(How do I say this without sounding racist?) I feel like this film would’ve been scarier for me if I were Black. It operates brilliantly on three simultaneous levels: parody, social commentary, and allegory. But unless you’re a constant victim of racial prejudice, a situation that reaches its nadir in the lived experience of African Americans, none of those levels are horrifying on a strictly visceral level.
I should probably say now that horror isn’t actually one of my favorite film genres; in fact, I rarely watch horror films. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that films are terrifying when they tap into shared fears and anxieties. The horror film cliché of the monster that jumps out of the dark, or around corners, backed up by a sudden dissonant chord on the soundtrack, is a staple precisely because most of us are scared shitless when something or someone jumps out at us, even in broad daylight. (There are exceptions.) But of course horror films are capable of tapping into much more than that. Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad 1961) invokes the unsettling interplay of memory and reality (and you can see all of it, with English subtitles, here). It Follows (2014) draws on the inescapable consequences of past actions on oneself and others. The Babadook (2014) taps into the fear that one’s poor, innocent child may be corrupted by the dangerously tempting narratives of modern society—sexual objectification, radicalism, cult religion. And Get Out (2017) has racial objectification.
At the same time, good horror films still preserve visceral terrors: the creepalicious soundtrack of Marienbad, the inexorable march of death in It Follows, and the primal superstition in Babadook that words have more than symbolic power. (If you’re willing to pay, I guess you can find out for yourself how powerful words really are.) This is where Get Out is weakest. For African Americans, and others who suffer constant racial objectification, the film indeed can strike terror into one’s heart. But for the rest of us, it all seems rather abstract. Not that that’s a bad thing per se.
The film is brilliant at hitting home on multiple levels at the same time. For instance, when Rod (Lil Rel Howery), after hearing Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) describe what he’s seen, jumps immediately to the conclusion of sexual slavery, the film is at once parodying the widespread distrust by African Americans of the government, justifying his suspicions (as it turns out), and demonstrating with that justification the continuing, common, even prevalent phenomenon of racism in (American) society today, a prevalence that for many people is all too easy to forget. And the suspension of trust between the African American community and the government makes it inevitable from a screenwriting standpoint that Rod be a member of a merely quasi-police outfit like the TSA; giving him full police powers would reduce both his cultural integrity and the difficulty in overcoming the film’s obstacles (as seen when he goes to the actual police, pointedly staffed by disbelieving African Americans).
The same three levels of parody, social commentary, and allegory can be seen throughout the film. Another example is at the party, where the guests’ behavior toward Chris suggests similar unintentional racism in real life, while simultaneously parodying it through exaggeration and allegorizing it by linking it to the auction, showing in the latter case how thin the line is between the intended but hidden racism of the scene and the unintended hence unabashed racism of real life.
The three levels appear too when Rose (Allison Williams), fresh off her successful job “wrangling” Chris, searches for her next victim while drinking milk and wearing a white button-down, made even whiter by the light emanating from her laptop (though I think the effect would’ve been stronger if she were still wearing that impeccably white flannel turtleneck from an earlier scene). The color is an obvious allegory of the racial purity ideal of White supremacists, and the convergence of so much white in one place (including the character’s name, which in the course of the film’s symbolism turns from the red Rose of love into a White Rose) achieves a parodic effect—but the fact that these white objects are as ordinary as can be, even in the case of the white shirt suggesting a certain level of formality and competence, can be seen as a commentary on how colors are infused with values in everyday life without us really thinking about it, and how pervasive such an influence can be.
This last point applies not just to everyday objects but also to the “shared” cultural heritage. The Coagula brain transplant procedure is fronted by an early-model TV and a wall-mounted stag head. While for the colorblind person these two objects may only connote leisure and the economic prosperity that enables it, racially aware viewers see these objects as Whitest of White: In the US, race and economic class are linked through the long history of racially prejudicial treatment, and even today one would be hard-pressed to find an African American family that hunts for fun and goes out of its way to acquire the latest in entertainment technology. But the stag head further recalls the deer of Artemis sacrificed to raise the winds and set sail for Troy—and the bloody recompense Artemis demands: Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s virgin daughter. The Homeric connection is strengthened when Chris escapes the aurally induced hypnosis by plugging his ears with the chair’s cotton stuffing, just as Odysseus prevented his crew from being hypnotized by the Sirens by stuffing their ears with beeswax. It can’t be denied that the major themes of the Homeric epics resonate with people of all races, and yet including these allusions in the brainwashing scene, for me at least, opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms, especially when one remembers that the Greeks fighting at Troy were slave-owning nobles. (Of course, the Ancient Greeks treated their slaves very differently.)
In this way, Get Out as a whole operates on the three levels: a parodic exaggeration of the experience of everyday racism, a commentary on how important it is to have films tell this side of the story, and an allegory of the complexity of the ramifications of racial thinking. The complexity, though, is reduced by caricaturing the Armitage family and their guests as unfeeling monsters—recall Rose’s lack of facial expression to accompany her emotive voice when on the phone with Rod. In real life, racists feel too, even if not enough, and putting that into the film without changing anything else would’ve been downright petrifying.