Film

Get Out’s Jordan Peele Brings the ‘Social Thriller’ to BAM

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Those who know Jordan Peele as one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele might be surprised to discover that Get Out, his feature directorial debut, is a horror film. They shouldn’t be surprised, however, to discover that this shocker — about a black man who goes to meet his white girlfriend’s wealthy family and discovers that things are a little, well, off — is artfully made and highly referential; Key & Peele has always shown more stylistic polish and cinematic know-how than the average comedy sketch show. To highlight some of his influences, Peele has programmed a BAM retrospective titled “The Art of the Social Thriller” — a diverse series that includes films like The Shining, The ‘Burbs, and, um, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He talked to us about the retro and his love of horror with a message.

What came first for you, horror or comedy?

It was sort of simultaneous. My first experience with horror was just that — it was being horrified. It was a very uncomfortable experience originally for me. And it wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen that a switch flipped in my head and I started to really respect the genre more than anything else. I feel like I’ve always had a brain for comedy, and a love of laughter and a love of making people laugh, so that was a very natural direction for me to take my career. But I think horror is my favorite, and it’s the one I will go out of my way to watch.

Was therea particular film in the genre that resonated with you at the time?

The films that really affected me when I was younger were The Fly by Cronenberg. The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween.

Explain the thinking behind this series you’ve programmed and what you mean by “social thriller.”

The “social thriller” is a genre I’m particularly obsessed with. To me, it’s about the notion that to find the scariest monster we need look no further than the human demon. And when I talk about the human demon, I’m talking about the evil we’re capable of collectively. Society is capable of some beautiful things, but when we get together we’re also capable of the darkest atrocities. Get Out I would consider a “social thriller” — the horror is embedded in the way people interact, the way people think, the way people categorize. It’s a very difficult genre to pull off, but when done right, it’s my favorite thing in the world.

You’ve got all these genre titles in the series, and then right in the middle there’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which actually has a great horror movie title.

Yeah, that’s right. It’s not an actual thriller, it’s just a great exploration of the social phenomenon of how we deal with race, putting it in a package that everyone can understand. Anybody can relate to the fear of meeting your potential in-laws for the first time. So it’s unique on the list, but I think what it shares with the thrillers is that, because it’s an inclusive movie, it does the same thing that a more heightened genre film does — it brings us together to have a collective experience and tell a story that everyone can relate to. At a certain point with Get Out, I realized that I was making a sort of thriller take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

So often, horror seems to be the genre best suited to address social issues. Many horror films over the years have been read as allegories of Vietnam or nuclear anxiety. Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war fed the torture-porn craze here in the U.S. And yet race is so rarely a subject in horror. Your film feels like a corrective to that.
We’re in a renaissance right now – a time where untapped voices and perspectives are getting platforms for their stories. That’s the missing piece: Hollywood has neglected minority voices, and I think that’s changing. Several milestones have led to progress. Barack Obama being elected is one. The international success of F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is another. So now we find we’re in this renaissance where a lot of black and other underrepresented ethnicities are getting platforms to do pretty elevated work. You see that on television with Donald Glover and Atlanta, or in movies with Ava DuVernay with A Wrinkle in Time.

Speaking of which, did you get a chance to see Under the Shadow, the Iranian horror film?

I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m fascinated with the monster of the djinn. I look forward to it. I’ve heard great things.

It was interesting seeing that and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night the year before. Two very different films, obviously, but it was certainly fascinating to see Iranian-diaspora filmmakers get into this genre, and transform it in their own way.

Absolutely. It’s one of these things where I feel like with the changing landscape of entertainment and with the emergence of the digital medium as a more affordable way to make content, we’re seeing these situations where people are willing to take risks and something new, fresh, and different becomes a commodity. So I think we’re just at the tip — the beginning of seeing this phenomenon really pay off for the industry.

Get Out exemplifies how suited horror is to discussing race. Because horror is all about the body — and not just the subgenre of “body horror.” So much of it is about the body being taken over by some other being, as in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, or the body being attacked and abused by some other being. It seems like it shouldn’t be a leap for a genre that traffics in those ideas to address race.

It’s difficult for a few reasons. One is, I think it’s understood that it would be particularly distasteful — or imagined as being distasteful — for a white filmmaker to tackle things that contain imagery of victimization of black people. So, on one hand, yes, it just takes black voices getting a shot. But it also is a difficult needle to thread because tonally you want to make a film that’s not exploitative. You want to make a film that’s fun and that’s an escape and doesn’t crush people with the burden of all the real suffering that race has brought people. So it was an ambitious project from my perspective, and one I felt like might never actually get made.

Were you were working on it for a long time?

The idea was germinating for several years before I got it together. But then I ended up writing it about two and a half, three years ago, like actually sitting down, pen to paper.

Two films I’m really happy to see represented in this retro that don’t get seen enough are The People Under the Stairs and Candyman, two of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. Candyman of course is also possibly one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. But People Under the Stairs is a totally unclassifiable film.

Part of the reason I programmed them is obviously because they involve black characters, but they also, in some ways, are about racism. Candyman more than People Under the Stairs, but People Under the Stairs represents, whether intentionally or not, a certain fear of what goes on behind closed doors in white homes. And it also approaches the notion of enslavement of the people they’ve got hidden under the stairs. Then of course Candyman himself was the son of a former slave who was murdered for racially charged reasons, and we experience that movie through the eyes of a white woman in the scary projects of Cabrini-Green. With those movies and Night of the Living Dead, you sort of have the triumvirate of racial horror.

You’ve also programmed Rosemary’s Baby, which in some ways is the film that Get Out reminded me most of. Rosemary’s Baby feels like it’s in a realistic vein for so long. It builds and builds and then by the end has reached delirious levels of absurdity.

One hundred percent. I mean, that’s Ira Levin, right? The man who wrote it. And one of the things about Rosemary’s Baby that really strikes me — the same with The Stepford Wives, which Levin also wrote, and which I wasn’t able to get on that list because of rights reasons — those movies are about gender in a similar way that Get Out is about race. They both signaled to me that it was possible to make an inclusive story that everybody can enjoy and get freaked out by, and it wouldn’t sort of break America in too negative a way.

Well, America’s already broken.

America’s already broken, right! But as you’ve noted, they’re also movies that have this very distinct Ira Levin pace. And that style really works towards what I was trying to do with Get Out, because it stays so grounded for so long that the lead character is justified in sticking around. Chris in my movie, just like Rosemary, or Katharine Ross’s character in Stepford Wives — they all have reason to believe maybe it’s just them being paranoid, that it might just be the normal horrors of the world and not something heightened and darker and, you know, the dark fever pitch ending that all three of those movies get to.

I know that you’re a Stanley Kubrick fan. You programmed The Shining, which makes perfect sense. Did you ever consider programming Eyes Wide Shut? There are also some familiar elements there with Get Out — with the initiation into another world where it’s clear that you don’t belong.

Well, there’s even a scene where [the protagonist’s best friend and confidant] Rod is on the phone and he says, “You in a Eyes Wide Shut situation. Leeeeave, motherfucker.” You know, it’s a great observation. I never thought about it just because it’s not one that sings to me, but I do recognize that film has some special layers to it.

‘The Art of the Social Thriller’

Through March 1, BAM