What’s shaping up as an auspicious Black History Month for movies -- multiple Oscar contenders in multiple categories -- continues this week with the release of Get Out, a movie that makes history.
It’s a rare horror film by an African American director -- Jordan Peele of the now-defunct Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele -- and sets precedent by taking the usual genre dynamic of expendable black characters and upending it rather decisively.
Get Out follows a young black man (Sicario's Daniel Kaluuya) to the swanky country home of his white girlfriend (Girls' Allison Williams), where the oafish racial glad-handing of a smug liberal elite gives way to a more overt threat.
Peele detours (mostly) from comedy and turns to a lifelong love of horror for his debut as writer and director. He talked about how the movie breaks ground, and how it projects his own fears about being a black man in a white world.
You love horror, but you don’t always love the way black characters are treated in horror movies.
It’s weird. Black people form the most loyal fan base for horror, but in the movies we’re sort of relegated to this place of zero representation. You’re in the theater, and you’re yelling at the screen, because you want the character to be given the freedom to behave in a different way. It's like that Eddie Murphy routine about the black family walking into the Amityville house and leaving as soon as they hear the voice that says, "Get out." That’s the comedy take on it. I feel like this movie gives me the opportunity to do that in the context of actually making a horror movie.
You’ve said this movie is really a projection of your own deep-seated fears, the experience of being a black man navigating white society.
Fear of being the outsider is part of the human condition. The paranoia of being The Other. I’ve always felt this could be a great device to use in a movie about race, as part of a conversation about race -- the fears that many black people have, myself included, on a day-to-day basis. But I think the movie works in a way that anyone can connect to.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be an outsider, but not everyone is going to carry the same fears around as you, or your protagonist.
True. Deep in its belly, this story is allegorical, there are images that go all the way back to slavery. When writing it, I was on some level thinking about the mass incarceration of black people in this country. And how that really is a fresh face on an old demon.
Speaking of putting a fresh face on things: The racism we encounter in this movie doesn’t come from rural Klansmen. It comes from wealthy Northeastern liberal elites, which is obviously a deliberate choice on your part.
This movie expresses so much of my perspective on race, and part of that includes my constant fear of betraying my "black side." And that gets to be really complex in different settings. It includes fears of being sort of covertly persecuted by people who seem to be OK on the surface. It’s a very personal movie, there’s a lot of me in this movie.
But you are not in this movie. You don’t appear as an actor.
No. The truth is, I’m not a die-hard fan of my own performing. And I think my presence in the movie might have screwed things up from the standpoint of audience expectations. I think it’s much easier for people to experience it as a horror movie if the guy from Key & Peele is not onscreen.
You cast Allison Williams as the girlfriend, and that also seems deliberate. She's Brian Williams’ daughter, star of the Brooklyn-based Girls, and she comes from the liberal aristocracy that provides the context for the movie.
I think there’s some truth in that. At the very least, people have this mythology about who she is -- she’s hip, she’s cosmopolitan, and she’s undeniably Caucasian, and she’s in tune with the fact that she’s been given wonderful privileges. But I also wanted something else, and she has it in abundance. The script describes the character as the girl you meet in summer camp and fall in love with. And that’s Allison.