"Get Out" Takes Cultural Appropriation To The Cultural Harvest Level

Universal Pictures screenshot
Universal Pictures screenshot

It seems like every other day a new initiative or podcast or deep-dive interactive project is launched in an effort to shed some understanding on race in America. Well look no further, because Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a capital “A” accurate understanding of race in America and the not even slightly exaggerated psychosis it has bred — not least of all because it’s told through the only lens that frankly matters on the subject: a black one.


On its own, Get Out is blisteringly clever, but that Peele, who wrote and directed the film, chose to tell this particular story at this particular time as a horror movie is damn near genius. And I don’t even like horror movies. I find them to be either egregiously gory, super dumb, or irredeemably disturbing with ghosts and zombies and unimaginative plots. But even beyond that, horror movies as a genre have historically been predominantly white, killing off what few black characters are included, and that are, in any event, often cast as the bad guys.

What makes Get Out so genius is that the premise is an actual legitimate fear of violence and psychological warfare that exists for black people in a systemically racist nation, whereupon white people want to simultaneously demonize us and appropriate our talents and gifts and resilience. Get Out takes cultural appropriation to the cultural harvest level, and Peele pushes it to such an exacting pageantry of smug white people privilege that you can almost see him exorcising the white part of his biracial makeup (his mother is white and his father is black).


The timing of this film could not be more preternaturally on point. We're coming off a year when black poet Claudia Rankine won a MacArthur "genius" grant and plans to study whiteness with the $625,000 monetary award that comes with it, when, from Kerry James Marshall to Barry Jenkins to Beyonce, all of the best art was made by black people, and we found out it was actually black women who put John Glenn into space. As one white character notes (and I paraphrase): "It's cool to be black now!" Even as the white characters in Get Out continue to see us as reductive stereotypes (specifically black masculinity and sexuality), that we have surmounted and continue to surmount those stereotypes that makes us the objects of white people envy. Who can blame them?

The masterful touch is that Peele flips the script in such a way wherein white people want to be all-the-way-in black — skin color included. The Armitage family ethos: The power of our internalized privilege will best whatever racism we might be subject to as black people, because we will still be white in our minds.

The film starts with a young black man walking on the sidewalk of a deserted suburb at night — he’s lost and is talking on the phone with his girlfriend, lamenting that “they got me out here” trying to find some old thing, doesn’t matter what or who “they” are. We can pretty much deduce. Sure enough, next thing we know a slick sports car with tinted windows comes out of nowhere and slows up to a roll behind him. The beauty and takeaway of this scene [semi-spoiler alert] comes through at the moment this brother decides to turn around and walk in the other direction, and says: “Not today.” But yes, today, because even when we try to respectfully remove ourselves from white people’s line of vision and fire, we still get snatched up and messed with.

Cue the soundtrack. "Run, Rabbit, Run" plays under that scene — a song written in 1939 and performed by white, British comedy duo Flanagan and Allen: “On the farm, ev'ry Friday/On the farm, It's rabbit pie day … Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run/ Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run/Bang, bang, bang, bang! goes the farmer's gun”. It’s giddy, hum-drum vocals are haunting and sublime. The entire soundtrack is both cerebral and perfect. "Redbone" by Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) plays through the opening credits and establishing shots, which includes gritty black and white photos of urban street life that we soon learn were taken by the main character, Chris.


Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black millennial with a seriously dope apartment in some nameless city that lets us know he is selling the hell out of his photographs. His girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is a white millennial … well, we don’t really know what she does, and if it’s mentioned, I don’t remember. Clearly, her line of work is peripheral. But they’ve reached the meet-the-parents mark in their relationship, so it’s time for Rose to take Chris upstate for a weekend visit with her family.

There is plausible chemistry between them, and to great effect, there’s a good bit of Marnie (from Girls) in Williams’ Rose. Kaluuya plays Chris with alluring focus, lowkey chill, and just the right amount of vulnerability and independence that could only come from deep loss.


As Chris packs a bag for the weekend, Rose lounges on the nearby couch, snuggling his dog Sid, her body lithe and obvious in the teeniest of denim dresses H&M or Madewell or J. Crew has ever made. Chris asks if her parents know that he is black — Rose has told him he is her first black boyfriend — to which she responds, sarcastically: “What would I tell them? ‘Mom and dad, I’m coming with my black boyfriend, a blackman.’” Rose goes hipster rogue to point out that her parents are totally cool and it would actually be racist for her to tell them her boyfriend is black. They laugh it off with a kiss, falling back onto the bed like the 21st-century lovebirds that they are — racism be damned.

Things get weird pretty quickly at the Armitage estate. Passed down through the Armitage family for generations, the estate is separated from the nearest town by an entire lake and is maintained by black help — who defy description. Everyone is touchy-feely friendly when Chris arrives with Rose, but something is off and he knows it. Thank heavens for Rod (LiRel Howery), Chris’s TSA working best friend, who intermittently chimes in over the phone with just the right amount of petty, skepticism, and arrant homie aplomb.


Bradley Whitford as Rose’s father Dean is both awkward and vile, and Catherine Keener as Rose’s mother Missy (Missy!) is diaphanous, literally hypnotic, as if she’s leading a perpetual seance at the center of the universe. Caleb Landry Jones plays Rose’s lacrosse stick-wielding, crazy-ass brother Jeremy straight out of A Clockwork Orange, and you cannot look away.

The tension is palpable, white-knuckle and on point. And the payoff, although fairly gory and in some ways predictable, is deeply gratifying. Most people who watched the Comedy Central series Key and Peele already knew that Peele is brilliant. But listen. This is Jordan Peele’s movie (his first) and Jordan Peele’s moment. Historically, we've usually been on the outside looking in when it comes to creating horror films, but we have centuries of material to draw from. Also, if Leonardo DiCaprio is the only breathy, anxious voice that’s stuck in your head calling out “Rose!”, things about to change.


Rebecca Carroll is Editor of Special Projects at WNYC New York Public Radio, and the creator, producer and host of two live conversation series — How I Got Over: Reinventing Language Around Race, and Dear President: What You Need to Know About Race, which is being developed as a podcast. She is a Critic-at-Large for the Los Angeles Times, and a former Opinion Writer for The Guardian. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, Ebony and Harper's Bazaar, among others. She is the author of five narrative nonfiction books, including Uncle Tom or New Negro? and Sugar in the Raw.

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Study Whiteness? I thought every Black person had a doctorate in Whiteness already, learned via osmosis and passed down as a birthright.