Critic's Notebook: Why 'Get Out' and 'Moonlight' Are Breakthroughs in Black Filmmaking

Universal Pictures/Photofest; Courtesy of A24
Daniel Kaluuya of 'Get Out' (left); Trevante Rhodes of 'Moonlight'

Jordan Peele's horror film and Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning coming-of-age drama have broken conventions of how the African-American experience is portrayed onscreen.

The historical felicity of Jordan Peele’s horror movie Get Out topping the domestic box office on the same weekend that Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight won the best picture Oscar did not go unnoticed by many pundits and critics. “Get Out … deserves, in its own way, to be viewed alongside Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as a giant leap forward for the possibilities of black cinema,” wrote critic and filmmaker Brandon Harris in The New Yorker, adding that “Get Out feels like it would have been impossible five minutes ago.” Two days after the ceremony, author Mark Harris added a third film to the mix and tweeted, “Weekend plan: Go see Moonlight, I Am Not Your Negro, and Get Out. A triptych on America, and maybe the best moviegoing day of 2017.” After years of African-American filmmakers not getting much Oscar love or many opportunities to direct mainstream pictures, two had broken through, each in his own unique way.

Of course, these are extremely different movies. Yes, they’re both low-budget efforts — Moonlight cost about $1.5 million, Get Out about $5 million — that are achieving significant critical and financial success. But one is an understated and elegant coming-of-age drama, the other an in-your-face horror film. An audience member who actually decided to do a double-feature of the two might wind up being whipsawed between the moody contemplation of Jenkins’ masterpiece and the shock scares and surreal stylizations of Peele’s wild fright-fest.

But look deeper and some interesting connections do emerge between the two works. Both challenge viewers’ assumptions about their respective milieus, drawing much of their power from confounding expectations. Consider Moonlight, which presents the kind of world we’ve seen so often on film: an urban environment populated with drug dealers, junkies and bullies, the perfect combination for a coming-of-age-in-the-hood story. And yet, Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s depiction of these characters flies in the face of cliche. Oscar winner Mahershala Ali’s drug dealer Juan is one of the film’s most compassionate figures, a gentle soul who shows concern for young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) when the boy hides out in an abandoned building. He teaches the child to swim, to be comfortable in his body, to not be afraid of who he is. When Chiron asks Juan what “a faggot is,” the latter’s response is telling: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” That’s not the kind of thing one expects to hear from drug dealers in movies.

Chiron’s mom Paula (Naomie Harris), a junkie, is troubled and deteriorates over the first two sections of the film, but her concern for her son is never in doubt: She may be an addict, but she never stops being a mom. Harris has said that she initially rejected the part because this type of character was such a demeaning cliche in movies; it was only after Jenkins assured her that Paula was modeled after his and McCraney’s own mothers that the actress realized this depiction would be different.

Indeed, one could argue that Moonlight takes the hard spaces and rough figures of inner-city Miami and imbues them with vulnerability and tenderness, creating a work whose softness stands in pointed, poetic contrast to the violence and confrontation so often reserved for these kinds of stories. (Guns make ever-so-brief appearances in the movie, and are never used — seemingly betraying a narrative dictum that dates back to Chekhov.) That’s not to say that Jenkins and McCraney let their characters off the hook; when Paula confronts Juan about the fact that, for all his stated concern for her and her child, he’s ultimately the one selling the crack she’s smoking, he doesn’t have a response.

Get Out, meanwhile, feels in many ways like the diametrical opposite of Moonlight. There isn’t a single white face in Jenkins’ film, whereas Peele’s is about a black man navigating that whitest of spaces: a genteel, old-money outpost in what appears to be rural Connecticut or upstate New York. If Moonlight showed us the inner city and its denizens in an unexpected light, Get Out does something similar with its wealthy, liberal, “tolerant” milieu, filled with the kinds of people we’re supposed to like. “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have,” says Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) after he wonders how her parents will react to his race. “The love is definitely real.”

The parents do indeed appear to be very kind and progressive: Mom (Catherine Keener) is a down-to-earth psychiatrist, while dad (Bradley Whitford) is adorably annoying in his constant attempts to be cool around Chris. They even feel guilty about the fact that they employ a black maid and a black groundskeeper: “I know what you’re thinking,” Mr. Armitage tells Chris. “I get it. White family, black servants … I hate the way it looks.”

Still, there’s clearly something wrong here. Finding himself in a garden party with the Armitages’ neighbors, Chris gets a lot of attention — not of the you-don’t-belong-here variety, but of the creepily obsequious, we’re-so-happy-to-have-you kind. One guest tells him that “fair skin was in favor for the last couple of thousand years. Now the pendulum has swung back. Black is in fashion.” Another admires his strength. Another, with a wink and a nod, inappropriately asks Rose, “So, is it true? Is it … better?” It’s very, very unsettling. And, of course, it all leads (SPOILER ALERT!) to the revelation that these crazy white people have essentially been harvesting African-Americans and implanting their own brains into them, thereby giving themselves immortality and strength by appropriating black bodies and wiping them of their identities. In the world of Get Out, interracial tolerance becomes a gateway to the negation of the black self. You can read it in all sorts of ways: as an uncanny allegory for gentrification, a portrait of racial anxiety or a look at how performative tolerance can mask something even more insidious. As Shawn Tyler at The Nerds of Color puts it, “Get Out is the consequence of thinking that America became some post-racial bastion because of Obama’s two terms as president.”

Thus, we are presented with two visions that upend the seemingly familiar: Moonlight shows us the love and beauty to be found in the hood, while Get Out shows us the fear and madness to be found among ostensibly progressive elites. Meanwhile, both films demonstrate the vitality of having people of color behind the camera. Without someone like Jenkins, with his roots in Liberty City, Miami, and his familiarity with that world, it is highly unlikely that Moonlight could portray its setting with such compassion and vividness. Similarly, without Peele in the director's chair, Get Out might not have struck the kind of chord that it has.

Peele is one of the very few African-Americans who have had the opportunity to make a mainstream horror film. That distinction isn’t just a diversity checklist item to be crossed off; it is critical to the achievement of the film. When I interviewed him for the Village Voice last month, we discussed a series of “social thrillers” he recently programmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — genre movies that had influenced Get Out. (The lineup included everything from Rosemary’s Baby and Candyman to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Funny Games.) At one point, I asked Peele about why the horror genre — which, after all, is obsessed with the body, with physical cruelty and objectification and possession — had so rarely tackled the issue of race. He replied that one reason was simply that “it would be particularly distasteful — or imagined as being distasteful — for a white filmmaker to tackle things that contain imagery of victimization of black people.” He added, “It just takes black voices getting a shot.” That is, in part, why Get Out is so unforgettable: It’s a movie that goes there. And it could never really have gone there without someone like Jordan Peele behind the camera.

Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for the Village Voice.