Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Jordan Peele's Get Out and Us bring together the usually vastly different realms of social commentary and horror. But there are a few questions that Peele's movies bring to mind.
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out (2017), and the consequent Us (2019), took the world by storm and understandably so. It isn’t often that one comes across a feature film, in the genre of horror, that explicitly deals with social issues, particularly those of race and class. In fact, it may even be argued that these two films are the first of their kind, in the realm of Hollywood horror, where a significant source of horror appears to be the portrayal of these very social contentions that lie at the core of the films.
In Get Out, it is not merely the subtle portrayal of casual racism through conversations and expressions that is disturbing, it is the explicit and calculated, horrifically warped version of the slave trade, carried out by a Caucasian family, that is at the centre of the horror in the film. The mix of social commentary, horror and science fiction elements of the film finally culminate in a gruesome bloodbath eventually leading to a hard won “emancipation” or “freedom”.
In Us on the other hand, while the subtle commentary on race continues, it is perhaps the idea of class and differing identities that take the forefront. While more like a stereotypical horror film than Get Out, involving its fair share of gore and fear, the root of the experience of horror may be identified as the revelation of the kind of lives that is led by the mirror images of the characters – ‘the tethered’. The horror of not only their existence but also the nature of their warped, dark, reality draws forth the idea of the uncanny, the familiar that is horrific in its simultaneous similarity and difference, making us question our own identities and the darker underbelly (quite literally!) of that which is outwardly evident.
Here, again, like in Get Out, the social commentary is quite obvious, within the first quarter of the film. When Lupita Nyong’o’s character asks her mirror image “who are you?”, to be met with the resounding response of “We are Americans.”, it is the question of sections of society that are side-lined and often ignored, but perhaps possess an equal claim to an identity that we call our own, that is brought to the forefront.
Given this mix of social commentary in a genre as unlikely as horror, the waves surrounding the two films are not only understandable but also expected. In addition, Peele’s impeccable direction, the sheer quality of production, and the outstanding performances by the cast certainly make the films worthy of discussion and serious consideration. However, the discussion and accolades surrounding the films largely appear to centre around their social relevance, begging the question, is a socially relevant and critical film exempt from the discussion that any other film would be subject to? A discourse examining plot, structure, writing, dialogue, cinematography, among a whole host of other constituents.
In the specific case of these two films, it is specifically the plot that asks for a closer look. Looking closer at the films reveals a splotchy, incomplete plot that appears to have been thrown together to allow for the portrayal of the commentary itself. In the case of Get Out, the story is perhaps cliched and hardly compelling outside of the explicit inclusion of the element of race. Similarly, in the case of Us, while the film begins with an idea that is fresh and unique (portrayed to brilliance by Lupita Nyong’o), the second half of the film rushes through what appears to be a cursory plotline, leaving most if not all questions unanswered, resulting in a significant lack of comprehension with regards to the story itself.
Who cared for the tethered and provided them with the food and supplies needed to survive? Why did they survive at all? What was the difference that allowed for the ‘revolution’, the “untethering” to be undertaken by the characters played by Nyong’o? Why now? These are just a small section of the questions that remain unanswered by the plot of the film that appears to focus instead on the social relevance and the horror of the characters.
This, of course, is not to say that the larger concerns of the film are unimportant or should not be talked about. In fact, the inclusion of these ideas and concerns within the realm of horror is a significant step towards furthering the much-needed discourse revolving around these concerns. This is, in fact, particularly significant given the current political and social atmosphere that the world is looking at.
However, with regard to the realms of film and literature, this move, as made by Peele in the two films, begs the question of what is important in a story with a message? While the message is certainly significant, does that mean that the story itself should not be compelling? Or that the elements key to telling a story that grips the imagination be ignored?
Is it enough for a story to portray an important message? Or does there need to be more for it to be a story that captures our imagination?
There is certainly no single correct answer to these questions, but for the sake of the future of literature and film and of any other art form, particularly given the current situation of the world, these are questions that deserve some consideration.
They are questions that we must each, as consumers, ask of ourselves.