‘Get Out’ + The Evolution of Race in Western Horror Films

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As Gore Verbinski and many auteurs have eloquently explained, good horror should reflect contemporary, societal anxieties. And yet up until now, nuanced depictions of race in the genre have mostly failed to enter the mainstream.

That’s where Jordan Peele’s Get Out comes in. A clever tale of benevolent, liberal middle-class racism, this directorial debut from Peele has managed to rake in $30 million at the box office on a $4.5 million budget, and even holds a 99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and A- rating on CinemaScore – the former a rare feat for any movie, and the latter practically unheard of for horrors in particular.

Walking out of the theatre, I was still reeling from the sheer terror I felt. I found myself nudging my homie and whispering, “Yo, fuck white people.” Not that I’m racist or anything. In fact, cinemathread’s editor-in-chief and many of my friends are white. (Sound familiar?)

All kidding aside, this thriller displayed a keen awareness of horror’s most insipid tropes, deftly manipulated and re-rendered to explore a sticky topic that no one much likes being preached to about: race.

The basic premise of the movie, like a lot of horror, is kind of ridiculous on first glance: Chris, a black male, is traveling to stay at his caucasian girlfriend Rose’s parents place to meet them for the first time. And Rose hasn’t yet revealed to her parents that Chris is black. Any person with half a brain will surmise that shit’s going down as soon as they get to her parents’ house. Chris’ friend, Rod, warns him that a bunch of black people have gone missing in that suburb. Chris, though at first dismissive, quickly learns he’ll need to race to avoid the same fate as the oddly-behaving black folks the family has on staff as domestic help. But all is chill, at first. They need to get to Rose’s parents’ place before anything bad will happen. Right?

But as any black person or darker-skinned individual will know, it doesn’t take an exceptional confluence of circumstances before minorities meet with prejudiced encounters. While making the journey to Rose’s parents’ place, Chris and Rose hit a deer and a cop surveying accident asks for Chris’ driver license, even though, as Rose rightly points out, he wasn’t the one driving.

…it doesn’t take an exceptional confluence of circumstances before minorities meet with prejudiced encounters.

Chris, aware that putting up a fight is risky business for a black male, quickly reaches for his ID to comply, while Rose refuses to let Chris show him his ID. It’s moments like these, which Peele weaves throughout the movie, that so expertly illustrate the privilege that most white people typically operate with, and the injustices black people and other minorities are often up against. Rose doesn’t feel the deep-seated fear that the black community has inherited as a result of well-documented and well-publicized police brutality they are often the targets of. She claps back at the officer, calling his tactic bullshit. The officer lets them go.

As they finally arrive at their destination, Rose’s parents, Missy and Dean, greet the couple happily. Dean gives Chris a hug accompanied with a “My man!” – delivered with the cadence of a man who’s probably watched way too much Denzel Washington. The family learns that Chris is a smoker. Rose’s mother, a psychiatrist, offers her hypnotherapy services to help him quit. Chris says no (duh), but it all goes downhill from here, ‘cause – surprise! – She does it anyway.

Dangerous middle-class liberal, Missy Armitage / Get Out

Amongst other disturbing incidents, we learn about the devastating loss of Rose’s grandfather in a race against Jesse Owens, a black athlete, at the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany. Also floating throughout the movie are unnecessary comments like “I would’ve voted for Obama a third term if I could,” and a relative of Rose’s, unprompted, tells Chris he loves to golf and thinks highly of Tiger Woods. Another grabs onto and caresses his arm, seemingly impressed with his physical stature (and, as implied multiple times by various caucasian characters, his “genetic makeup.”) These “microaggressions” continue to underscore what we already know from the trailer: as well intentioned as they are seemingly portrayed at first, Rose’s family is racist as fuck. And, they’re running a hypnosis and transmutification operation whereby blacks are taken in and their bodies taken over by white people desirous of their superior “genetic makeup.” WTF?!

Get Out resonates because as ridiculous as the movie’s premise is, the microaggressions meant to build up toward the film’s big reveal happen to reflect the daily awkward, infuriating interactions many minorities (and especially black people) have with ignorant people today. And it’s the cautious reaction of the Chris as he tries to navigate the constant barrage of misplaced comments that mirrors the restlessness and self-doubt many minorities harbor as they struggle to deal with these interactions too, IRL. As they do in the movie, the racist, ignorant interactions minorities have to deal with continue to go on, mostly unchecked.

A Brief History of Race in Western Horror

So what took so long for Hollywood to back a film that actually does mirror the racialized climate of modern society? Since the advent of moving pictures, filmmakers have always been inclined to depict the anxieties of their time, and yet black people and minorities have historically served as comic relief, one-dimensional symbols of danger, or disposable characters whose deaths serve as dramatic fodder for the survival of the protagonist(s).

Looking at the root of fear itself, one thing is clear: it’s human nature to be afraid of what is unfamiliar. Before films, gothic horror authors like Mary Shelley tapped into this fear with novels like Frankenstein. While monsters, vampires, goblins, and mythical creatures are easy manifestations of “the other” – beings so alien to behold that they terrify us – black, foreign, and any cultures not understood by the majority could easily serve in the same capacity.

White Zombie

And they certainly did. Traveling back to the 1930s and 40s we saw zombie movies first emerge. Rooted in racist, western notions of Haitian vodou practices, films like White Zombie (1932) exploited these beliefs with depictions replete with evil voodoo masters and enslaved zombie natives. In films such as these, whites were superior beings impervious to evil, while natives were to remain morally ambiguous.

It was in 1968 that we saw the first black male lead in a horror movie, in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. At the time it was a big deal – a black man as the protagonist who saves other people? Coupled with a white female? Whaaaa? But, guess what? He still dies in the end. And as Ashlee Blackwell notes in this excellent post, Romero’s casting of Jones for the role was done  “with no foresight of radical inclusivity. Its legacy and commentary on race were purely coincidental.” Night of the Living Dead, did, however, spawn many more iterations in which the lead was a black male, which was certainly a step in the right direction in terms of diversifying representation in film. But did they do much to tackle race and relations head-on?

In the 70s (and 80s) as we saw the advent of the slasher phase and the well-known trope of black characters rarely surviving, we also saw the 70s give rise to blaxploitation horror films. Blacula (1972) is perhaps the most famous example. In Blacula, an 18th-century African prince is turned into a vampire and locked in a coffin after he tries and fails to convince Count Dracula to help fight the slave trade.

Blacula

We also began seeing the trend of the haunted Indian burial ground as a recurring motif emerging in films like Amityville Horror (1979), and in adaptations of Stephen King novels like Stanley Kubrick’s seminal The Shining (1980) and Pet Sematary (1989). Yet, while the burial grounds are pivotal parts of the films’ premises, diving into actual Native American history or relations is conveniently sidestepped.

In the 90s, we saw films like Candyman (1992) and Tales from the Hood (1995). Candyman saw mainstream success, and its brutal antagonist was one who – given a complex background undeniably driven by racialized tragedy – was one audiences could actually have sympathy for. The latter, an African American horror anthology tackling topics such as police brutality, corruption, racism, and gang violence, went on to become a cult hit.

Entering into the 21st century, horror films continue to expand on contemporary concerns. From religious persecution in The Witch (2016) to sexuality in It Follows (2014) and women’s welfare and humanism in 28 Days Later (2002) – the genre has shown it’s apt for taking on themes that challenge the viewer’s thinking.

Indeed, as a mirror for our contemporary anxieties, the horror genre has breathtaking potential. But with its near-default dichotomy of good-versus-evil, it’s often difficult for the genre to tackle sticky topics with nuance. Still, has good filmmaking ever been easy? Studios take should a hint from Peele’s success and dare to finance films that are more cognizant of broader societal concerns. While the rousing reception of the film (and the corresponding big bucks the film has made) should be enough of an incentive, it may be too soon yet to know what legacy Get Out will leave behind.

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