Just in time for Halloween and after a notably devastating year for race relations in the US, the first trailer for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out has hit, causing an understandable stir. Given Peele’s Emmy-winning Comedy Central show Key & Peele, it’s perhaps no surprise that his first film as director would involve racial commentary (one of his most famous skits revolves around the fear a black man has walking through a white neighborhood), but what’s interesting is that he would insert this within the horror genre.
The plot focuses on Chris (Sicario’s Daniel Kaluuya), a black man planning to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams, known for her role as Marnie in Girls) for the first time. But from the outset, something seems off. An uncomfortable encounter with a local cop puts them – and us – on edge and once they arrive at the family home and get settled, Chris becomes aware of increasingly strange, and potentially murderous, behavior. A major element of this relates to racial difference as Chris must navigate an almost entirely white space (apart from the “help”), relying on a lifetime’s worth of practice dealing with micro-aggressions and discrimination. It’s a thrilling conceit and one hopes that Get Out might signal a trend of culturally relevant horror films from film-makers of color.
The horror genre has various subdivisions, most of which tend to be more populated than the sparse category of scary films that directly address race and the anxiety around this social construct of skin color. “It is one of the very, very few horror movies that does jump off of racial fears,” Peele said of Get Out in a Playboy interview from 2014. “That to me is a world that hasn’t been explored. Specifically, the fears of being a black man today. The fears of being any person who feels like they’re a stranger in any environment that is foreign to them. It deals with a protagonist that I don’t see in horror movies.”
It’s a fair statement, but it won’t be the first time that racial fears have been encoded within the genre. In George A Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead in 1968, the African American lead Ben, played by Duane Jones, and his grim fate (40-year-old spoiler: he gets killed at the end after a posse mistakes him for a zombie) eerily coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was a landmark film even for having a black lead, but its bleak climax made a depressing statement on American sociopolitical progress. There are moments throughout the film that imply hostility towards Ben’s race and his power but issues surrounding his racial identity aren’t overtly explored.
One of the key dynamics in Get Out is the interracial relationship between the two leads and appears to be a catalyst for the nefarious doings later in the story. “Do they know I’m black?” is a line Chris delivers with concern and also dread, imagining the possible scenarios he’ll encounter upon meeting Rose’s parents. His self-awareness of how his race might present a challenge suggests an honesty and subjective insight we’re not often shown within the genre. This is something we didn’t quite get in 1992’s Candyman.
That story goes back to the 1890s when Daniel Robatille, a black, wealthy socialite is commissioned to paint a portrait of a white landowner’s daughter. But when the two fall in love and their relationship is discovered by her father and his peers, Daniel is lynched and his tortured soul is doomed to wreak havoc on anyone saying the name Candyman five times in a mirror. The film delivers a powerful commentary of the brutal manifestation of racism and its lingering effect on a community, but it focuses its sympathetic eye on a contemporary white female protagonist, played by Virginia Madsen. Her personal and professional turning points became focal and the film leaves little to no room for investigating the horrors of racism from the point of view of the black characters. Candyman is not the center, she is.
The shift in focus shown in the trailer for Get Out and the exploration of racial identity suggests that the horror genre might finally be ready to push a new boundary. There’s so much to unpack in the 150-second preview, giving us a mere glimpse of themes we’re not used to seeing in horror. The timing of the film also mirrors Romero’s efforts in the 60s to reflect America’s struggle with race, a nation still plagued by ongoing, institutional injustice. While Get Out will act as entertainment predominantly (it’s from Blumhouse, the production company behind Insidious and The Purge), with daily reports of black men killed for the color of their skin, it’s also a vital reminder that racism remains a more terrifying force than any supernatural boogeyman.