Movies We Like
While Saturday Night Live has been a talent generator for the last forty-something years, as a sketch show it usually sticks with the obvious and the more tried and true formulas. On the fringes of television (usually cable) is where one finds the sketch shows that truly innovate and surprise: Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall, Chappelle’s Show, and The Ben Stiller Show, to name a few. But for my money, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele is the best sketch show since the era of SNL. Besides the outstanding and committed performances the two actors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele give, the skits always seem to go down the least obvious route. Interestingly, the biggest influences on the show don’t seem to be the golden age of television’s Your Show of Shows or England’s Monty Python, but instead The Twilight Zone.
There’s an eerie element to the humor of Key & Peele and often an M. Night Shyamalan-like twist at the end of each bit. So it’s not surprising that for Peele’s directing debut (which he also wrote), he would make a proto-horror flick. Get Out is definitely less Lorne Michaels and more Rod Serling -- and even more Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Deathtrap) with a sprinkling of Blaxploitation’s most outrageously paranoid thrillers (Ganja & Hess, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and especially J.D.’s Revenge).
Because he’s black, photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a little hesitant and even skeptical about meeting his girlfriend, Rose Armitage’s (Allison Williams) parents since she comes from what could be considered a stuffy, very white background. But on a weekend visit, instead of giving their daughter’s boyfriend the cold shoulder, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) go overboard to impress him. Dean, an accomplished neurosurgeon, even tells him he would have voted for Obama for a third term. But what really stands out are the number of black servants working for the family and their odd behavior. Eventually, Missy catches Chris coming in from a late night cigarette and, as a psychiatrist, talks him into letting her hypnotize him to break his habit.
She takes him into his subconscious and explores a childhood trauma. From there thing get stranger, in particular when their neighbors come over for a backyard party. Again, it’s the opposite of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner; the whites are impressed by Chris’s blackness to the point of discomfort for Chris and embarrassment for Rose. From there the film turns into a genuinely chilling horror flick and then a sci-fi movie.
A year earlier, Peele was a writer on the film Keanu, which he starred in with Key. Though charming, the film felt more like an extension of their show, a sketchy spoof of action films. There was no way of seeing the creative jump that Get Out represents for Peele coming. The film is so brilliantly jigsawed, its roots may be in traditional horror and sci-fi but the politics of it give it a new edge. If backers thought they had a quickie thriller to capitalize on Peele’s name (he doesn’t appear in it), it turns out to be so much more. While watching this film, black audiences may find themselves to be the biggest seat squirmers but all viewers can appreciate the predicament and even laugh at the over-the-top appreciation of black culture on display by the white characters. While police violence and the white supremacy that seems to be making a startling aboveground appearance under our current president represent some of black America’s most obvious threats (not to mention the usual institutionalized poverty and economic terrorism), Get Out showcases a stress white Americans haven’t fully understood.
Perhaps the biggest threat to young, successful black people are the overly generous whites, who claim to love Obama and can quote Jay-Z. Sometimes the white person with the obvious negative bias at least lays his cards on the table while the white person with the welcoming smile may have more scary secrets in their basement.
The film also brilliantly flips the blaxploitation elements. When Chris runs into another young black guy (who looks familiar) at the family’s party we get the creepiest character yet. Other than his buddy back home, who Chris communicates his anxiety to over the phone, all the black characters Chris runs into are even more suspicious-seeming than the white ones. Yes, somehow Peele is able to turn the Serling and the Levin factors up to an eleven. This may be the most auspicious directing debut for an actor (that he didn’t act in) since Charles Laughton turned noir on its head with his Night of the Hunter in 1955. That's big company to be in. Decades later, people are still in awe of Laughton’s little nightmare but for decades to come Peele’s flick will be a fair representation of the consternation of 2017.