For a white audience, the movie might be one of the few times they’ve been asked to identify with a regular, imperiled black person without the sweetener of a white co-star — no Spencer Tracy or Sandra Bullock here, just Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as the Armitages, the sort of parents who’ll inquire about the history of their daughter’s interracial relationship by asking: “How long’s this been going on? This thang,” as daddy Armitage does. For a black audience, the movie could have ended right there. What does an affluent, middle-aged, suburban white dude know about a thang? And what’s he doing saying the word with this much insinuating self-delight, this much put-on jive? “I didn’t want any white saviors,” Peele said over lunch. White saviors hog the history of race in American film. Instead, his movie is full of white people whom Peele reveals as insatiable predators of blackness.
In a bid to help rid Chris of the urge to smoke, Mrs. Armitage tries hypnosis. She sits him down and swirls a spoon around the rim of a teacup and commands him to “sink into the floor.” Suddenly, Chris can’t move. He’s entered a state of paralysis that Mrs. Armitage calls the “sunken place.” There’s a cut to Chris falling downward into a dark space, looking up at the lighted surface where his body sits motionless while his struggling subconscious drowns. It’s a strange, complicated, disturbing metaphor for the long history of white control over the black body. It’s also a prelude to the rest of the movie’s sinister doings, which include a racist cabal of the Armitages and their mostly white friends and culminate in an elaborate medical procedure called “coagula.”
The “sunken place” is the movie’s most potent metaphor. Peele says he devised it as a way of thinking about a crisis like the mass incarceration of black men. “The first moment in the writing process where I sat there and cried,” he told me, “was realizing that while I was having fun writing this mischievous popcorn film, there were real black people who were being abducted and put into dark holes, and the worst part of it is we don’t think about them. I hadn’t been thinking about them. We put them to the back of our minds. That was kind of a trigger point for me, this idea of the back of one’s mind.”
As a concept, the sunken place has grown even more capacious. It has been repurposed to explain both institutional disenfranchisement and racial self-estrangement — an explanation for the behavior of black people who seem to be under white control, based on either their sustained proximity to whiteness or statements construable as anti-black, or probably both. Sunken-place entrants include Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson, Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson, sometimes Kanye West and any black person with something nice to say about President Trump. It’s more generous than “sellout” and less punitive than “Uncle Tom,” a dis and a road to redemption.
Before he noticed fake Chris, Peele had been talking about the restricted ways bigotry is discussed. “We’re never going to fix this problem of racism if the idea is you have to be in a K.K.K. hood to be part of the problem,” he said. The culture still tends to think of American racism as a disease of the Confederacy rather than as a national pastime with particular regional traditions, like barbecue. “Get Out” is set in the Northeast, where the racial attitude veers toward self-congratulatory tolerance. Mr. Armitage, for instance, gets chummy with Chris by telling him he’d have voted for Obama a third time. “Get Out” would have made one kind of sense under a post-Obama Hillary Clinton administration, slapping at the smugness of American liberals still singing: “Ding dong, race is dead.” Peele shows that other, more backhanded forms of racism exist — the presumptuous “can I touch your hair” icebreaker, Mr. Armitage’s “I voted for Obama, so I can’t be racist” sleeper hold are just two. But Clinton lost. Now the movie seems to amplify the racism that emanates from the Trump White House and smolders around the country.
A few people have remarked to me, not unreasonably, that “Get Out” isn’t terribly plausible. The cabal doesn’t make sociological sense. How does the cotton stuffing go from the armchair into Chris’s ears? What does a weekend at the Armitages look like with no black visitor? None of the terror stands up to logic! But when is terror logical? Peele developed a tone, other than hysteria, to present the black experience of discomfort in seemingly benign white worlds and the way their residents chronically deny the reality of that experience. Peele takes that reality as a given, but he is amplifying the paranoia that results from its constant denial. It’s a movie made by a person having the same bad dream I and lots of other black people have had.
Every time I’ve seen it, I’ve thought about that moment not too far into Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” when somebody asks, “What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?” What befalls the black characters in “Get Out” is the thing we’re scared of.
Before we met, Peele presented one serious stipulation. “When you come to the office and see cards with names and details on them, I don’t want anybody knowing about that,” he warned. He is already at work on his next movie and doesn’t want to say much about what it is. He does intend to sic the “Get Out” model on other phobias and -isms. But which ones? “It’s tippy-top secret,” he told me on Halloween. “I can give you hints or something.” Peele says he wants to make “more social thrillers about different human demons, and the first human demon that I was trying to tackle with ‘Get Out’ was racism and neglect for one another. It’s going to be another piece of that project.”
On an overcast afternoon, Peele’s assistant, a chill young man named Alex Kim, drove us into the Hollywood Hills to the Spanish-style colonial house that for about eight months has been the office of Peele’s production company, Monkeypaw. Like a lot of the residences up here, this one is nestled into the geological table and seems charmingly underfurnished. Most of the common space feels spare in a lonely, college-y sort of way. Some rooms have rugs, but the longer you’re there, the more rugs you want to put down. There were no visible markers of any coming projects, just walls of inspired fan art and designer posters, like the black-and-white image of a coffee mug fashioned with Kaluuya’s worried face and a spoon stirring where the top of his skull should be.
These guys might be too busy to worry about décor. Peele is producing a new “Twilight Zone” for CBS All Access and, with Misha Green and J.J. Abrams, another anthology series for HBO based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, “Lovecraft Country.” Peele’s comedy “The Last O.G.” — in which an ex-con played by Tracy Morgan adjusts to, among other things, Brooklyn gentrification — is set to start on TBS in the spring. Monkeypaw is co-producing Spike Lee’s next movie, “Black Klansman,” in which an undercover detective somehow winds up running a chapter of the K.K.K. And then there’s the diversification initiative for young writers and filmmakers working in what lots of fans and critics call “genre,” which combs the country for voices — women of color, say, or gay people — that Hollywood tends to ignore. And of course there’s Peele’s own movie.
Wandering around the house makes clear that Peele’s lean into horror and thriller and science fiction and fantasy isn’t a lean at all. It’s just Peele. Anytime I’d marvel at a picture or poster in the house, he seemed delighted that I recognized it. He recited with perfect accuracy the scariness classifications from Stephen King’s 1981 horror-culture manifesto, “Danse Macabre” — terror, horror, revulsion — and convincingly applied them to “The Blair Witch Project.” He loves Alfred Hitchcock’s films (“every single possible aspect of the cinema working in unison to bring you something new”). But also Darren Aronofsky’s bonkers crypto-Old Testament flop, “Mother!”: “I think that that movie will stand the test of time in a way that more successful movies won’t.”
Peele’s space on the top floor doubles as a mini museum of his sensibility. A tall, loaded bookshelf holds everything from screenwriting manuals and six installments of the Japanese manga landmark “Akira” to Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” to an LP of Philip Glass’s score for the underrated 1992 urban-blight horror film “Candyman.” There are encyclopedias on “early earth” and “vampire, werewolves and other monsters,” and a slender volume titled “Trolls.” “Another one of my favorites over there,” Peele said, gesturing toward a frame hanging by the door: a poster for “The Secret of NIMH,” an animated Don Bluth special from 1982. It’s “a weird combination of fantasy,” he said, “and kind of melancholy and some scary [expletive], but beautiful. Beautiful.”
“I’m a film geek,” he told me when we first met. And as a film geek, Peele has learned the rules for various genres — whom they include, omit and exploit and how to re-engineer it all. Earlier, Peele thought aloud about the notorious horror convention of black characters being the first to die. He believes we’ve looked at it the wrong way. The real problem, as Peele sees it, is that they don’t survive the movie at all. “Final girl” is a horror trope. “Final brother” is not. Usually, if Peele is watching a black person in a horror movie, he knows that “it’s just a matter of time until Tyrone walks away to smoke some weed or pee or something and gets macheted. It used to come right at that moment when you know everyone’s going to die. But you definitely know the final girl is not going to be the black dude.” So Kaluuya represents a correction. Now, he said, “Daniel’s the final girl.”
For a movie with this much grisliness centered around as fraught a theme as race relations in America, it’s notable that the only substantial fight about it has been one of classification: What is it? In mid-November, it was reported that “Get Out” had been submitted for Golden Globes consideration in the “musical or comedy” category, in which it’s now a nominee. Twitter — black Twitter — practically collapsed in exasperation, managing a collective SMDH. “Musical or comedy” constituted an insult, albeit an ironic one, to the historical injury the film appeared to be addressing. The dismay amounted to: What’s so funny about black pain? At the controversy’s peak, Peele tweeted simply, “It’s a documentary,” poking the beehive with characteristic waggishness. But days later, he released a statement that read, in part:
The reason for the visceral response to this movie being called a comedy is that we are still living in a time in which African-American cries for justice aren’t being taken seriously. It’s important to acknowledge that though there are funny moments, the systemic racism that the movie is about is very real. More than anything, it shows me that film can be a force for change. At the end of the day, call “Get Out” horror, comedy, drama, action or documentary, I don’t care. Whatever you call it, just know it’s our truth.
Peele told me he meant for the tweet and the statement to reflect the anguish and pride of the movie’s fans. “To me one of the greatest things about having this movie come out is we can get to this conversation that says: Who’s calling it what, and why are they calling it that?” With that “documentary” tweet, Peele was more or less saying that the movie’s genre is truth. Its other genre could be empathy. A nonwhite audience might have been Chris once, twice or all the time. But white audiences are pushed into an uncomfortable new experience. “One of the reasons this movie clicked with more than just a black audience,” Peele said, “is because you get to be black while you’re watching it.”
Blackness is the orienting principle of Peele’s art. Its richness, its strangeness, its beauty, its complication, its ridiculousness, its divisiveness, its allure, its very realness. Many a black artist has explored blackness, but few have found it as fascinating as Peele appears to. It perplexes, amuses and excites him, the way language obsesses some novelists and food delights certain cooks. Increasingly, though, he has wanted to do more for blackness — building that pipeline, for instance, through which other artists’ ideas would flow.
You can see the shift from frolic to duty in his sketch work with Keegan-Michael Key. Their Comedy Central show, “Key & Peele,” was, in some ways, a lab for “Get Out,” one in which they did as much critiquing of blackness as they did of white people’s relationship to it.
One sketch from Season 1 features a fake documentary about the bar mitzvah “party motivators” Gafilta Fresh (Key) and Dr. Dreidel (Peele). They blast into a banquet hall with a dose of rappity-rap B-boy blackness. They’re Kid ’N Play. They’re a minstrel act. And everybody digs them. The documentary cuts to a Jewish mother who says: “When you see black people at a bar mitzvah, it’s very exciting. It’s like a scary ride. And the kids just love it.” The father tells the filmmakers: “You just really can’t put a price on the look on your child’s face when they see a black person for the first time. It’s just magical.” Gafilta and Dreidel do all kinds of stereotypical black-party shtick, in the hope, they say, of exposing Jewish kids to black people early enough so that they don’t discriminate. It’s a walk around the rim of a sunken place.
Somewhere in all this code-switching and impersonation is a stinging indictment of the cultural attraction to “niggas.” America loves a loud, crazy, funny black person as much as it needs to see him passed over for work, harshly sentenced and shot to death. “Key & Peele” was unusually creative in the way it satirized that duality, until the gravity of what we were being asked to laugh at began to darken the lunacy of the show. For the final two seasons, the bright “Cosby Show”-style a cappella number that opened each episode was replaced with ominous “True Detective”-like music, and rather than talking to a live audience, the comedians talked to each other in a car. They were on a road trip, but their enclosure whispered “fallout shelter.”
Key and Peele’s was a classical comedy combo: tall and shorter, zany and chill, wet and dry, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. Key’s exuberant virtuosity can upstage Peele’s subtlety. Peele is quieter and seems to be doing less. Whether Key is Michael Jackson or Tim Cook, he boils over, melts down, blows up, simmers, stews and karate-kicks. He’s the rocket. Peele is the control center. He doesn’t appear to hunger for applause the way Key does. You laugh at Key because he works so hard. You laugh at Peele because, by comparison, he makes it look easy.
Key told me he believes “Get Out” is cathartic for Peele. He’s using his work to work on himself. “I’m the kind of person who would sit across from a therapist on the couch and go, ‘Then my mom. …’ ” Key told me. “Whereas Jordan doesn’t know another way to do it other than to do, and he has enough confidence in himself to say, ‘Well, I’m going to do it this way,’ and I’m not sure he’s necessarily conscious that he’s doing it.”
Peele suspects that the self-investigation he is undertaking through his work has something to do with his father, whom he didn’t see after his 7th or 8th birthday. He contrasts his relationship to his blackness with that of Key, whose biological and adoptive fathers were black. “If you had a black father around, I think that role model gave him a context to understand his blackness,” he says. “I would probably have been the voice in ‘Key & Peele’ that was pushing and pushing and pushing to expand the definition of ‘African-American.’ I can see how that is something I’ve been searching for in my art.” He and Key played scores of black people of every type, and many with no type at all. For some African-Americans, for a long time, rules for what counts as black have been apparent. And they’ve been fixed. The joy of Peele’s comedy with Key was in their violation of those rules. The show was about how lost in this stuff we all are. “Get Out” is a determination to be found.
In November, Peele was in good spirits as he sat in the greenroom before a conversation with Seth Meyers at the 92nd Street Y. He was dressed in new jeans, white sneakers and a black sweater with a taxi-cab-yellow stripe across the front. It was a variation on his usual streetwear (baseball caps, varsity jackets, hoodies, boots) but even fresher. As he was getting ready to go onstage, I asked him if he missed performing. His answer was firm. “I don’t miss it. I just don’t.” Did he not miss it for the moment? Like, was he on a break from it? Or did he existentially not miss it?
“I existentially don’t miss it,” he said. “I think there will probably be a point where I get really excited about a role and go for it because it feels fresh again and new.” With comedy, “the failure on performing is brutal,” he said, then laughed to himself. “We’ll see how I feel when my next movie bombs.”
I mentioned that the between-sketch banter in the early episodes of “Key & Peele” was often as funny and as revealing as the sketches themselves. “One of the hardest things about a sketch show is,” he started to say, before taking a second to consider what the hardest thing could be. He happened to be facing the dressing-room mirror, giving himself a solemn stare. “The way we were approaching sketch was complete immersion into these characters and going for it. People like routine in television. They like ritual. They like knowing what they’re going to get. This is why it’s hard to break in a new sketch show — because the first season you just look like a bunch of people putting on outfits and trying too hard to make everybody laugh. And we only want to laugh at people we trust, not these new [expletive] coming in. No way.” He thought some more. “I’ve noticed that the truth works. People can feel the truth. If you’re being yourself and you’re just using your own emotions, they can feel it. If you’re doing fake, they can feel it. It took me a while in comedy to realize that your truth is more powerful than your mask.”