Roger Ebert, who knew a thing or two about films, summarised film’s force like this: ‘We are all born with a certain package… where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person… And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy… It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.’ You are likely not Missourian mother with a murdered daughter. You’ve never been evacuated from a French beach. You probably aren’t a gay Italian teenager in the summer of 1983 in northern Italy – yet we are moved as though we are. Central characters ‘are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption…’ John Yorke wrote. ‘Effectively they’re us’.
All good films are empathy machines. Most of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards are great films primarily because we feel this empathy with the heroes. But no film does this in a more radical, exciting or significant way as Get Out. It’s the best* film of the year.
Writer/Director Jordan Peele does something simple yet profound with his first film: populating a conventional horror movie structure with a black man as the hero and white people as villains, pulling audiences into a mind-set that others have been striving to for eons: the black person in America.
As such. Chris, our protagonist, starts off nervous about meeting girlfriend Rose’s parents. I’ve been nervous before! I relate to that! When unnecessarily asked to present his ID by an officer, Chris complies rather than cause a fuss. That’s a likeable trait! Then his girlfriend’s family act inappropriately towards him; he remains polite. What a good dude! ‘By the middle’, Peele explained, the audience ‘were Chris. They were all the main character’.
These typical empathy storytelling building blocks, however, aren’t quite typical: they’re shot through with racial tension. Chris’ nervousness stems from being a black man meeting a white family. The officer asks him for ID because he’s African American. The brother’s inappropriate behaviour pertains to Chris’ genetics.
Our emotions, therefore, are Chris’ emotions as he comes under attack from this white liberal community. At the Finding The Keys moment – perfectly played by Daniel Kaluuya – Chris drops the bag he hoped to leave with and realises he’s alone. At once, the audience is Chris: a black man in a hostile white world. It’s inclusive cinema, ‘Here, white people, come see what it sometimes feels like’, and important stuff.
This is the empathy machine of film being used in an exquisitely political way. Jordan Peele weaponises film structure. Yet as innovative as this is, it detracts nothing from the entertainment of the film as horror.
‘I just want to make stuff for my friends,’ Kaluuya said. ‘I want my friends to go, “Oh, I really enjoyed that.”‘ Such pure popcorn that it is, the racial sleight of hand almost hides in plain sight. If you’re not looking – like this anonymous real-life Oscar voter wasn’t – Get Out is an engaging movie with an interesting slant. And that’s fine. But Jordan Peele snuck a message on racism – that the life of an African American even in a liberal US community can be disturbing – into a popular horror flick. It’s like leaving Alton Towers and realising Rita: Queen of Speed brought you closer to understanding Black Lives Matter.
1) Add great performances and shrewd comic relief to the most exciting use of empathy in film this year; 2) Stir in generous foreshadowing and irony for repeat viewings: like Chris escaping his pending slavery by ‘picking cotton’ from his shackled armchair; and 3) Leave to cool for one year. If that doesn’t cook up a Best Picture Oscar, the Academy must have strange tastes.
*Obvious there’s no such thing as a ‘best’ film. How’s most inventive and thrilling?