Fears of a black man onscreen

Writer and Director Jordan Peele.
Writer and Director Jordan Peele.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Get Out almost didn't get made, but now to director Jordan Peele's surprise, the scary movie is projected to earn Oscar nominations

NEW YORK • Get Out, the box-office smash and awards season honey, almost did not get made, because its writer and director Jordan Peele figured it could not happen.

The broad strokes of the story line - white girl brings black boyfriend home to meet her family - evoked Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967), but with a crucial and sinister twist (spoilers ensue): The boyfriend's suspicions about the white folks having it in for him become increasingly, and terrifyingly, justified.

Peele, 38, is known for his subversive comedy sketch show with Keegan-Michael Key and had never before seen a movie like the one he desperately wanted to make. But he worried that its themes of white villainy and black victimisation would keep people away in droves. Also, being biracial, he felt discouraged by the lack of people of colour in the industry.

"I didn't have enough role models telling me this movie could be made," Peele said during a chat last month at the Whitby Hotel in Manhattan. "But to me, it was the missing piece of the conversation. I'd never seen my fears as an African-American man onscreen in this way."

Around 2014, five years after he first began kicking the idea around, he started working on a script and brought it up with producer Sean McKittrick (Donnie Darko, 2001), hedging all the way. He recalled telling McKittrick that it was his favourite movie that had never been made, and probably would never get made, and that he understood why. But McKittrick surprised Peele by telling him he was on board.

Three years later, in February this year, the movie opened just as the racist ugliness attending the election of United States President Donald Trump dashed lingering Obama-era delusions that America was a post-racial place.

Peele had fretted that the film's skewering of white people might set off boycotts, but instead, Get Out proved to be medicine that audiences did not realise they needed, and worldwide a US$254 million (S$344 million) hit was made out of Peele's US$4.5 million dream. (He believes there might have been protests had the film taken aim at white conservatives rather than white liberals.)

The fear of being viewed as your race but not as a human being. The fears of abandoning your roots and stepping out of your blackness to, say, date someone of a different race.

WRITER AND DIRECTOR JORDAN PEELE on some of his fears mirrored in Get Out

Now, to Peele's delight and surprise, Hollywood prize givers are showering the movie with love.

At the Gotham Awards, he won best breakthrough director, best screenplay and the audience award. The National Board of Review named the film best ensemble picture and one of the year's Top 10, while Peele took best directorial debut. The New York Film Critics Circle awarded it best first film.

Still, the fact that Get Out did not win the top awards left some die-hard fans dissatisfied, including Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate, who is anxious that Oscar voters may not give the film what she sees as its due.

"Get Out is 2017's best picture and it should be 2017's Best Picture," she wrote. "When was the last time a popular cinematic masterpiece had something important and topical to say about the world?"

Either way, this kind of awards attention is unusual for a picture that could easily be pigeonholed as comedy or horror, genres that have a history of falling flat with the august members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

There have been exceptions, among them Natalie Portman's best actress win for Black Swan (2010) and, most prodigiously, The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), which swept up five Oscars - best picture, director, actor, actress and adapted screenplay.

Yet overall, scary or scary-ish movies that manage to land Oscar nominations tend to win in categories such as make-up or costume, if at all. Though it is still early in the awards race, Get Out is projected to earn Oscar nominations for best picture, best screenplay and, possibly, best director and best editing, along with a few Golden Globes nominations, which are due next week.

The academy is also increasingly diverse and nominations for Get Out, along with Mudbound, among other contenders, would be a bulwark against an embarrassing repeat of #OscarsSoWhite.

Universal Studios submitted Get Out in the Globes' best comedy or musical category, kicking off an Internet kerfuffle, with critics saying "comedy" minimised the film's critique of racism.

Peele responded to the fracas with a tweet, "Get Out is a documentary," though all along he has called it a "social thriller", a category that he says includes The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, where society and humanity are the monsters.

He is also in full awards-campaign mode. He shares the cover of Vanity Fair's special Awards Extra! print issue with Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) and was featured in The Hollywood Reporter's Writer Roundtable.

The whirlwind of it all seems to have left Peele a little stunned.

"This is crazy," he said, while collecting one of his prizes last week at the Gothams. During this interview, he spoke deliberately and carefully, giving off the sense that he might at any moment be, as it were, woken up. "It's all kind of a 'pinch me' thing," he said.

Of course, he is finding the fuss deeply gratifying, not least because Get Out was cathartic for him, a mirror of the micro-aggressions he'd long experienced, as well as his fears. Among them, he said, are "the fear of being viewed as your race but not as a human being. The fears of abandoning your roots and stepping out of your blackness to, say, date someone of a different race. The fears of your own neglect of your race".

In Get Out, the target was the hypocrisies of smug white liberalism, embodied in the white father who declares that he would have voted for former US president Barack Obama three times, all the while plotting to implant Daniel Kaluuya's character with a white person's brain.

"I think everybody, even white liberals - especially white liberals - appreciate exposing the dark side of what we think is the most politically correct type of white person," Peele said.

Come what may on March 4, the night of the Academy Awards, he can take comfort in knowing that he already won. Get Out opened the Friday before last season's Oscars, and while the ceremony was hurt by a Best Picture snafu and low ratings, Get Out was on its way to breaking box-office records.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'Fears of a black man onscreen'. Print Edition | Subscribe