Exposing the post-racial lie
A film that lifts the lid on race relations has become a huge hit in the US, taking $110m at the box office. Our film critic speaks to its director, Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele's Get Out opens like a thousand other horror films: a lone figure wanders cautiously down a dark suburban street, looking around nervously and worried with very good reason about what might happen next. But that figure is not a blonde woman: he's a black man, and he and his director are about to tackle the cherished tropes of the genre head on.
Get Out is one of the smartest films I've seen in a long time, a witty drama that uses an ingenious, 1970s-themed horror plot to explore the intractable nature of American racism. In it, Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a Brooklyn man who's dreading his first meeting with his girlfriend, Rose's (Allison Williams) parents. He's black, she's white, and Chris has no idea what he's in for when he travels to her family's rural estate.
Initially, all seems fine when Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener) turn out to be card-carrying liberals. But they have black servants, and something is clearly amiss.
Shot for just $4.5m, Get Out made $33m in its opening weekend in the US, and when I spoke to Jordan Peele this week, the film had just passed the $100m mark. "$110m," he laughs, correcting me, "it's been a wild ride."
Not bad for a debut feature from a man best known as half of Comedy Central's Key & Peele, a satirical double act that famously invented Obama's 'anger translator' before the show was cancelled in 2015. But while critics have been quick to draw parallels between the film's subtext and America's inelegant lurch to the right, the 38-year-old dreamt up his story in a different political climate.
"It started early in the Obama era," he says, "the era I've been calling the post-racial lie, because there was this suppression of racial conversation, and this desire for us to all be past it because, you know, we'd just elected a black man president so everything must be okay. And so Get Out was originally a response to that, because for me, there's nothing more dangerous than suppression of thought."
As he made Get Out, though, incidents like the Trayvon Martin shooting and the rise of Black Lives Matter movement began to make the film "political in a different sort of way".
"Now," he says, "I feel like the film is resonating because we're no longer in that phase where we were avoiding racial conversation. We've started talking about these real-life horrors that have been going on since the beginning of this country."
The film's approach to all this, though, is humorous rather than po-faced. In one brilliant scene, Chris endures an excruciating afternoon at an all-white drinks party, as the guests bend over backwards to prove they don't have a problem with his skin colour, and one even explains, at length, how much he likes Tiger Woods. But Chris is not immune from the taint of racism either: he's horrified when a black neighbour he meets tries to shake his hand rather than fist-pumping it, and he's deeply suspicious of any African-American who sounds insufficiently 'street'.
"I thought it was very important not to make a movie that presented one race as being racist," Peele tells me, "and another as being absent of all prejudice. There are many times in this movie where Chris's own prejudice hurts him, and at one point he assumes the black maid is acting weird because she's uncomfortable about his relationship with a white woman, which of course we know is not true."
But Get Out is not just a race satire - it's a clever and genuinely creepy horror film.
Jordan, who grew up in New York City, immersed himself in classic 1960s and 70s chillers as a teenager, and always dreamed of creating a great horror film.
"Before I was 12 I was curious but too afraid to watch," he says, "and then, around 12 or 13, I realised that something that powerful had to be important in some way, and so part of my own love of horror films was this fascination with facing my own fears."
He particularly admired Stepford Wives, Bryan Forbes' 1975 film based on a book by Ira Levin, which successfully combined a classic horror yarn with a stern attack on 1970s sexism. It had, he says, a big influence on his own film, on "the pacing of it, and the revelatory nature of the scares".
Peele's film is full of hints and jokes you might not immediately notice: when Rose's jumpy brother Jeremy stands on the porch strumming a violin, you're immediately transported back to a slavery-era plantation, and when Chris decides to block his ears to avoid being hypnotized, he uses bits of cotton.
"Watching fans of the film sift through all this stuff is very cool," Peele admits, "because I honestly felt that some of these details would go unnoticed, and at the end of it, it would be for me and maybe a couple of eager grad students or something, so I'm very pleased when people discover that there are layers to the project, they are enticed into it like it's a treasure hunt."
Jordan is married to a white woman, comedian and Brooklyn Nine Nine actress Chelsea Peretti, and the couple are expecting their first child. I ask him if Get Out's basic premise was inspired by his own life.
"Everything I write is kind of an autobiography of some sort. I've never gone to a white girlfriend's parents' house and they turn out to be evil," he laughs, "so that's never happened to me. But there are so many details plucked from my experience that it's hard to separate myself from the project at all.
"I think probably the most 'autobiographical' element of it is that it does a good job, I hope, of showing what it feels like to be African-American and out of one's element."
In his other life, on Key & Peele, Jordan does a very fine Barack Obama impression. Is black America in mourning for him at the minute?
"Yeah, I think we didn't realise how much we would miss Barack Obama until we saw what was coming next! So I think it started with this sense of confusion and panic, almost this shock, and the most disorienting part is there's just no clue as to where we're headed. We just have a president we simply can't trust.
"It's terrifying," he continues, "but it's also this fascinating circus to watch, and what's interesting here is really that what got us in this mess is our love of entertainment over the real issues we should be talking about.
"One of the reasons why Get Out is resonating is because it's a way to deal with these heavy issues in a sort of cathartic way, while also being entertained. So there's something kind of worrying about that as well!"