Woke Up Screaming: The Get Out Roundtable
Musicians, comedians, film programmers and writers discuss Jordan Peele's smash-hit "social thriller"
Jordan Peele’s “social thriller” Get Out was one of the year’s biggest, and unlikeliest, cinematic success stories. A horror movie from a first-time African American writer-director who is best known as a comedian, made on a tiny budget of $5 million, the film has gone on to receive nearly universal critical acclaim and an astonishing return on investment, with box-office receipts closing in on $200 million.
A major factor in the film’s success, of course, is its audacious premise (inevitable spoilers ahead). Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) apprehensively agrees to go with his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to spend a weekend at the large rural estate of her wealthy parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), his unease heightened by the fact that Rose has not yet informed her folks that Chris is black. At least some of Chris’ expectations are realized when the warm welcome he receives from the Armitages is accompanied by a host of oblivious, white-liberal microaggressions, which fly thicker and faster when a coterie of equally white, liberal and monied friends of the family show up for a big annual get-together. More disturbing undercurrents become evident as the festivities continue, and, as it must, the Sinister Truth emerges: the Armitages are the leaders of a secret community that kidnaps young black men and implants their bodies with the brains of their aging, white and wealthy clientele.
Peele’s premise is so instantly graspable and so metaphorically rich that it is little wonder it has become the cinematic conversation piece of the moment (though the feminist/not-feminist new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale looks like it’s taking over that mantle for the second quarter of 2017). With Get Out poised to win big at the MTV Movie Awards tomorrow night, we gathered panelists from the worlds of music, comedy, film writing and film programming to discuss the film, its cultural and economic impact, and what different audiences … well, get out of it.
Brandon Hackett is a comedy writer and performer with The Sketchersons and Second City. @brandonhackett
Peter Kuplowsky is the programmer of Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival. @PeterKapow
Liisa Ladouceur is a freelance writer, broadcast journalist and researcher/producer, and author of the books Encyclopedia Gothica and How to Kill a Vampire. @LiisaLadouceur
Shaka Licorish is an International Associate Programmer at Hot Docs.@PLAYINGwithCRAYONS
Rollie Pemberton (a.k.a. Cadence Weapon) is a rapper, producer, writer, and former Edmonton Poet Laureate. @cadenceweapon
ROLLIE: So to start off, for the horror-movie experts here, I have a horror-movie question: what is it about movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining that allows them to cross over into the mainstream the way that Get Out has? Because I feel like there’s something in the shared DNA of those movies that has helped make them really mainstream-popular.
PETER: I think one of the things that Get Out shares with movies like Rosemary’s Baby is that an audience can immediately recognize that this is not just scary, this is identifiable — this is a relatable scenario. The situation in Rosemary’s Baby is that a woman — a pregnant woman — is realizing that no one is understanding what is happening to her. And that is something that is relatable to an audience in a way that a more specific social-political allegory — as in (terrific movie) something like Night of the Living Dead — is not. Here, it feels a lot more tangible and palpable. And like any good genre film, it knows when to pull the rug out from under you and upset those expectations — and not disappoint you that it is upsetting those expectations, but delight you. And that’s exactly what Get Out does.
ANDREW: That’s one of the most interesting things about the film, because for the first half or more it does feel so realistic. It’s this catalogue of racially-charged microaggressions, and then suddenly, there’s this leap into an utterly fantastic, outrageous Evil Scheme. But at the same time, that almost documentary tone in the first half of the film makes the leap feel kind of … natural?
SHAKA: I have a question for you guys [indicates white people on panel] — and I’m asking you because you’re white: were you offended by the film?
WHITE PEOPLE: [emphatically] No.
SHAKA: Okay! I only ask because I was reading that apparently some people were offended, maybe just by the plot description: “Black guy goes on a rampage and kills all these white people.” And I’m like, “Buuuuuuuuttt……”
PETER: I think that comes from people who aren’t necessarily engaging with the movie…
LIISA: Haven’t seen it, more like it.
ROLLIE: I think the people that are saying that, tweeting that, just watched the trailer or something.
LIISA: I think they’re just using it to rant about something that they’re already upset about, like around the time when Dear White People came out.
ANDREW: I think what white audiences certainly get out of the film is that they themselves can be or have been guilty of the kind of microaggressions that figure so much in the first part of the film.
SHAKA: You would hope!
ROLLIE: I think even more so now, because when I was watching this movie the first time, I felt like it was one of the first times I’d seen this depicted in a film: the way that these comments and actions just kind of peck away at him over time. One of my favourite bits in the movie is the cell phone thing: he finds that his phone got unplugged and he’s like, “Somebody deliberately unplugged my phone!” I love how something that could seem so minor becomes a major plot point. Seriously, as a black man, I’ve been there, where I’ve thought, “Is this all in my head, did it actually happen? Was that racist?”
LIISA: Most of the things that unsettle you in the movie are those little things. I went to see this movie with a group of friends who I’m in a movie club with, but I’m the only white person in the club, and they responded to things completely differently than I did — there were things they saw that I didn’t see. Like at that moment when the party guest tells Chris that he looks like Tiger Woods, and I turned to my friends and asked, “Do people actually say that shit??”
ROLLIE: As a light-skinned black man, I will tell you that if I encounter a white man over the age of 45, I will very often be told, “You look exactly like Tiger Woods!” If I’m wearing a hat, it’s twice as likely to happen.
BRANDON: I’ve had this for my entire life: because I’m 6’5”, I’m always asked, “Do you play basketball?” And I’m, I think, pretty clearly an arts kid [laughter], and I 100% don’t play basketball. But you always get a lot of comparisons to another well-known black figure.
LIISA: It’s like people only have one cultural reference.
SHAKA: Which also highlights some of the things that are really relevant to the state of our society. There are certain people who have ascended to a level of acceptance, broad acceptance — Tiger Woods before his downfall was one of them. And that’s kind of the olive branch [from a white person to a black person]: “Hey, I’m not what you think I am!”
ROLLIE: “I’m down!”
LIISA: Do you think that this is a movie about cultural appropriation issues, because Chris is an artist, and the guy [who buys his body from the Armitages] wants his artistry?
ROLLIE: I think that’s a part of it, but I think it’s black culture, writ large, that’s being appropriated here.
SHAKA: A few years ago there was this great series called The Tanning of America, which looked at how progressively over time, pop culture — which essentially means white culture — has adopted these elements from black culture. It’s the way that urban slang makes its way into the workplace. It’s the way that “stay woke” becomes, now, a common term — and in that, perhaps, loses some of its inherent meaning and power.
And along with that appropriation, there’s this tendency to box black people into certain categories: athlete, comedian, artist (and by that I mean hip-hop artist). And what I think this movie is a part of, is that we are finally able to see — or rather the world is starting to see — real diversity among black people, not just these stereotypical roles.
ANDREW: That point is completely related to Jordan Peele himself, who had built a career for himself as a comedian and then does this radical (professional) left turn to make a horror film. And he’s actually said in interviews that in the years he was developing the film, he had to part ways with some of his agents and reps because they weren’t getting it — they didn’t understand that what he wanted to make wasn’t a spoof, it wasn’t a parody, it was a whole different genre, another kind of creative venture.
Brandon, as someone who’s in comedy — who’s “a Comedian” — do you find that there’s a difficulty in breaking out, in finding other kinds of creative outlets for yourself?
BRANDON: I’d say yes, in certain ways — but I’d also say that watching [Get Out], I can see the instincts of comedy working throughout it. The entire premise of the film is, in a way, a sketch premise: if you watch Key & Peele, a lot of the sketches there were essentially genre explorations, with very cinematic music, shots, etc.
"Hoodie," from Key & Peele
So I think that Peele is very able to adapt his instincts to this very different kind of project — and I also think [his comedy background] is important in bringing a certain levity to the movie. I think comedy is so adaptable as a medium anyway: a lot of it is about tonal shifts, which is intrinsic to the horror genre as well.
PETER: Totally agree. Genre films and comedy both require a lot of attention to structure: both are about set-ups, payoffs, and punchlines. And this movie really builds up to a terrific punchline, because it plays on the expectations of an audience that understands “how these movies work,” and how they typically end. And I think that Get Out builds to both a really funny and a really profound punchline, because it gives you a reversal of the ending of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — which ends with the black hero getting shot after he’s managed to survive his zombie ordeal.
ROLLIE: And in the final scene, it also plays with another kind of expectation, one that mainstream society may not completely understand: which is that when black people see a cop car approaching, they’re not exactly happy. [Laughter]
LIISA: It’s really that element of the film that has gotten the most attention, I think. Most of what I’ve read about Get Out has not been in genre press, it’s been really mainstream press. And they keep writing about how the film is about black experience, less so about whether it’s for a black audience. So Shaka, when you asked whether we as white people were offended by the movie, that really keyed in to my initial feelings about it; I felt like, “I’m not sure I can write about this movie, I’m not sure if it’s for me.”
SHAKA: I think that, not really knowing what it’s about, some people might be like, “Hey, this movie is an attack on Trump supporters” — but it wasn’t! It’s looking at the people who say “I would have voted for Obama for a third term,” like the father in the film — the people who don’t recognize that, as much as they may be supportive toward a minority struggle, they still have this tendency to not recognize the position that they occupy, and how that kind of power still permeates society.
ANDREW: You could also suggest that, given what’s revealed about the white family in the movie, that they’re actually just playing the part of oblivious liberals — which would add a whole other layer of comedy to the movie!
Obviously, one of the strengths of the movie is that it lends itself to all kinds of suggestive or evocative readings, so I wanted to ask you all a question about one of the details I noticed in the film. The premise of Get Out — of old people seeking to colonize the bodies of young people — is not new: to name just two, there was this Boris Karloff movie from the ’60s called The Sorcerers, about an elderly couple who take over the mind of a young man and force him to commit violent acts so they can experience his sensations vicariously, and a Christopher Lee film called Nothing But the Night, about wealthy old people implanting their minds into the bodies of young orphans to become “immortal.”
What Get Out introduces to this premise is the racial aspect, of course, but also something else: it’s interesting that Peele makes Chris an accomplished photographer, and that one of the family’s previous victims is identified (in a shot of the Google search that Chris does on him) as a professional musician. When the Armitages finally gets around to explaining the Evil Scheme to Chris, it seems to hinge mainly on the physicality of young black men — their “genetic material,” as Rose’s asshole brother [Caleb Landry Jones] says. But there’s also this subtheme about stealing the artistry of black people: Stephen Root’s blind art curator tells Chris that “I want your eyes.” This is a really evocative idea that the movie never quite develops, I think — so I was wondering what you all thought about that aspect, and also how you think that Chris being a photographer ultimately functions in the overall structure of the film.
SHAKA: I think it could be a nod to this notion of cultural appropriation — and just a sidenote, something I was thinking about. When I think about the African American, or African Canadian experience, and then I compare that with the Indigenous peoples of North America, one thing that I can’t really understand is that there has been a proliferation of black culture that has been commercialized, commodified, in a way that has not happened with Indigenous culture. When we appropriate Indigenous culture it’s football teams, basketball teams, baseball teams, but with African American culture, it’s in everything: rock and roll, visual arts, fashion… it’s everywhere. At one point, hip hop was supposed to be a fad, and now it’s just commonplace. So I wonder if Peele may be nodding to that. And also of course the fact that the people who are literally buying these black bodies are older — you know, youth is the key to the future.
ROLLIE: A lot of them are feebler old people too. You know, when that woman feels Chris’ muscles and stuff — and again, that has happened to me. Watching that whole scene, I thought, this is fucking crazy, this is like a part of my life!
BRANDON: That sequence [at the party] is great: it’s like a tour of all the things that are supposedly great about blackness, but which are essentially just ways of reducing us to an assemblage of qualities or traits.
ROLLIE: One of the things I love about the movie is that Chris is just a well-rounded individual, a well-rounded protagonist, who happens to be a black guy. And that doesn’t usually happen in movies that are, like, “black movies” — you’ve got to be a slave, a butler or something.
SHAKA: I think even when Hollywood endeavours to explore race in a film, traditionally, historically, it has been more through that lens: Civil Rights era, or 19th-century slave era. I can’t recall another film that explores these microaggressions, these social nuances that, for a lot of racialized people, are just normal. This sucks, but this is just life. And in order to continue on, you just need to find some way to deal with it.
ROLLIE: That’s something that this movie picks up on so well: that moment when someone says something to you and you think, “should I talk to them about this, confront them?” And then you say, no, and you internalize it. You become paralyzed — it’s like the movie, it’s the Sunken Place.
SHAKA: Absolutely. The capturing of that throughout the film is something that I didn’t really see commented upon in a lot of the think pieces or reviews. Being in a state of paralysis, what does that mean? It’s on so many levels. When you look at what’s happening in our society, I, as a racialized individual, what can I do? Can I do anything? Do I have any hope? Is it enough for me to just try to sprinkle that hope on the people I surround myself with?
PETER: It’s interesting to think about whether it would be possible to talk about the same things Get Out is talking about in a drama, and would it have the same success that this has had? Because it’s packaged in the genre of horror, there’s a comic sensibility throughout it, there’s a satirical undercurrent that I think is very digestible, that’s what I think allowed Peele to create a well-rounded character that audiences wanted to go see.
SHAKA: Exploring these things through the genre of horror, the racial interplay, the comedic pivot, I think allows the director to explore these very real things in a way that is not only relatable to a lot of people, but digestible. As a drama, it might be too much.
LIISA: The cliché thing about horror is that it’s a rollercoaster ride: you strap yourself in, you have this frightening experience, but there’s a safe outcome. And I think that’s what horror can do that these more dramatic films can’t do, the lights go up and you go [exhales in relief].
ANDREW: In a way Peele is actually reverting back to an older horror-movie tradition, where the hero actually, well, gets out. What we’ve been seeing over the last several years is this trend of having these bleak, cynical, dark endings. How did you guys react to this movie’s “happy ending”? Peele has spoken about how he considered a lot of different endings to this film, and originally was moving in a much darker direction, until he decided to let Chris make it out alive.
ROLLIE: He might have gone for a different ending back then, he might have gone for a more cynical ending. In one of the interviews I read, he said that the ending changed as the world was changing, and he felt he had to do something different.
PETER: Going back to the character of Chris, I can think of some good horror movies with black protagonists, but a lot of them tend to be directed by white guys. Like the Wes Craven film The People Under the Stairs, where the main character is just this ordinary black kid living in a ghetto.
ROLLIE: Does he die at the end? [Laughter]
PETER: No, he makes it out! In fact, the ending of the movie is the entire black community coming down upon the evil white landlords.
ANDREW: And of course there’s Romero: Night of the Living Dead, where Duane Jones is the lead character, and in Dawn of the Dead you had Ken Foree. The most prominent black-directed horror movie I can think of is something that is pretty atypical: Ganja & Hess, which also has Duane Jones as the lead. The director Bill Gunn sold it to his funders as a black vampire movie, but then he made this very strange, surreal, folkloric kind of film — which meant that it did not get a lot of distribution.
LIISA: The two films with prominent black characters that came to my mind are Candyman and Attack the Block.
PETER: And Candyman is interesting because it explores a real cultural fear: it’s about a white woman who is afraid to be in an area full of black people. Of course, one could then argue about how critical the movie is of that fear, but…
ANDREW: Related to that, a question I had coming in to this discussion was why a genre that supposedly speaks to our deepest and most primal fears has been used so often as a vehicle for social and political commentary.
PETER: Well, I think that many social conflicts and political conflicts and cultural conflicts are often caused by the same primal fears that horror movies are exploiting.
SHAKA: Horror just goes to the extremes.
LIISA: Yeah, I mean a monster is just a representation of the Other.
SHAKA: Interesting that you mention that, because so often in Hollywood history, the monster, the Other, has been the racialized body. So I love how in this film what used to be the monster is now our hero. And Chris is not a light-skinned black guy, he’s…
ROLLIE: He’s like, triple-black. Jordan got the blackest guy you can get! [Laughter]
SHAKA: And him with the very light-skinned Alison Williams, it’s a very pronounced contrast.
ROLLIE: One thing I did notice in the movie upon seeing it again, though, is how the Chris character falls into certain black male clichés — like, oh yeah, my dad wasn’t around when I was a kid.
SHAKA: [Laughs] Couldn’t get away from that one! He couldn’t just come from, like, a Cosby family — nah, he came from the ’hood.
ANDREW: On that point, it’s interesting how despite all the conventions that Peele upends, there are others he adopts largely unquestioningly — like Chris’ background, and also the Allison Williams character, when her motives are revealed. It’s funny, but just before her true nature comes out in that scene where Chris is trying to get her to find the car keys, I was thinking while the scene was playing out, “Has she been brainwashed…?”
LIISA: I wanted her to be brainwashed because I wanted there to be one white character who wasn’t a complete villain.
ANDREW: And arguably she’s the worst of them — and I thought oh, well, even as we upend clichés, here now we have the stereotype of the White Dragon Lady. And used pretty uncritically. My colleague was telling me of the screening he attended, when Chris decides not to kill her at the end, there were apparently shouts of “Kill that bitch!”
SHAKA: Oh really? I mean, I’m not surprised — horror movies are meant to be participatory, and people are invested. I mean, I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment, but…
ROLLIE: I feel like a lot of the movie is purposefully aimed at a black audience. Like, if I go see this movie at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, there are gonna be black people screaming at the screen, that kind of atmosphere. And I feel like there are so many moments in this film that are supposed to elicit that reaction.
PETER: Chris’ friend Rod, the TSA guy, is that voice — if the audience isn’t already saying what they think of the movie, he’s doing it for you!
SHAKA: Yeah, I think it’s ingenious to have that voice in the film, because you know that voice exists in the audience. Rod would say “kill that bitch!”
LIISA: As a horror fan I’m delighted that there’s a horror movie out that people feel like they need to see, whether they’re horror fans or not: “I need to see this movie, I need to be a part of this conversation.” You know, nobody was saying “I need to see Paranormal Activity.” And as a white person I’m glad it gives me an opportunity to hear what other people have to say about these scenarios which I wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to.
ANDREW: The question has kept coming up throughout this conversation: Who was this movie made for? And I think it’s pretty clear, it seems to have been made for everybody. It’s almost a universal crowd-pleaser. Even if black audiences are reacting to different things or reacting in different ways than white audiences, everyone is pretty much on the same page. I have heard exactly zero people from any cultural background say “I do not like that movie.” And, odd for a horror film, people come out of this movie feeling good — it leaves you exhilarated, it’s got a really cathartic effect. What is it about the movie that you think inspires that reaction in so many different kinds of viewers?
BRANDON: I think for white viewers, the fact that they make these characters, the villains, into recognizable people, they have them say things or act in ways that you may have done yourself or thought yourself, but then it lets you get out of that.
ANDREW: That’s something I hadn’t even thought about: as a white viewer, when you see some of the behaviours in the film you cringe, but then when they emerge as the villains — and their evil scheme is so outrageous — you can separate yourself from what they represent.
LIISA: It absolves us, in a way. “Well, at least I’m not that!”
ROLLIE: For me, I had a sensation watching this that I don’t think I’ve had at any other movie, which is full immersion with a main character in a movie. And I thought, wow, is this what it’s like when a white guy watches, what — 90% of the movies that are made? Like, seeing Good Will Hunting or something? [Much laughter]
PETER: I think another reason why this film is such a crossover hit is because as much as it has to do with race, there is also the element of class in there as well. And I think that that paralysis, the Sunken Place metaphor, applies to people on a class level too. People feel that because of their class, they are unable to have any agency.
ANDREW: Maybe that class element is another way of separating ourselves from the evil in the film. Probably most people seeing this movie do not have those houses, and rich people — especially rich white people — are always good go-to villains in a film. Peele has talked in some of his interviews about how he figured out that, when you have clearly identifiable villains and a really likable hero, people are going to be cheering for that hero, no matter what colour they are.
SHAKA: At the moment, this movie is an anomaly, and in pop culture anomalies come and go. I read that Jordan Peele has a slate of “social thrillers” that he wants to start producing, given the success of this film. So a question for you guys: do you think that the social thriller is something that can be sustained as a subgenre of horror movies?
PETER: I think there have always been social horror films, and I think there will now be more of an interest in pursuing that: can we make a horror movie that deals with a zeitgeisty topic that will capture Buzzfeed’s attention. That will definitely be an element.
LIISA: I would hope that this kickstarts, if not a trend, at least a spotlight on horror movies that aren’t creature features, that are more about social fears and anxieties.
PETER: It’s definitely a testament to Blumhouse Productions' model of doing them cheap, but well-cast, well-written, and big money into marketing.
LIISA: I think genre audiences are hungry for new movies that aren’t remakes, or based on pre-existing properties.
PETER: And just new voices and perspectives.
ROLLIE: And new ways of doing things.
ANDREW: One of the best things that is going to come out of that directly is that reportedly, with all the money he’s made out of this, Peele is going to be funding a slate of films from first-time black filmmakers.
SHAKA: That’s fantastic!
ROLLIE: There also is a cultural movement in America right now of black people going out to support black products and black art, with their dollars. My sister was like, yep, Buy Black, going to see this movie. Don’t know who Jordan Peele is. [Laughter]
PETER: I think it’s important too, as was said earlier, to just see yourself in a movie. The Asian community is going through this right now with the Ghost in the Shell remake, and they’re frustrated.
SHAKA: We can extend that to other ethnic groups in terms of what and who gets seen on screen. It’s fascinating to me that, how are these things not happening? How do you not cast an Asian actor as an Asian character? But I think it creates a conversation about access and power, and who owns them.
ANDREW: This movie is a starting point, not the end goal, which unfortunately is the way it’s being talked about in some of the self-congratulatory stuff you see from white writers and commentators — like Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, who literally wrote, “See Get Out and get woke!”
SHAKA: [scoffs] Shit.
ROLLIE: Yeah that’s exactly what you don’t want. This is the beginning of a conversation, and this is the keynote speech.
SHAKA: These films are great conversation pieces. I hope in film schools that professors are using this and having discussions with their students, just to open them up to what is possible, and recognizing that storytelling can come in many different forms and types, and can still be accessible to a wide range of people — if it’s done well.