Get Out changed what the idea of a horror film — especially a Black horror film — could be. Here’s to hoping Black horror breaks out of the mold it created.
Five years ago, absolutely no one saw Get Out coming. At that time, writer and director Jordan Peele was mostly known as a comedy performer, cutting his teeth on the Fox series MadTV before breaking out with his co-star and collaborator Keegan Michael Key on their hit Comedy Central sketch series Key & Peele. But after making one film together (2016’s Keanu), Peele went solo with his debut horror feature Get Out, which premiered at Sundance in early 2017. The film was promptly purchased by Universal Pictures and released a month later on February 24. Anyone who knows the film industry, is aware that January and February are often dumping grounds for the films studios have no faith in. And yet, Get Out was a huge, unprecedented success, making $255.4 million dollars against a modest $4.5 million dollar budget. The film quickly became a cultural phenomenon, with stills from the film becoming memes, and the phrase “sunken place” being permanently added to the American pop culture lexicon. The following year, Get Out was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Daniel Kaluuya’s role as Chris, which was his first Academy Award nomination), and Best Screenplay (which it won).
The film is a clever mix of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives, while incorporating deeper racial commentary that hearkens back to the Blaxploitation era and more contemporary films like Tales From the Hood. Peele takes a simple narrative — a Black man going to meet his white girlfriend’s parents — and uses it to reckon with over a century of racial stereotyping of Black men. Every flavor of racism is on display, from the subtle liberal microaggressions to the more overt, violent bigotry. Chris is a quiet, observant man, and through his eyes we slowly realize that something isn’t right. His girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) is performatively outraged at the way her family and their friends treat Chris, but her voice lacks sincerity. And when Chris tries to bond with any of the other Black people he encounters, there is no kinship to be found. Eventually, he learns that his body is being sold to a white man, while his mind is being controlled by hypnosis. It’s a terrifying story, exploring the ways white people have historically ignored the humanity of Black people — a simple truth taken to a logical extreme.
Get Out‘s success coincided with the rise of what the internet has coined “elevated horror,” along with the films of other genre auteurs Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, who rose to prominence with their films The Witch and Hereditary, respectively. And as a Black filmmaker whose work directly interrogates race in the wake of April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, Peele was quickly welcomed among the ranks of Hollywood’s new Black elite along with the likes of Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins and Ryan Coogler. For the first time in decades, there was a spotlight on Black creatives in Hollywood developing stories for both the large and small screen that centered on representation and the nature of Black identity. But Peele’s arrival onto the scene marked a turning point for Black horror especially, which hadn’t really been an area of public interest in over a decade. That is not to say that Black horror completely disappeared – 2011’s Attack the Block introduced us to John Boyega and 2016’s The Girl With All the Gifts has enjoyed some critical acclaim – but Get Out took hold of the zeitgeist, ushering in a new era of Black horror from a crop of young directors, both Black and white.
The first major Black horror film released after Get Out was The First Purge, directed by Gerard McMurray from a screenplay by James DeMonaco, creator of The Purge film series. The 2018 film tells the story of the very first night of legalized crime, conducted as an experiment on the residents of Staten Island, New York City. While the scientists and government officials who implemented the purge are white, those most affected by the event are the working-class Black residents of the island coerced into participating with the promise of payment. But when the Black people don’t cause the mayhem white people expected, mercenaries are brought in to escalate the evening leading to countless murders, theft and violence. The historical relevance is clear here, reminding audiences of the many ways the American government has used Black people as guinea pigs for their experiments with no regard for our humanity. As with Get Out, The First Purge reminds us that we continue to be at the mercy of an uncaring white supremacist society and are often forced to fend for ourselves.
But 2020 is the year when the floodgates really opened, with Justin Simien’s horror comedy Bad Hair and directing duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s ill-conceived Antebellum being the first two notable misfires clearly inspired by Get Out. Of the two, Bad Hair is the more inventive, attempting to comment on the way Black women are pressured to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards even in spaces that supposedly celebrate Black culture. But the film suffers from a lack of perspective, with the satire spinning out of control with no real characters to ground it. Antebellum‘s faults are much more extreme, depicting Black women as merely victims of constant sexual abuse in service of a story that gestures to our past with no insight or empathy. In Get Out, we feel for Chris not just because he’s a Black man, but because he’s a person who wanted love and respect and was objectified in return. When he finally fights back against his white captors, it’s cathartic in part because we spent the entire film getting to know him as a person. We also get to know the Black people who have already been taken over, as the small cracks in their performance begin to show. When Chris looks at them he can’t help but see family, and it visibly hurts him to be in conflict with them. In contrast, Antebellum focuses on the unrelenting pain of the characters, robbing them of their humanity.
That same year also came the premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Created by Misha Green and produced by Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, Lovecraft is perhaps the most popular of the post-Get Out media, with its episodes being discussed fervently on social media up until its cancelation. But the show fell into the same trap as Bad Hair in its efforts to tell stories about Black women. In the episode “Strange Case,” a Black woman sleeps with a white man and wakes up as a white woman. Embracing her newfound privilege, she uses her new identity to assert her power over another Black woman. Once again, we see the metaphor overpowering character: in an effort to remind the audience of the evils of whiteness, a Black woman behaves the same way as her oppressors. A year later, the Amazon Prime series Them (executive produced by another Black Hollywood heavy-hitter, Lena Waithe) was criticized for depicting the brutal killing of a Black child while his mother is sexually assaulted by racist white men. Both series show how allegory can easily become exploitation when we neglect our own humanity in order to show white people the full extent of our suffering, sacrificing the humanity of their characters in their attempts to duplicate the violence of reality.
2021 also saw the release of Nia DaCosta’s highly-anticipated Candyman which, like fellow Monkeypaw Productions project Lovecraft Country, suffered from similar issues, albeit on a smaller scale. But it does have something the other projects don’t – humor. Considering that Peele wrote the script, it’s no surprise that the film is one of the few to come out of this era with actual levity. In the mad dash to become the next Get Out, many screenwriters have forgotten the way Peele balanced its horror with comedic moments (due mostly to the hilarious delivery of Lil Rel Howley as Rod). Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the film wasn’t always supposed to end with Rod saving Chris in the knick of time.
In the months leading up to the release of Peele’s follow-up film Us, the documentary Horror Noire was released. The film features screen legends like Tony Todd and Richard Lawson alongside filmmakers and scholars, sitting together in an auditorium and looking at the past and present of Black horror. The documentary highlights horror films that had been forgotten for long stretches of time, like Bill Gunn’s vampire romance Ganja & Hess and James Bond III’s Def By Temptation, as well as established classics like Blacula and Night of the Living Dead. Peele is featured in the documentary, discussing the older films that continue to influence his current work. With Us and his upcoming film Nope, Peele continues to experiment with his narratives, centering Black characters while exploring different themes unrelated to our relationship to whiteness. Here’s hoping that Black horror is able to break out of the Get Out mold and start pulling from its rich past to make something new and exciting.
Banner Graphic: Pope Phoenix
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave.