Battling real-life fears on-screen

Last Updated 20 January 2018, 17:16 IST

Get Out, the box office smash and awards season honey, almost didn't get made, because its writer and director Jordan Peele figured it couldn't 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, 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 in mid-November 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, Peele started working on a script and brought it up with the producer Sean McKittrick (Donnie Darko), 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 that he was on board.

Three years later, in February 2017, the movie opened just as the racist ugliness attending the election of Donald Trump dashed lingering Obama-era delusions that America was a post-racial place. And Peele's worries about the movie's reception were knocked down like pins.

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 didn't realise they needed, and worldwide they made a $254 million hit out of Peele's $4.5 million dream.  

Now, to Peele's delight and surprise, Hollywood prize-givers are showering the movie with love. At the Gotham Awards, Peele 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. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association named it best screenplay.

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), Kathy Bates's similar win for the 1990 Misery, 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 like best makeup or costume, if they win 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.  

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's best comedy or musical category, kicking off an internet kerfuffle, with critics saying "comedy" minimised the film's critique of racism. The Carpetbagger has heard arguments backing the decision: "Funny" was the first word of the film's synopsis on Rotten Tomatoes, and hackles might not have been raised had the category been "satire" instead. 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. When he met to chat with the Carpetbagger, he was plowing through a full schedule of media interviews, and the Bagger was whooshed away after 50 minutes because another reporter had arrived.

The whirlwind of it all seems to have left Peele a little stunned. "This is crazy," he said, while collecting one of his prizes recently at the Gothams. During our 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, Peele 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."

Come what may, March 4, the night of the Academy Awards, Peele 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.

(Published 19 January 2018, 06:14 IST)

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