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Spoilers: Get Out (of course!)

After considerable delay (sorry), I’m going to conclude my three-part analysis of Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by discussing the use of theme. The movie has been widely praised for its exploration of race relations in America. It’s unusual to hear people talk about theme in a genre movie. We typically think commentary on social issues as being the opposite of entertainment. But Get Out uses racial issues and tension to provide a context for the dramatic horror story events. This allows Peele to both make more sophisticated comments on race relations and to use those relations to deliver twists and thrills for the main horror plot. The most overt aspect of race relations in the plot is the idea of Chris, as a Black man, going to the very white world of his girlfriend’s upper-class family. The very real and understandable anxiety this causes Chris helps to establish the creepy tone that I discussed in my first post on the movie. The act one encounter with the traffic cop, who asks for Chris’s ID even though he isn’t the driver, adds to the sense of danger (more about this scene in a bit). But initially the white people are mostly not played as racists. In fact, they seem very self-aware about the situation and about the optics of having Black servants. Rather, we are given a look at the more subtle aspects of race relations. It’s easy to say racism is bad. Peele wants us to examine the insidious way it works even when white people are well meaning. This context also helps create story points and dramatic scenes, which can then illuminate thematic issues. Consider when Chris’s TSA buddy, Rod, goes to the police to report that Chris is missing. He talks to a Black detective, who then brings in other Black detectives to hear Rod’s theory about a white sex slave ring. We assume that they will believe him – but it turns out they think he’s a nut job, which gets a laugh. What Peele is doing here is playing with audience expectations. This is a form of dramatization. Rather than talky pontificating on the theme, he is finding ways to show us how race works in our society. He achieves this by considering what the audience will expect. Our expectation is that the Black cops will believe Rod's theory… because they’re all Black. In order to reinforce that, Rod clearly shares this belief. By undercutting our expectation, the scene causes us to examine why we believed it to begin with. And from an entertainment perspective, it creates an obstacle for one of our heroes, heightening the drama – we establish that no help is coming from the authorities. We see this approach again in one of the big twists at the end. When Chris is choking Rose and the police car pulls up, we immediately assume the cop is going to believe Rose, and that Chris will be arrested. We are primed for this belief because of Chris’s treatment at the hands of the cop in act one. So when Rod gets out of the police car instead of a racist white cop, it’s a complete surprise, even though it’s also completely plausible – we knew Rod was looking for Chris. This is a great example of building a twist with the kind of planting and payoff I discussed in the second post in this series, but layering in thematic expectations to create a red herring for the audience. Another way to explore theme in a movie is through the supporting characters. Not everyone in Get Out expresses the same attitude toward race. Rose’s parents are well meaning but also a little condescending. Rose, meanwhile, expresses shame about her family’s behavior when she and Chris are getting ready for bed at her parents’ house. This is a particularly subtle scene because the subtext is that Rose is delighted to be able to feel superior to her parents. And of course we later discover this was all an act (Rose is a classic shape shifter in the mythology structure archetypes). Other characters with different thematic perspectives include Rod, who warns Chris not to go to the white people’s house, the wealthy people who think being Black is “cool,” and the blind art dealer who buys Chris not because of his race, but because of his photographic skills. This last one is particularly interesting because the movie has set up a slave auction conspiracy where Black people are only valued physically, but one of the most frightening characters is actually one of the least concerned about race. Again, Peele upends our expectations and makes us think. It’s easy when discussing theme to get into a literary theory mode, but I try to make this a practical, how-to blog, so let me refocus a bit on some of the techniques I’m discussing here. If you want to do a story with a strong exploration of theme, these are some of the things you should consider:

  • Build a context for your story that allows you to dramatize thematic ideas rather than have characters talk about them.

  • If you really want a thematically complex story, avoid binary thematic approaches (“racism is bad”) in favor of nuance. Present contrasting ideas that challenge a binary interpretation.

  • Consider audience expectations and undercut them to create entertaining twists that also cause the audience to think.

  • Give supporting characters different attitudes on the theme.

Most importantly, tell a dramatic story about a real character with a relatable dilemma, and create entertaining scenes. Get Out succeeds because it’s suspenseful, emotional, and funny. The thematic elements heighten the entertainment value rather than bogging the story down. And the audience is open to thinking about the thematic elements because they are enjoying the experience of watching the movie.

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