Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young Black man who’s wary about meeting his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) super-rich family for the first time. Her parents (Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford) seem friendly and welcoming. However, Chris is in over his head as a gathering takes place with a sinister purpose in store for him.
The movie is written and directed by Jordan Peele, who at the time was most famous for being a comedian.
(He’s also married to a white woman, which has caused some speculation about his motivation for writing this movie.) So it seemed a little out of left field for a funnyman to be making a Blumhouse-produced horror movie. Well, it does have plenty of comic relief in the form of Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who warns him not to go, and supplies fairly amusing one-liners throughout. He’s definitely the voice of reason. Humor is used liberally, but it doesn’t detract from the creepiness, as Peele quickly established himself at being a master of horror as well as a comedic genius.
The movie has multiple creepy moments. Rose’s family exudes a sense of something being off, from Rose’s mother Missy, who is cold behind her kind facade, to the maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who constantly smiles, sometimes while crying. The music also helps set the mood; the score includes gospelly spiritual songs, which along with the rural Alabama scenery brings to mind slavery. Or there’s the more traditional for the genre screechy violin when something unsettling happens. There are quite a few effective jump scares, mostly when Georgina appears suddenly.
Most of the frights are psychological. As a white person, I felt a lot of guilt and horror, because it’s not every day I’m reminded of my privilege (though I do try to stay conscious of it), and challenged to consider what life is like for someone without it. And, for those who say we are living in a post-racist society, I say bullshit, come at me. Peggy McIntosh, author of a seminal study on white and male privilege, wrote a lengthy list of benefits white people get simply because of their race, whether they want them or not–not saying every white person is greedy and racist–some of which I quote here:
I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper [this was published in 1988, btw] and see people of my race widely represented. When I am told of our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
And those are just the emotional issues. McIntosh also states, “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.” There’s a scene when Rose hits a deer with her car, and she gets aggressive with the responding police officer who asks to see Chris’s ID for seemingly no reason. Chris treats it as no big deal, while Rose protests because she can—there are no repercussions for her, because she’s white, and wealthy to boot. A scene featuring a run-in with the police serves as a reminder that Black men in America are targeted by law enforcement, and are much more likely to be hurt or killed in interactions with them than with any other race. To quote Dr. Loretta P. Prater, who speaks from personal experience and authored Excessive Use of Force: One Mother’s Struggle Against Police Brutality and Misconduct:
When a Black man is a suspect, he is characterized as a potential menace to society who can legitimately be stopped and frisked, harassed, intimidated, and brutalized or killed, if necessary, in the interest of maintaining public safety. A comparison of racial victimization rates clearly documents that the rate of police killings is much greater for Blacks than for non-Hispanic whites. Thus, there is a disproportionate probability that Blacks, and especially Black men, will be killed by the police, in comparison to other racial and gender groups […] Black men, whether incarcerated or free, innocent or guilty, must carry the stigma of ‘suspect.’
In the course of the movie Chris is treated not only like a criminal, but also like an object. Deer are a consistent image system in the movie, and symbolize two things. One is the angry white notion of a Black “buck”, as summarized by Wikipedia (hey, this isn’t an academic essay):
According to popular stereotypes during the post-Reconstruction era, ‘Black Buck’ was a Black man (usually muscular or tall) who defies white will and is largely destructive to American society. One would usually be hot-tempered, excessively violent, unintelligent, and sexually attracted to white women. Most often, any attempt to restrain, reprimand, or re-educate the individual would fail, necessitating the individual’s immediate execution (usually by lynching).
Rose’s father Dean professes to hate deer, stating, “You know what I say? I say one down, a couple hundred thousand to go. I don’t mean to get on my high horse, but I’m telling you, I do not like the deer. I’m sick of it; they’re taking over. They’re like rats. They’re destroying the ecosystem. I see a dead deer on the side of the road and I think, ‘That’s a start.'” At the same time, deer represent greed and possessiveness and the white coveting of Black bodies. Dean prominently displays mounted deer corpses. People shoot deer and show off their heads because they can. They take for no reason because they can, because they want them, they want to conquer something. (Oh shit, am I being racist by equating Black people with wild animals? I swear there’s textual evidence juxtaposing Chris with deer!
I promise I’m not racist! I would have voted for Obama for a third term, if I could. Best president in my lifetime, hands down.) One of the scariest moments in the movie is when right after Chris and Rose go into the woods for a walk, Dean auctions Chris off. It’s filmed with no discernible dialogue, just blank-faced or jovial white folks bidding on a person (with bingo cards, ’cause white people. And one Asian guy, ’cause Rosemary’s Baby).
The film defies conventions. There are so few horror movies that directly examine issues of class and race. The People Under the Stairs comes to mind, but that was written and directed by a white dude. Overall, it’s an eerie, well-made film. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something extraordinary. (And that’s not white guilt talking.)