Barrett: Peele cleverly engages institutional racism through horror genre

Eva Barrett, Columnist

Jordan Peele’s horror film “Get Out” debuted last night. While Peele has achieved success in the sketch comedy genre through his Comedy Central show “Key and Peele,” this movie looks like a promising crossover. In this horror film, however, the principle horror is racism. Judging by the trailer, the film follows the story of a young black man, in his early to mid-twenties, who is about to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The parents are understood to be unaware of his race.

For many, this is a familiar situation, but more often than not such meetings tend to be harmless. Though there is hope at the onset that their first encounter will run smoothly, this meeting quickly takes a turn for the worst. Given the cultural and political climate both in the nation and on this campus with regard to racism, it’s worth knowing that this major film might very well add something of value to our continuing conversation on race.

The first time I saw the trailer for Jordan Peele’s film, “Get Out,” I cried. They weren’t necessarily sad tears, or even angry tears. They were the tears someone cries when revisiting, reliving and trying to make sense of trauma. Experiencing racism is traumatizing. It isn’t just that the main character of a major horror film is a black man, though this too is important to note—in fact, the film would be very different if he wasn’t a person of color. Furthermore, when black and brown people are cast in horror films, they are typically relegated to minor roles, or are often among the first characters in the film to die.

Instead, what is incredible about Peele’s debut is that it digs much deeper than simply casting a black man as the main character of a horror film. Rather than writing and directing a film of for the purposes of mere tokenism, Peele has created a film in which the nightmare of racism can be translated into a genre of film that has the capacity to really tap into the deep fear that is generated through it. I felt as if a nightmare I had been living, but had in many ways became desensitized to, was presented before me again in an extreme, yet intuitive form.

This intuitiveness manifests in the fictional quality of the film. It provides the space for its audience to explore our subjective rather than systemic understanding of racism. What better way to accomplish this than through horror?

In a recent interview with National Public Radio regarding the release of the film at the Sundance Film Festival, Peele discussed his inspiration for the film.

Every other human horror has its sort of classic horror movie to go along with it,” Peele said in the interview. “So I kind of wanted to fill the gap in that piece of the genre of conversation.”

Horror films, by their nature, tap into our deepest fears as human beings, particularly, the supernatural and the unknown. Racism as a source of fear and trauma blurs the lines between the supernatural and the systemic, thereby making the film that much more poignant.

With this in mind, Peele has managed to take the ambiguity of experience of racism and translate it into a form that is accessible to all who are willing to watch and listen, to lean into discomfort and engage the story of a young man trying to keep himself safe and whole.