On Film

Column: Going to the Movies

Jordan Peele’s Divided Aesthetic


Sam Kahn

   Recently, I rewatched Get Out! thinking that it would seem like a very different film after years of wokeism and a highly ideological way of thinking about race. But I was wrong. It was just as trenchant, as biting and as funny, as when it came out in 2017 and really shook up everybody — taking what seemed like a very minor sort of ailment, the awkwardness of white people when there was a black person in the room, and extrapolating from that an entire horror scenario, in which the mindset of slavery and of systemic racism lives just below the surface in any genteel interaction in America, and a black person will never, ever be able to fully relax around whites.

   The film was a breakthrough in so many ways. It seemed to create a new genre — part comedy of manners, part horror. It pushed social satire all the way to its outer limits. And it articulated a sensibility that was just coming into public consciousness at the end of the Obama administration: an idea that liberalism might not prevail after all, that racism was so endemic to America — was occurring in such a subliminal way even among people who were avowedly liberal — that, upon further reflection, there just might not be a solution to the society’s underlying racism.    But for Jordan Peele, the film’s director and writer, 37 at the time of its release, there was a more profound problem than just the usual pressure of following up on a runaway success. Peele had become the keeper of a particular aesthetic — politically charged, in parallel to the woke movement — and in his next movies Us and Nope, that aesthetic seemed somehow unstable, not sure what it wanted to do: by common consent, it was understood to be important work, on the pulse of what the culture was up to, but there was clearly a struggle to figure out what direction that aesthetic was headed in.    In many ways, Get Out! is really Rod’s movie — Rod being the crack TSA agent and deus ex machina who serves as the foil to the main action — and its underlying structure is really a buddy com. As the relationship between Chris, the main character, and Rose gets more serious, Rod gets paranoid. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you” he tells Chris as soon as they can speak in peace. “White people into some crazy sex slave shit. You know that, right?” For most of the movie, Rod’s misgivings seem ridiculous. Rose is highly-progressive — takes Chris’ side when he has an altercation with a racist cop, when he gets too much attention from her family’s house guests. And if her family is a bit creepy — the father going out of his way to tell Chris just how much he admires Obama; the mother appearing to be physically repulsed by Chris’ smoking habit; the brother, as soon as he has a few drinks in him, talking about Chris’ “genetic makeup” — well, it’s all dismissible as normal awkwardness. In the film’s lightest moment of comic relief, Rod visits a police station to relay his sex-slave concerns to a team of very serious-looking detectives, all black, who, as soon as he’s finished, burst out laughing. We are so far past any of this, the adults-in-the-room all seem to be saying, but Rod can’t shake his bad feeling. He hightails it out to the country and arrives just in time. The meet-the-parents has, let’s just say, not gone very well, and as Rod is driving Chris back to the city, he gives him a reiteration of his speech. “I told you to get the fuck out that house, man,” he’s saying, and we know by this point in the film that it was never going to work — Chris was never really going to settle down with a white woman whose parents live in the countryside in a house with a gazebo and two live-in black servants — but Chris isn’t listening as Rod speaks. He’s staring out the window and thinking about what? — about the wreckage of the house and the relationship, thinking about how good it all seemed at one point, how America really, actually, seemed to be past its racist past, and how it might have been possible to meet your white girlfriend’s parents without its turning into a horror movie.    Get Out’s! release mirrored a turning in national consciousness. If Rod’s misgivings seemed atavistic during the bulk of the Obama years, they were freshly trenchant with Trump’s election. The preposterous hypothetical — that it just wasn’t going to work out — suddenly seemed very real, and a completely new aesthetic took root on the left. This was wokeism — with its emphasis on trauma, on the legacy of structural racism, and on the impossibility of finding any satisfactory solution within the existing power structure. The perspective of Chris from the start of the film — that meeting-the-parents would be basically ok, that they might have a bit of residual bigotry and might make a few bad jokes, but that it was fundamentally nothing to worry about — was forgotten; and Rod’s hypothetical increasingly became a sort of common sense. The idea was that the bad jokes — the little microaggressions and malapropisms — were the thing to pay attention to. Pick away at any of them and it was possible to reach the deep truth — that nothing had ever really changed; that America was as racist as it always was; and it was just the modality of racism that had shifted slightly.    This idea was expressed very evocatively in Get Out! with the well-heeled Armitage family committed to a legacy of racism from generation to generation, although with each Armitage taking their slightly different approach: Jeremy, the brother, is an unreconstructed slavecatcher, while Rose blends into hipster New York City and has a somewhat genuine affection for each of the black men she dates even as she turns them over to the clutches of the older members of her family. And, in the most memorable scene in Get Out!, American racism is expressed as the microaggression from hell. Chris is miserable at a party thrown by Rose’s parents. He is the lone black person in the room, everybody there seems to be unable to resist touching him, making some weird remark about his athleticism or sexuality, and then the moment he leaves (running upstairs to be by himself), the party — in full force up to that moment — falls completely silent, the point being that this roomful of affluent white people actually has no independent existence on their own, that their sole purpose (the reason they’re gathered here, as per the plot of the movie) is to exploit black people.    Get Out! placed Peele in a complicated position. Clearly, he connected strongly to the feeling of microaggressions, of aggregated discomfort, that drove the film, but it was far from obvious — at least to me watching — that Peele actually bought into Rod’s hypothetical. That seemed, at some level, to be a practical joke taken to its logical, horror movie-ish conclusion. And with his next film, 2019’s Us, Peele was struggling even more evidently with how seriously he took his own fictive premise. The opening image of Us is of the 1986 Hands Across America event — a triumphalist image of American diversity, at its cheesiest. And the arc of the rest of the film is an almost perfect inversion of that. The premise is that Addy (Lupita), while at a boardwalk amusement park in the 1980s, wanders away from her parents and encounters an image of her ‘shadow’ in a carnival’s funhouse mirror. From there, Addy and the shadow self move in opposite directions. Addy grows up, has a perfectly nice family, nice career, nice-enough friends, etc. Meanwhile, Addy’s shadow Red is inspired to begin her apocalyptic act of revenge. “I didn’t just need to kill you. I needed to make a statement that the whole world would see,” she explains — and as captain of the shadow world (‘the Tethered’ in the film’s terminology) — she plans meticulously for the day in which the inversion will take place. Those in the world above are summarily slaughtered — with no horror movie trope left unused in carrying out the slaughter — and the Tethered enact their own vision of Hands Across America.    What else is there to say about Us except that it’s not exactly great? — and certainly not in the same class as Get Out! That’s understandable enough; Get Out! was a high bar to compete against. But part of the trouble with Us was that Peele had to navigate the hybrid genre that he had created. Us was horror, and horror with a higher-than-usual body count, but it was meant to be rooted in a social critique, and a critique that tied back to race. The pairing of the naive surface-dwellers with the underground Tethered was obvious enough — and so was the idea that the whites in the film were oblivious to the existence of the Tethered, while the black characters sort of intuited it. But Get Out! had been based on something very real and specific — the social awkwardness of white people around black people — and had extrapolated its horror scenario from there. Us was all-encompassing in its pop-Jungianism, and its very earnestness made it somehow unconvincing. I fully believed that Peele had experienced excruciating social encounters involving likely-well-meaning-but-utterly-clueless white people that led ultimately to Get Out! I had trouble seeing the grisly fantasia of Us as stemming from Peele’s lived experience.    If Usfundamentally didn’t really work, Nope, Peele’s 2022 film, was harder to evaluate and understand — I’m far from sure that I got everything it wanted to say. Nope gives us a very oblique angle on race. The Haywood family are cowboys who train horses for Hollywood films. The idea is that they’re seen as marginal to the industry-at-large and are barely eking out a living, but the deep truth is that families like the Haywoods are at the very core of Hollywood — the very first motion picture plate (from 1885) is, as it so happens, of a black cowboy.    A series of violent events convulse the fictive world of Nope. In the background hovers the memory of Gordy’s Home, a family-friendly sitcom, in which the trained chimpanzee Gordy suddenly snaps and massacres nearly the entire cast. That event is spiritually linked to the appearance of a UFO that materializes over the Haywood Ranch, swallows up an entire party of hikers, kills the Haywood patriarch, and continues on its tear. Mired in their grief over the loss of their father and the continued struggles of the family business, the Haywood children (OJ and Em) nonetheless have to deal with the advent of the UFO — which they do ultimately through the epiphany that the UFO is, in its own way, an animal with a spirit and that “anything with a spirit can be broke.” This epiphany leads to the taming, outwitting, and eventual destruction of the UFO — a victory that is understood to be highly problematic.    My best reading of Nope is that it connects to the deep rage of being black in America. The usual technique is to hide from the rage, to pretend that everything is ok, to go into some mode of evasion and disassociation (what Em, at a moment of frustration, calls “whack ass OJ”), but in the course of things it’s discovered that there are times when the thing to do is to dance with that rage, to look it in the eye. This is done literally in the film’s iconic moment, with OJ standing before the enraged UFO, keeping his eyes to the ground the way that you do with a bucking bronco, and then suddenly, when he feels the moment is right, locking eyes with it — letting it know that he is not afraid. The various hapless white (and Asian) characters in the film are unable to comprehend or to challenge the rage encapsulated within the UFO, but the Haywoods prove to be more than a match for it.    In terms of sorting out his aesthetic, Nope is a peculiar direction for Peele. It’s sort of mushy — it’s often hard even to work what genre one is in — although the underlying themes could not be more intense or fraught. On the whole, I think I like Nope— it feels personal and idiosyncratic, a somewhat off-kilter attempt to use unlikely genres (sci-fi, horror, to some extent the Western) to obliquely tackle some of the most anguished questions about race in America. But at the same time, with Nope, there was the sense that Peele was losing some of the clarity that he had in Get Out! There, horror had seemed like such a perfect vehicle for addressing race. With Nope, though, the sci-fi was, at best, suggestive, the content of what it was saying about race the sort of thing that moviegoers figure out after they’ve spent a while arguing about a film.    My sense is that the reductionism of Us and the lack of clarity of Nope reveal a larger problem — the struggle, even for a talented filmmaker like Peele, to use the tools of fantasy to speak to our contemporary relationship to race. The inevitable tendency with fantasy is to move into a superhero-ish sense of morality. In all of Peele’s films, emphasis is placed on the sort of eternal innocence of the black characters — Chris, Addy, OJ, and Em are all minding their own business when they are suddenly preyed upon. In Get Out! , that’s by insecure white suburbanites; in Us that’s by the shadow realm; in Nope that’s literally by objects falling out of the clear blue sky. If that emphasis on innocence to some degree reduces the agency of Peele’s protagonists — the structure of the film makes them acted-upon as opposed to acting — Peele’s plots take him also into a direction that may be narratively unsustainable. The plots all hinge on elaborate hypotheticals with symbolic import. It worked in Get Out!, less so in Us and Nope, but the success of Get Out! seems to have helped to create a whole style of filmmaking that goes beyond thinking about race. This style appears, for instance, in the ill-begotten Amazon television show Hunters, on which Peele is credited as an executive producer.    I don’t know the role Peele played in the creation of Hunters, but it feels somehow as if it wouldn’t have existed if Get Out! hadn’t been made. The premise there is that America in the 1970s is completely infiltrated by ex-Nazis up to the cabinet level, and the only possible justice for the Holocaust is for a scrappy band of diverse vigilantes to systematically hunt down the Nazis. Everything about Hunters feels righteous, and a needed corrective to historical injustice, except that it’s also nonsense, and the extreme earnestness of its style betrays the extent to which its creators are quietly aware of the nonsense that they’re peddling. Simply put, there weren’t ex-Nazis in cabinet positions in the U.S. in the 1970s, and the hypothetical reality created in the show feels like a very searing-and-yet-utterly-pointless critique of the politics of that time.    Hunters is a bad show. Peele is a good filmmaker. But within Peele’s work it’s possible to see the problems of an aesthetic that has become deeply influential and is sort of carrying everything else before it (Promising Young Woman would be another example of the genre). That genre presupposes a very deep trauma, an unspeakable wound, and the characters must dig through the surface placidity of their surroundings until they uncover it. The rules of the genre were developed and explored in Get Out! but Get Out! was also, at some structural level, a practical joke, Rod’s paranoid fantasia. Once the underlying humor of Get Out! was jettisoned, the genre became increasingly earnest and self-serious — and took on increasingly wide targets. (All American politics is Nazi-infiltrated was the premise of Hunters; all sexually-active men are secret rapists that of Promising Young Woman.) By the time we get to Hunters and Promising Young Woman all sense of scale is lost. We’re in wild fantasias that — the filmmakers keep insisting — are actually trenchant social critiques.    I’m not blaming Peele for that turn — it’s not his fault that Get Out! was so successful that it spawned schlocky imitators — but it’s useful to understand that the genre (the hypothetical-rendered-as-society-wide-fantasia) derives largely from Get Out! Much of Peele’s filmmaking career going forward will be about sorting out the imbalances between the rules of the genres he inhabits and the searing social critique he keeps looking to make. And much of the aesthetic challenge of our time may be about not yielding to a fantastical, or superhero-ish, understanding of our own politics. The sort of deliberate exaggeration that Peele hit on with Get Out! worked there. But it’s not necessarily a sustainable aesthetic and doesn’t match up to the far more nuanced social reality we live in. Letting ourselves believe the cartoonish version of ourselves runs the risk of our thinking that our problems are much more insuperable, and that we are much worse, than we really are.