Jordan Peele: tackling the scary truth...

from laughs to screams

Jordan Peele: tackling the scary truth...

No serious fan of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele will be surprised that Jordan Peele (the shorter half of its starring duo) is making his directorial debut with a horror film. Their acclaimed Comedy Central series may have been best known for President Barack Obama’s “anger translator,” but it often lampooned scary movies with a specificity that could come only from a connoisseur of things that go bump in the night.

In his new movie, Get Out, he plays the scares straight, writing and directing the rare horror movie that tackles racial politics head on. In a scenario that has been described as The Stepford Wives meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African-American photographer, is about to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time when he’s rattled to learn that she has not told them he is black.

His anxiety increases when her father goes out of his way to tell him that he would have voted for Obama for a third term and when the forced smiles of the parents’ exclusively black servants start seeming a little uncanny. Racial micro-aggressions and ominous signs mount, as this fish-out-of-water story takes a foreboding turn.

Get Out is not the first horror film to confront race. In 1968, right after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Night of the Living Dead resonated with audiences and some critics by presenting a black man’s torment by a mob of white zombies before he is killed by law enforcement. Other horror movies like Candyman and Ganja & Hess have explored miscegenation and assimilation, but Peele said he set out to make a movie that exposed “the lie” of a post-racial America, one that grew after the election of Obama.

In an interview at a hotel bar near Columbus Circle, in New York City, Peele, who turned 38 recently, recalled the time his white girlfriend took him to meet her parents, discussed why he wanted to make a horror movie for black audiences and explained why the movie takes aim at, in his words, the “liberal elite.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

What do horror and comedy have in common?

The best comedy and horror feel like they take place in reality. You have a rule or two you are bending or heightening, but the world around it is real. I felt like everything I learned in comedy I could apply to this movie.

When a rule bends, how do you keep horror from becoming comedy?

In horror, the second you have people doing something you know they wouldn’t do, you lose the audience. With Get Out, what needed to be believable was the protagonist’s intentions. Why he’s there. I followed the Rosemary’s Baby-Stepford Wives model of inching into this crazy situation and alongside, justifying how the character is rationalising staying.

Ira Levin, who wrote the books those two movies are adapted from, made the audience question if the protagonist was paranoid.

I use that exact same device. This movie is also about how we deal with race. As a black man, sometimes you can’t tell if what you’re seeing has underlying bigotry, or it’s a normal conversation and you’re being paranoid. That dynamic in itself is unsettling. I admit sometimes I see race and racism when it’s not there. It’s very disorienting to be aware of certain dynamics.

‘Get Out’ is about being black in a white world. Coincidence?

Not at all. Black people who want to do comedy go into standup, where our heroes opened a lot of doors. Improv doesn’t have a ton of heroes that you can look to. Chris’s experience is very close to mine.

Did you draw on personal experience meeting a girlfriend’s parents?

I had a Caucasian girlfriend a while ago. (He’s now married to Chelsea Peretti.) I remember specifically asking if the parents knew I was black. She said no. That scared me. It turned out to be totally fine, but I didn’t want to even see an adjustment on someone’s face when they realised it’s not what they thought.

Do you think different things scare black and white audiences?

We did one test for this film, and I noticed a striking similarity with the way people experienced it. That brings me a lot of joy. I wanted to make something that has a perspective that you don’t often see, but I also wanted it to be an inclusive movie. That’s the power of story and genre. You can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.

There are two schools of thought on that franchise — some fans enjoyed that Freddy increasingly made funny quips, and others thought it hurt the movies. Where do you fall?

As a child, the funnier that Freddy got, the more scared I was. That was an interesting era for horror. The big characters were the monsters. It was more about the audience relating to the killer. We were given the knife as the audience. So when Freddy became funnier and funnier, it was disturbing to me. There was this expectation that I was supposed to identify with him and love it when he killed somebody. As a kid, I was not there.

You’ve said your target in this movie is the “liberal elite.” After the election, was there any part of you that worried ‘Get Out’ speaks to a Hillary era more than a Trump one?

Yes. At the same time, I feel the movie is more relevant. The liberal elite who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.

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