I re-watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner before catching Jordan Peele’s Get Out in theaters. Many critics have suggested Peele plays off the earlier movie’s title and crowd-pleasing comedy-of-manners style. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was old-fashioned when it opened in 1967. Sidney Poitier was a big star at the time; he was the only black actor who was a star. And here he was, waiting a whole movie to see if a white girl’s liberal parents will permit their daughter to marry him. (Wouldn’t it have been awkward if it ended with a “no”?) Spencer Tracy gave his blessing, Katharine Hepburn teared up—and the movie became a hit. The older generation probably liked it more than the kids; they saw themselves in Tracy and Hepburn’s shoes.
Now, fifty years later, Get Out takes that movie and exaggerates every small bit of humor so that it turns into a horror show. Jordan Peele, who writes and directs Get Out, isn’t here for your good will. This one isn’t for the parents. His leading man Chris (newcomer Daniel Kaluuya) is going to meet his white girlfriend’s parents, and—just like he suspected—his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) hasn’t told mom and dad he’s black. But she tells Chris not to worry; her dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.
Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are, as promised, peak New England white liberals. He calls Chris “man” and brings up Obama right on cue. They semi-apologize to him for employing black help; it looks weird, even if they’ve been with the family for years. But Chris notices something peculiar when the housekeeper looks at him. Her manufactured smile, her Stepford Wife pleasantness. And then there’s the neighbors, whose microaggressions about Chris’s blackness become macro quickly: “Is it true what they say?” a wealthy white woman asks as she feels his bicep.
Get Out is a pointed rebuke of white people’s good intentions. Whitford and Keener are especially great at conveying that benevolent white mentality, where people promise they don’t see race, and desperately want people of color to know they’re the good ones. There’s something deeper beneath all that, the movie suggests, as we try to bury our discomfort around race by avoiding the subject. That attitude, taken to an extreme, can manifest as something dangerous. Next time you see some politician or public figure make a gaffe—instead of thinking “but they mean well,” refer back to this movie. Chances are, they don’t mean well at all.
Peele doesn’t try to fool us into thinking everything will be fine. This peaceful home, blandly welcoming at first glance, becomes increasingly claustrophobic, and Kaluyya captures Chris’s growing bemusement well. Even when the movie goes for a joke—and it’s often pretty funny—the humor comes out of an unsettling tension. A scene with a cop car, for example, immediately brings in a horror external to the movie’s fictional nightmares. A black man in the wrong place when the police show up? Peele plays with that tension throughout the movie.
It’s a highly imagined world we enter, absurdly so, but the dangers are uncomfortably real. And our Saturday night audience laughed and cheered and screamed the whole way through. Jordan Peele’s made his own crowd-pleaser, but this one doesn’t let us off the hook.