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“It’s important to note that there’s no one faction or individual that I can blame for my having never seen a protagonist that looked and felt and thought like me in movies [before I created one],” says Jordan Peele, the writer/director of 2017’s best reviewed movie — the $4.5 million horror-comedy Get Out, an uncomfortable look at race relations in America, which has grossed more than $250 million worldwide — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 38-year-old, who was best known as one-half of the comedy team Key & Peele, which was at the center of an Emmy-winning sketch show of the same name on Comedy Central from 2012-2015, continues: “There’s no one person to blame. It really is a systemic failure — everybody plays their part, some more than others. But with Get Out, I was as much in my way — because of the system I thought I had to fit into — as anybody else. So it was me breaking through my own barriers that made this movie possible.”
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Peele was born to a black father and white mother and grew up on New York’s Upper West Side. He says that, as a biracial man, questions about his place in the world have been on his mind for as long as he can remember. “I think there was inner conflict that I wasn’t necessarily processing at the time,” he says of his adolescent years. “But, just reviewing my own work in Key & Peele and Get Out, it seems very clear that I’m obsessed with race.” Peele started performing comedy at 11, decided he wanted to become a director at 13 and, midway through his studies at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, where he co-founded a popular improv sketch group, dropped out and got to work. He and a friend moved to Chicago, where they developed a comedy act that won a following, and he also did a stint in Amsterdam, where his skill at impersonations first became apparent.
While still in Chicago, Peele met Keegan-Michael Key, another biracial man who he soon realized was “a total freight train of comedic energy,” and the two quickly “bonded.” Six months later, they both auditioned for — and won spots in the cast of — Fox’s sketch comedy series MADtv. Peele’s ultimate dream had been to appear on Saturday Night Live, but he spent five mostly happy years on the next best thing. What devastated him, however, was when SNL, during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, offered him the opportunity to become its regular impersonator of Barack Obama, MADtv refused to let him out of his contract, which ended shortly thereafter. “I had a lot of anger about that for a long time,” he acknowledges, “but ultimately it was a teaching moment and a lesson that you can’t sort of expect the system to look out for you. You have to make your own way.”
It took a while, though, before Peele could fully appreciate those lessons. “I went through kind of a dark time because of that whole thing,” he says, but he ultimately decided to channel his frustrations towards something positive: “I took all that negative emotion I was having and I really put it into the future.” In short, Peele wanted to create projects through which he could control his own opportunities and fate, and one of the first that he began developing, through thinking and writing, is the one that became, nearly a decade later, Get Out. At that time, Peele doubted his script would ever get made by anyone, let alone be directed by himself. But he kept working on it, changing it from being about a generic outsider to being, more specifically, about a young black man entering the white world of his girlfriend’s family, and an homage to horror movies he has loved all his life — in short, he says, “making the movie I wanted to watch.”
In the midst of all this, the manager that he and Key share in common suggested that they team up and pitch a show to fill “the vacuum in sketch.” They wound up co-creating, co-writing and co-starring on Key & Peele, a show that, for five seasons, dealt with social issues — particularly, race in America — as humorously and powerfully as anything on TV. For their final season, they were awarded the best variety sketch series Emmy over, among others, SNL. Through it all, Peele kept chipping away at Get Out, and Key & Peele ended when it did, in part, he says, because he wanted to finish his movie — especially after Universal decided not only to make it, but asked him to make it his feature directorial debut.
Get Out was released on Feb. 24, the weekend of the 89th Oscars, and blew away all critical and commercial expectations. Peele acknowledges that this probably had something to do with the fact that, just a month earlier, Donald Trump had been sworn in as America’s 45th president, replacing the black man he had denigrated more loudly than any other public figure over the prior eight years, and causing America’s racial tensions to reach their worst point since the Civil Rights era. “Get Out, I think, struck a chord because the victims of racism and the people who have seen it and know it’s been there and gone unchecked needed that catharsis,” Peele opines. “So much of the point of the movie was to get people talking about these things. That was what it was about, right? We’re not talking about this, and part of the reason we’re not talking about it is it’s so unpleasant to talk about race that it’s almost a nonstarter to have an intelligent, dignified conversation with somebody of a different race — it’s almost impossible without emotions getting so in-between the communication. So the point of this movie ended up becoming, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if people have conversations about race, but it doesn’t get tense because they’re talking about this fucking movie that they just saw, and they’re talking about ‘The Sunken Place,’ and they’re talking about what happened at the party and all that kind of thing — they’re starting from the same page, ‘We’ve just seen this movie together,’ as opposed to starting from different pages and trying to connect?'”