By the time Get Out premiered at Sundance Monday night, the “secret midnight screening” was anything but: Rumors had been circulating for days that the horror movie, which marks the directorial debut of Key & Peele’s Jordan Peele, was the festival’s enticing TBA, and Variety confirmed those rumors hours before the show. But even knowing what movie they’d lined up in the waist-deep snow for, the audience at the Park City Library was in for a surprise. Not only was Peele’s debut funny and sharp on the subject of race in the U.S., it’s also straight-up terrifying, with some audacious twists that turn what seems at first like a tidy Twilight Zone allegory into a deranged nightmare.
After the screening, Peele explained to the crowd that the idea for the story, in which a black man (Daniel Kaluuya) begins to suspect that his white girlfriend’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are involved in a sinister conspiracy to imprison their wealthy suburb’s few black residents, began to germinate during the 2008 Democratic primary, when the discussion around Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton began to center on whether a black American or a woman “deserves to be the president more.” That led Peele to think of giving one of his favorite horror movies, The Stepford Wives, a twist, changing its subtext from feminism to racial politics. In the original 1975 movie, adapted from a novel by Rosemary’s Baby’s Ira Levin, a woman discovers that the vacant-eyed, conformist housewives in her Connecticut suburb are actually robots who’ve replaced their less compliant human originals. Peele felt that a movie taking a similar approach to race was “a missing piece in this genre.”
Especially after Obama’s election, Peele said, the U.S. was “living in this postracial lie,” embodied in the film by the fact that Kaluuya’s girlfriend, played by Allison Williams, feels no need to alert her parents in advance to the fact that her new boyfriend is black. Her father, who immediately starts calling Kaluuya “my man,” goes out of his way to demonstrate that he’s cool with black people: Why, he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could! (The line might have gotten an even bigger laugh had the crowd been aware that Malia Obama was reportedly sitting among them.) But his efforts feel like efforts, as do those of the entirely white guests at their garden party, who want to make sure Kaluuya knows just how much they appreciate Tiger Woods. “That is how we experience racism,” Peele said, less through open acts of bigotry than through conversations that make it clear who belongs and who comes from outside. “The monster of racism lurks underneath that conversation.”
Peele conceded that Get Out is “coming out in a very different America” than the one in which he conceived and shot it, an America where genteel racism is losing ground to open displays of white supremacy. (It is scheduled to open in theaters on Feb. 24.) But that only makes the film more effective, if not perhaps in the way Peele initially envisioned it. Although the movie was shot in Alabama, the characters don’t speak with drawls, and the parents’ mansion is more evocative of Rhode Island than the antebellum South. His target, Peele explains, wasn’t red state racists, but “the liberal elite, who tend to believe that they’re—we’re—above this.” Liberals have learned from Trump’s election—or if they haven’t, they’d better—that racism isn’t solely the province of gap-toothed cretins who live in those other states, and assuming it is only allows its more insidious forms to flourish like the black mold in the Get Out family’s basement.