It’s an old cliché: In movies, the black character always dies first. It’s such a well-worn trope that it’s become fodder for Tumblr accounts, which track every movie in which a black guy gets killed first, to a 2013 Complex piece that looked at 50 memorable horror movies to determine if the black character did, in fact, die first. There are plenty of explanations for this cinematic truism, but the most obvious is also the most accurate: It’s a clear sign of racism that’s indicative of the fact that the African-American actors are less famous than their white counterparts and therefore more expendable earlier in the film.
What’s funny about Get Out, the deft new horror-comedy from Key & Peele star Jordan Peele, is that not only does it flip that convention on its head, but it hits back at plenty of other racist tropes in movies and in society writ large. The black guy doesn’t die first in Get Out because, for once, he’s the star. But if he’s going to stay alive, he has to survive the greatest horror our world has ever known: white people.
Here’s a spoiler-free synopsis of Get Out: Black photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) visit her parents, the Armitages (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), in lily-white upstate New York. Chris is understandably concerned that Rose’s rich, conservative mother and father will freak out about the fact that he’s African-American. She swears he’s got nothing to worry about — to reassure him, she tells him that her dad would’ve voted for Obama for a third term if he could. But Chris’s concerns prove warranted when creepy stuff starts happening around the house, and he suspects that her extended family wants to do something terrible to him.
On a surface level, Get Out is a clever commentary on the anxiety around interracial dating—especially when one partner is white and the other is a person of color. As Peele, who wrote and directed the film, takes us deeper into his story, what’s clear is that—even though it’s ostensibly a comedy—this is a very angry movie. It’s specifically angry at its white audience, which includes me — and it has no problem explaining exactly why it has every right to be mad at me.
Without giving any of the surprises away, let’s just say that Chris discovers that there’s a reason the very few black people he meets at the Armitages — most of them servants — are almost zombie-like in their deferential, docile demeanor. Peele is satirizing decades of Hollywood history in which, if you saw a black character on screen, it was a maid, like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind. No matter how much Rose’s dad professes to be an enlightened white guy, there’s an unnerving edge to him that makes Chris distrustful. And because we experience Get Out from Chris’s perspective, we share his suspicion — after all, we’ve all watched enough horror movies not to trust the seemingly benign setup that’s presented to us.
This is part of why Get Out is such a subversive film. No one watching the movie will be surprised that the Armitages are up to something sinister, but the perspective is radically different. Normally, the black character is the disposable one, but here, Chris is our rooting interest. And so we see through his eyes all the reasons he has to be on high alert. It’s not just that the Armitages are white. It’s the way that Rose’s father keeps trying to drop black slang into his conversations in a patronizing way to act like he’s “down.” It’s the way that her extended family treats him like a unicorn or a special-needs child. And it’s the way no other black character behaves like a normal person, as if they’ve been somehow stripped of their essence so that they can be acceptable to this white family.
These moments are treated like jokes, but there’s nothing funny about them — and they’re not isolated incidents in popular culture. Whether it’s Solange singing “Don’t Touch My Hair,” about her frustration with having her blackness be treated like a cute novelty in white society, or the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which features speeches and writing from African-American author James Baldwin about his anger at being marginalized because of his skin color, there’s been a recent uptick in African-American generated entertainment geared specifically toward telling white audiences why they’re pissed off.
That righteous anger is disguised with jokes in Get Out, just as it was on Key & Peele. But by making his main character black, Peele asks white audiences to see ourselves as the villains in his movie — and in real life. After all, turnabout is fair play. For generations, films have depicted the white character as the hero, the person worth rooting for. As for people of color? Well, as the Western demonstrated, the bad guys were the dark-skinned folks — those evil, savage Injuns. As Baldwin says in I Am Not Your Negro, “It comes as a great shock … to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance … has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.” From the 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation, where the KKK are the good guys, to action movies like True Lies, in which the villains are always swarthy foreigners, the nonwhite characters are the ones to fear. Those cultural representations stick with us — they create a way of seeing good and evil, right and wrong.
So when Get Out makes the Armitages the bad guys, it’s more than a clever role-reversal: It’s an honest reflection of how many African-Americans see the world. With its references to Black Lives Matter, this horror movie continually challenges its white audience to understand how everyday life — not some fantastical weirdo like Freddy Krueger — can be frightening enough. Not every black man’s life will be imperiled overtly, like Chris’s,, but too many are held down by the underlying evils he combats.
Last year, writer-director-star Nate Parker’s Nat Turner biopic, also titled The Birth of a Nation, ended with an explosion of rage as Turner and his fellow slaves staged an insurrection, killing every white person in their path. I saw the film at its Sundance premiere, and the finale was met with stunned silence: Whether or not the white characters were sympathetic to the slaves’ plight, they were all butchered. White viewers had a tough time with that resolution—Parker’s film essentially arguing that they (and we) were all complicit in the horror of slavery and deserving of punishment. It’s an ending that has stayed with me ever since — and constantly made me question how often I simply accept or permit certain behavior by telling myself I’m not one of the “bad” people.
I saw Get Out in a press screening this week that was predominantly white. I won’t ruin the film’s ending, but Chris does get his comeuppance on some of his white foes in bloody, angry fashion. People in the theater cheered, happy to see Chris enjoy a little vengeance. I enjoyed it, too, but I couldn’t help thinking about Peele’s larger point. Like with Parker’s movie, Get Out is a warning to all us “good” whites: We’re not out of the woods when it comes to our culture’s racist behavior. Sooner or later, it will be time for us to be the bad guys in somebody else’s movie.