When I went to a screening and Q&A of Jordan Peele’s buzzy new social thriller, Get Out, he made it very clear to the audience that the film was not “a comedy.” It makes sense that Peele, known mostly for his work on the hilarious Key & Peele, would feel the need to warn people that this film is not tonally in line with his sketch work. While the film had plenty of funny moments, I would agree with Peele that the film is not “a comedy.” That’s why I think it’s so interesting that many publications are calling the film a horror-comedy. If there’s any reason that this film is “funny,” it’s because it’s true. It’s exploring a well-trodden issue in an awesome new way, and Peele was the perfect man to do it.
I should note that my favorite aspect of the film was its sense of humor and fun, an aspect that shouldn’t be surprising, considering its writer and director. During his Q&A, Peele said that comedy and horror are both about tension and release. He said that writing comedy and horror were both “exercising the same muscle,” so perhaps he couldn’t help but insert some of his much-lauded humor into the piece, and it works to his advantage. The film’s sense of humor has the effect of teaching the audience to laugh at awkward or uncomfortable moments, many of which were harmless. But then when something explicitly unsettling happened, I noticed people (particularly white people) laughing awkwardly as a sort of defense mechanism. Wait, was that lady looking down at Chris’s crotch, then asking Rose “is it true?” funny, or just wrong? It also happened during some of the film’s scary moments. I could hear some light chuckles during moments that, in any other horror movie, would not have solicited laughs at all. To me, those laughs were essentially little cries for help.
This “humor-as-a-defense-mechanism” technique works especially well in establishing the characters in the film. When Bradley Whitford’s character called Chris “my man,” or assured Chris that he would’ve voted for Obama a third time, the audience laughed because it was uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable because Rose’s father was only saying these things to Chris because Chris was black, and though he was doing it to assure Chris that his being black didn’t matter, his being black was generating all of the conversation. Chris never asked for that reassurance, but there it was again and again. I found myself laughing because I have experienced that from well-meaning white people more times than I can count (trust me, it’s almost always better to just talk about something else), and as the saying goes, it’s funny because it’s true. This character trait had the effect of making Rose’s father seem like a harmless, well-meaning dude, until he wasn’t. It also forces the audience to think about what makes them laugh. If a subtly-racist comment from a dorky dad makes us laugh, what does it say about our society? What does it say about the real fears that Chris faces in the film?
Jordan Peele successfully used his reputation as a funny-man to harness the audience’s discomfort and send a message. Peele has frequently cited Rosemary’s Baby as an inspiration for this film, and though both are similar in their use of horror to explore a societal issue, this film has a sense of fun that is absent from Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, which makes the bitter pill, that even liberals have racist tendencies, easier to swallow. Perhaps this is the best way to deliver that message ― in a film that seems to just be fun. Discussions about racism are often derailed when people accused of being racist get defensive and refuse to listen to others. If this film had featured no humor, and no light moments, the people who stand to learn the most from it might’ve locked up and refused to absorb anything.
Like most horror films, Peele took a common fear, and exaggerated it into an intense but fun film. Appropriately enough, Peele opens the film with a scene that perfectly illustrates that common fear: a young black man who is lost in an affluent suburban neighborhood. It was around this time five years ago that Trayvon Martin was killed, and while people waste time discussing whether George Zimmerman “feared for his life” while attacking Martin, it’s impossible to deny that Zimmerman wouldn’t have been suspicious in the first place if Martin hadn’t been black. When I first got my driver’s license, there were towns where my parents told me not to drive alone, not just because of the residents, but because of the police as well (another aspect of black fear that Peele explores). That fear, that being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time could be a deadly combination, is illustrated beautifully in the film.
Though I have no way of knowing, I suspect that the version of the film we’re seeing is more commercial than previous drafts. Even though it’s the most original and socially-conscious horror film concept I’ve seen in a long time, it still feels like a Blumhouse horror film. However, while some “purists” might think this takes away from the piece, I’d argue that’s what makes it so effective. It shows that a story about race, a story about the fears black people face every day, can be communicated in a commercial horror film. It shows that our fears are real enough to scare anyone. I won’t spoil the film, but let’s just say that once the third act began, everyone in the audience, no matter their race, was on the edge of their seat and applauding after several key “moments.”
Peele said at the screening that he has four more socially-conscious horror films planned, and I say bring them on.