‘Get Out’ Perfectly Explains Racism Concepts to People Who Don’t Get It (Commentary)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut uses horror to show how “microaggressions” work

Maybe the most striking thing about the horror hit “Get Out” isn’t the film’s straight-up frights, jump scares, grisly body horror, or villains — it’s the creeping feeling of dread that lingers long after the credits roll.

Particularly in the first half, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut draws slow-burn terror from casual belittlement, disregard for autonomy, and constant reminders of outsider status. As each new indignity is inflicted, the victim is forced to choose, for politeness sake, to ignore it and move on even as they stack up and become overwhelming. And even then, he’s faced with being treated like he’s being unreasonable or unhinged, simply for reacting normally.

In other words, things people of color describe as happening to them every single day in America, yet presented in a way people who’ve never experienced them can’t ignore.

The term for that behavior is “microaggression.” For those that haven’t heard of the concept, microaggressions are seemingly minor instances of low-key bigotry that, taken alone, are easily dismissed as no big deal when pointed out to the person doing it. But these moments stack up over time — especially when they happen day in and day out. Or over the course of a weekend, like the banal, everyday racism seen in “Get Out.”

Taking them from merely unsettling to deeply disturbing, “Get Out” does a phenomenal job of showing how microaggressions work — and more importantly, how they can often be as frustrating and scary as overt hostility, even when they come from seemingly good intentions.

“Get Out” begins when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man, travels with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to a remote, wealthy, rural neighborhood to meet her parents for the first time.

On the road, they hit a deer and call a police officer for assistance. The cop offhandedly asks for Chris’s ID, seemingly for no reason. Rose calls him out on it — Chris was a passenger in the accident and there shouldn’t be any reason for the officer to need his ID — and “Get Out” lingers on the frustrated officer as he grasps Rose’s implication that he is being racist.

But once they’ve reached Rose’s parents house, the surface-level friendliness Chris receives is as unsettling as his encounter with the cop.

Rose’s dad, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), goes out of his way to mention things that make him seem friendly to black people, calling Chris “my man” and insisting he would have voted for Obama for a third term. Meanwhile, Rose’s mom (Katherine Keener) expresses unearned familiarity with Chris, openly treating him as alternately suspect and juvenile. And Rose’s brother compliments Chris by noting his physical fitness which, the implication is clear, is apparently due to his race.

This escalates during a party full of Armitage family friends. Chris is practically pelted with compliments and well-wishes, yet each comment serves mainly to remind Chris he is black, make his blackness a topic of discussion, and otherwise make it constantly clear he is an outsider.

In the film, all of this is intentional — the Armitages and their friends have extremely sinister plans in store for Chris, and they’re deliberately gaslighting him. But in real life, moments like these can stem from seemingly good intentions, or at least, not actively bad intentions, as often from deliberate intent. That can make addressing the matter perilous for the victim.

Peele’s expertise in “Get Out” is using these small, everyday instances of making someone, accidentally or on purpose, keenly aware of being an outsider to create an ever-growing feeling of hostility. You don’t have to have experienced a situation like Chris’s to understand being an outsider, or to feel the dread it imposes.

“Get Out” does a great job of making those palpable moments stand out for the audience. But more than other movies, using an increasing number of microaggressions to fuel the film’s deepening atmosphere of fear provides a constant reminder that the hostility is real. That we know “Get Out” is escalating toward deadlier acts helps make it apparent how these smaller moments can affect people in the real world. If you’re a white person, you don’t just see the microaggression — you feel it building into a larger sense of unease, and then danger.

And that makes “Get Out” a great film to show people when trying to explain to them the ways that racism can be insidious, as well as unintentional. For white people watching “Get Out,” we’re supposed to empathize with the plight of Chris as he fights to save his own life, but we’re also supposed to realize that we can easily be, and often are, Dean.

The power of “Get Out” is that it uses horror to convey those central truths about race to the audience. Peele’s movie speaks both to the people who have experienced the racism at its core, and to the people who might not always realize they perpetrate it.