By Wil Forbis
These have been lean times for horror movies. Hollywood still reliably kicks them out but few have captured the public the way “The Ring” did back in 2002 or “Jaws” did in 1975.
The recent “Get Out” is an exception. Directed by comedian Jordan Peele, the film details a young black man’s terrible descent into the world of a suburban, wealthy white family. Shot on a small budget and employing mostly unknown actors, the film did well at the box office. More importantly, it emerged as a much-discussed talking point in the ongoing dialogue about American race relations.
I stumbled onto “Get Out” without much knowledge of its plot or context. The previews I’d watched made it look like a seventies-style, horror-art film and, while it featured many African Americans actors, nothing indicated that it was a political film. A friend of mine recommended it (I later learned he’d only seen the previews) and one day, when my girlfriend and I were bored, we took in a viewing.
It was an enjoyable movie. I’m a big fan of campy horror, which is what I found “Get Out” to be. The plot is far from original (it’s heavily indebted to “The Stepford Wives”), the science behind it is ludicrous, and the villains are one-dimensional. But in my view these are not faults. The movie set out to create a certain schlocky-horror atmosphere and it succeeded.
While watching “Get Out” I also got the point of the movie. It is a cultural commentary that explores the modern tensions that African Americans ensconced in white society are wise to be wary of.
After you watch a movie, you tend to develop a prognosis about its fortunes. You presume some movies will be hits and talked about for years. Others you think will shine in the current moment and then dim. Still others, you presume, will immediately sink from sight. My take on “Get Out” was that it belonged in the middle category; it would survive through the season and then fade from collective memory.
Thus, I was a bit surprised when I started to see friends on Facebook celebrating the film. It was not a passing fancy, they argued, but an essential film for our times. The movie also generated many critiques such as this one that analyzed the movie and its message in regards to race.
I realized that “Get Out” was becoming a “signaling” film. When a person stated whether they liked it or not, they were broadcasting where they stood on issues of the day, particularly issues of race. If you praised the film, you planted your flag in progressive, liberal soil. If you disliked it, not so much.
This sort of behavior is hardly new. Many movies advocate for political viewpoints and thus earn accolades from those who share those viewpoints. “Doctor Strangelove” was loved by those who decried the military industrial complex; “Death Wish” was lauded by urbanites tired of liberal excuses for crime. Horror movies in particular often tackle uncomfortable cultural issues. George Romero’s zombie movies were partly ruminations on America’s race and class struggles. David Cronenberg’s “The Brood” examined the battle of the sexes.
As the reaction to “Get Out” grew, I started to suspect that white audiences were receiving it as a penance film. Many of the comments and reviews I read came from white people commending a film in which pretty much every single white person is a villain. Liking the film seemed to contain, for white fans at least, an element of racial atonement.
Seeking atonement is an understandable urge as we are living in times of heated race relations. There’s been a rash of police shootings of black men. The Trump victory illuminated the still firm racial and ideological lines that divide the country. (Coming right after the election of the nation’s first black President, no less.) I would say that “Get Out” had the good fortune of arriving at the right time, but that would do a disservice to director Peele. He obviously made the movie in response to what’s been happening.
But something about all this bugs me. I understand a movie can be political, or offer cultural critiques, and those elements tie in with how the film is received. However, I also think you should be able to judge a movie on its own merits, on how well it tells its story, on the acting, directing, camerawork and such. And I feel that much of the praise for “Get Out” from guilty white people blows past all this. All that matters, in their eyes, is the film’s politics. (Even that’s not quite right. All that matters is what praising the film says about their politics. For white liberals, praising “Get Out” is ego-definition. It’s saying, “here’s what I stand for.”)
I think movies should be about more than their politics. There are plenty of movies with good hearts that were plain awful. And there are plenty of movies with something questionable at their core that were pure genius. (“Pulp Fiction” comes to mind.) While it is very tempting to “pick a side” in the current culture war, that decision shouldn’t eliminate nuanced critiques of art.
Am I saying “Get Out” sucked? Not at all. It’s a fun, schlocky horror flick with something serious to say. But it’s not without flaws, and we should feel free to admit that.
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Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.