Like anyone, the thought of meeting my partner’s parents is anxiety-inducing. But it was only recently I realized how much concerns about race played a role in my nerves. After all, in my country, South Africa, the act against “miscegenation” was only repealed in 1985, a year before I was born. The tense interplay between race and the inequality of privilege is still very much alive any time a black man is introduced to his white partner’s parents—even though the latter would have you believe all that died once Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner came out. So when I watched the trailer for Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a strange flood of familiar anxiety arose—only it was raised to toxic levels and coated in suburban horror. And that made me incredibly excited, because maybe now, everyone else will get how we feel.
In my experience meeting (white) parents, they struggled to say my name, and asked me where I was “from,” despite being from the same city as their own child. I never regarded these interactions as racist, but they drew clear lines of division between myself and my friend or lover’s. Instead of bringing us closer, it made us drift apart, as I was reminded I could never be truly part of their parents’ world. After all, this was a world where, for much of these parents’ lives, such relationships were literally against the law.
Seeing white people’s increasingly uncomfortable responses to Daniel Kaluuya’s character and his race in Get Out made me react for the first time to a horror film with: “Yup.” Kaluuya’s character appears, and is treated, like some kind of alien being. The white community he’s introduced to just can’t connect to him; their eagerness turns into offensiveness. Get Out takes this even further of course: in its twist, white people are revealed as brainwashing, modern day slave-owners. Here, the worst fear that black people have is confirmed and sharply amplified. They are indeed seen as alien, in the sense that they’re depersonalized, which harkens back to the mindset that perpetuated slavery in the first place.
Horror is partially about turning the dials on mild anxieties up to eleven. It works best when the genre inverts or extends the familiar and puts spikes on it aimed for your eyes, letting banality be the cage that finally traps you. You can’t escape, it says, because you’ve been here so long already. You dug into this hole thinking it was safe, but it’s not. Systemic racism, one of the deepest holes we’ve dug, has so rarely been explored in Western horror, but Get Out is proof that it should be. Famously, George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968) had a black man, Duane Jones, in the lead role, and managed to tap into issues of race relations at the time. Indeed, as The Wrap’s Joe Kane pointed out in 2010, “Jones also contributed what proved to be an important component in perfect synch with the zeitgeist, an element vital to the film’s runaway success: black rage.”
Representation matters in film, books, games, and all media. It helps to translate issues pertinent to particular groups in a way that can be comprehensible to those outside. You could ask, if issues of race are so awful, why would I want them conveyed—let alone conveyed with the mechanism of horror? Why am I looking forward to having my white friends see Get Out? It’s simple: because there’s hope that through the powerful responses horror elicits, the feeling of being mistreated, patronized, and disregarded because of skin color can potentially be understood by those it’s never happened to. Nestled in the safety of fiction, we can experience the lives of others, feel their frustration and anger and fear.
This isn’t putting too much into one film I’ve not even seen yet. It’s putting emphasis on the bigger issue of representation, of putting people of color behind the camera and in front, to tell stories white people could not (and would not). Get Out promises to be a statement that issues of race are not issues to be fixed by people of color, but by white people listening and confronting their privilege. The movie presents an opportunity for me to show my white friends what it’s like to be a non-white boyfriend meeting my partner’s white family in a saturated yet understandable way. Get Out, for lack of a better phrase, gets it: in a world where an outright racist with support from the KKK is a U.S. presidential candidate, being on the darker side of an interracial relationship can actually be horrific.