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Why Academy Voters Shouldn’t Overlook Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya

Jordan Peele’s film requires the British actor to get across two convincing performances simultaneously, and he delivers both beautifully.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, and as "Chris," in Get Out.
Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, and as “Chris,” in Get Out.

As Oscar voters fill out their ballots for this year’s nominations before today’s deadline, three of this year’s Best Actor nominees are considered to be virtual locks. Barring a shocking snub, Gary Oldman will be nominated for Darkest Hour, Timothée Chalamet for Call Me by Your Name, and Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread. Of the Oscar prognosticators who participated in Movie City News’ latest roundup of Oscar predictions, all 10 of them agreed on these three.

They couldn’t, however, agree on the last two slots. Nearly everyone concurred that they will they go to two of three actors: Tom Hanks for The Post, James Franco for The Disaster Artist, or Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, but they split fairly evenly on which pair of these actors will make the cut. This means that, in all likelihood, votes of the academy members who put off submitting their choices until the final hours before the deadline will prove decisive.

These procrastinators should quit their dilly-dallying and vote for Kaluuya. Get Out is such a dazzling, thematically rich construction that it’s easy to marvel at its twists and turns and resonances while failing to fully appreciate the acting on screen—and voters have done just that this awards season, with Kaluuya being the only actor who has come away with any major nominations or prizes at all thus far.

Even Kaluuya’s performance has gone underappreciated. Get Out isn’t, as Jordan Peele pointedly joked, “a documentary,” but Kaluuya is naturalistic enough to make you forget he’s not really Chris. (This is especially apparent in Americans’ reactions when they first hear Kaluuya speak in his native British accent.) This is all by Kaluuya’s design: Before Peele cast him, he sent Kaluuya a list of horror movies to screen for research, but Kaluuya made a decision not to watch them, choosing not to be “too aware of it being a film, a fiction” and preferring to play “guys, normal dudes.”

Not only that, Get Out requires Kaluuya to get across two convincing performances simultaneously. Because Chris spends the whole movie surrounded by awkward, fetishizing, and ultimately predatory white people who he’s nonetheless forced to tolerate and even try to impress, Kaluuya has to simultaneously play both Chris, as this young black photographer really feels, and “Chris,” the front that he puts up in order to not alienate his potential in-laws and lose his seemingly woke girlfriend. For the movie to work, the audience has to both connect emotionally to Kaluuya’s performance as Chris and to find Chris’ performance as “Chris” credible. He has to play both the mask and the person trapped beneath it.

It’s revealing to compare Kaluuya’s performance to those in the literal Sunken Place. Perhaps the most memorable line reading of 2017 was Betty Gabriel’s delivery of the word no—if not the first 10 of them. We can see both Rose’s white grandmother, in control of Georgina’s body, and the black woman inside, struggling to get out. Kaluuya doesn’t get any scene that’s so fantastical, but he pulls a similar trick throughout the film, through the slyness of a smile, a slight, nearly imperceptible cocking of the head, or a flash of side-eye—gestures clear enough that the audience will pick up on them but subtle enough that the other characters wouldn’t.

Meanwhile, Peele and Kaluuya pull off another trick so subtly that we might not even notice at first: They skillfully draw attention to Chris’ defining feature, his photographer’s eyes—coaxing us to notice again and again the part of his face that becomes the object of his captors’ desire (“I want your eyes, man,” Stephen Root’s Jim tells him) and the way Chris sees what the others don’t. It’s a horror movie in which nearly all of the horror must be conveyed internally, much of it through those eyes. (Indeed, if I asked you to picture any moment from the film, chances are you’d picture Chris’ eyes, probably wide open, with a tear running down his cheek.)

Some awards groups have started to catch on. Last weekend, Kaluuya won the Best Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics. Last month, the Screen Actors Guild nominated him for Best Actor as well. And earlier this week, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, who have had a bit longer to get to know him, recognized him with a nomination, too. The Hollywood Foreign Press isn’t best known for exceptional taste, and even they managed to nominate him for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. But because Get Out came out nine months before Oscar season (in fact, during last Oscar season), little has been written and said about his performance as an awards contender, leaving open the possibility that it could be overlooked.

Hanks and Franco give excellent performances as well. But while I could argue that choosing either of them would be, above all, a bad look for the Academy—in the year of #MeToo and “Time’s Up,” Franco has spent nearly the whole voting week fending off accusations of sexual misconduct, and only a couple of years after #OscarsSoWhite, the only other category in which any actors of color are expected to be nominated is Best Supporting Actress—Kaluuya simply gives the more accomplished performance. Hanks’ performance isn’t really the kind that anyone will be outraged to see overlooked, especially since Hanks already has two statuettes on his mantel at home. Hanks not only doesn’t give his movie’s best performance; he doesn’t even give the movies’ best performance as Ben Bradlee. As for Franco, anyone who’s seen The Room knows his mimicry is extraordinary, but the performance only really works on one level. Franco nails Wiseau’s accent, but Wiseau the man remains a mystery.

It’s hard to know where Kaluuya will go now that Get Out has raised his profile. There’s not much that unites Get Out with his best-known previous performance in Black Mirror, in which he played a working-class Briton who gives a Howard Beale-esque monologue on an American Idol-style competition show. Before that, he was a regular on Skins, for which he also wrote two episodes, and performed in sketch comedy and, in 2010, won theater awards for his turn in the British play Sucker Punch. (He’s been writing plays and winning awards since he was nine.) He has a versatility most Americans have only begun to notice, and as his career continues, with an appearance as the title superhero’s right-hand man in the upcoming Black Panther and a starring role in the next movie from Steve McQueen, it’ll only become more obvious how much acting it took to play Chris, and to play “Chris.” Less clear is whether Kaluuya will ever get another role as iconic as the one he gets in Get Out, the kind of zeitgeist-capturing acclaimed blockbuster that only comes along every few years. The academy would do well to think about which performance people will still be rewatching and admiring for years to come. If they don’t, well, I think Georgina has already said all there is to say about that.

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