-out disturbing, and not just for animal rights advocates. “I say, one down a couple hundred thousand more to go,” he states, “They’re taking over; they’re like rats… they’re destroying the ecosystem.” Those who have heard similar sentiments expressed about immigrants or people of color, or even the nauseating turn of phrase “those people,” will find the message to be alarmingly clear.

Later, when a large group of well-to-do white people show up, the comments become even more egregious. One man, a former professional golfer, is certain to tell Chris how much he loves Tiger Woods, while in another scene a woman gives Chris the up and down look and fondles his bicep after asking a not so subtle question about the stereotype of the well-endowed African-American man. For anyone who has gone to a family gathering where his or her partner is the only person of color present that isn’t hired help, these scenes are not only revolting, but dead-on accurate.

Of course, the real horrors of Get Out are not racist innuendoes but the fact that they are all pointing to what is really going on: the auctioning of black bodies to the highest bidder. It’s slavery, pure and simple. It begins with mental enslavement through Missy’s hypnosis and then leads to physical enslavement of the most horrific and insidious kind: brain surgery in which the personalities of white folks are transplanted into black bodies.

The Film School Rejects review of Get Out takes issue with the hypnosis angle, but what this analysis fails to consider is the long history of magic – specifically voodoo – in films with African-American characters. (6)

In Robin R. Means Coleman’s 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, she elucidates how the African religion has been frequently used in horror films to depict black people as “savage, evil Voodoo practitioners chancing ‘ooo-ga boo-gawhile whipping themselves around in a frenzied Voodoo dance to the cadence of jungle music (drumming),” listing examples from as far back as 1932’s White Zombie (1932) to more recent examples like Angel Heart (1987), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), and even Predator 2 (1990). (7) The evil magic performed in Get Out is psychology, or what Coleman might refer to as “white science.” This flips the script and centers the locus of evil in white supremacy instead of African religious traditions.

By manipulating black folks via hypnosis, the Armitage family is then able to perform more invasive experiments on their brains. While Film School Rejects seems to categorize the surgery reveal as “a tried and true genre trope” that Peele “bungles… with illogical, nonsensical details,” those familiar with real-life experiments on African-Americans will immediately grasp the similarities. (6)

Many people are have heard of the Tuskegee experiments, a 40-year study in suffering in which African-American men infected with syphilis were not only purposely not informed of their disease, but also not given treatment, and thus allowed to die painful and completely avoidable deaths. A 2012 report from New African lists even more atrocities, most of which are too gruesome to be listed here and some of which continued into the 1990s. (8)

From medical experimentation to gaslighting and police brutality, from miscegenation to the myth of the “black buck” and beyond, it’s astonishing how much ground Get Out covers. Considering the history and legacy of racism and in the African-American experience, it’s astonishing the film wasn’t made already, even though a consideration of the issues the film examines reveals exactly why it hasn’t been made before.

In one of the early scenes in the movie, Chris is shown shaving in his bathroom while the Childish Gambino song “Stay Woke” plays. This is part of the lesson that Get Out seeks to teach its audience. As Peele himself remarks in the one of the featurettes included on the Blu-ray, he hopes it will spark an important conversation about race amongst white people and black people. Hopefully part of this conversation will center on the idea that when people of color talk about their personal experiences with racism, we should believe them.

For many, Get Out will be eye-opening. Not only are the horrors of racism laid bare in a way that is shockingly believable, it also reveals how dangerous the myth of the “post-racial society” has become.

Get Out was released on Blu-ray on 23 May 2017 and comes in a combo pack which includes several special features. The commentary track from Jordan Peele is informative and funny; if there are any references viewers may have missed, including those to the horror movies that inspired Get Out, Peele does an outstanding job of pointing them out. The disc also includes deleted scenes (with commentary), including six different takes of the ending where Rod shows up in the TSA car (all of which are hilarious).

There is also a featurette called “Unveiling the Horror of Get Out” a behind the scenes look at making the movie and a brief Q&A discussion hosted by Chance the Rapper with Peele and the cast.

Perhaps the most valuable bonus feature, however, is the alternate ending, which should appeal to those who prefer their horror movies to end on the bleakest note possible.

The only problem with the disc is the annoying menu screen that forces viewers to sit through several trailers unless one is quick enough to get to the “menu” button using a remote control. It’s a frustrating process and totally unnecessary.

Works Cited:

Bailey, Jason. “Young Frankenstein and the Enduring Appeal of the Horror Comedy.” Flavorwire, 14 September 2014, http://flavorwire.com/476251/young-frankenstein-and-the-enduring-appeal-of-the-horror-comedy. Accessed 27 June 2017.

“Dying Young: Black Character Deaths in Horror Movies.” BlackHorrorMovies.com, http://www.blackhorrormovies.com/dying-young-black-character-deaths-horror-movies/. Accessed 27 June 2017.

“Frightful Fans: The Profile of Horror Movie Lovers.” Nielsen.com, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/frightful-fans-the-profile-of-horror-movie-lovers.html. Accessed 27 June 2017.

Lang, Brent, “Horror Movies Make Tough Times Less Scary for Studios,” Film News, Variety, 26 October 2016, http://variety.com/2016/film/news/horror-movies-1201900551/. Accessed 27 June 2017.

“Get Out,” Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=blumhouse2.htm. Accessed 27 June 2017.

Hunter, Rob, “Review – ‘Get Out’ Brings the Funny But Fumbles Some of the Serious,” Movie Reviews, Film School Rejects, 24 February 2017, https://filmschoolrejects.com/review-get-out-695e99fc6a05/. Accessed 27 June 2017.

Coleman, Robin R. Means. “The Birth of the Black Boogeyman: Pre-1930s,” Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. Routledge, 2011.

Goffe, Leslie, “How the US Government used Black people as guinea pigs,” News and Analysis, New African Magazine, October 2012, http://newafricanmagazine.com/medical-scandal. Accessed 27 June 2017.

 

About Less Lee Moore

Less Lee Moore fell in love with weird music and movies during countless hours spent watching Night Flight and listening to college radio as an impressionable teenager. She is the founder of Popshifter, and also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop, Modern Horrors & more. She has a degree in Film Studies from UCSB and a Hannibal tattoo.

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