Book Review:

Jordan Peele's Get Out: Political Horror, edited by Dawn Keetley

Review by Craig Thomson

Birkbeck, University of London

Review of Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror, edited by Dawn Keetley, Ohio State UP, 2020. 254 pp. Hardcover (ISBN-13: ‎978-0814214275). Paperback (ISBN-13: 978-0814255803). Kindle (ASIN: B086S4RWXL). 

Released in 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out has become one of the most influential films of the early twenty-first century. A groundbreaking blend of horror, satire, and social critique, the film has not only gained widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike, but it has also established Peele as one of the most influential figures in Hollywood. Following this legacy, it is perhaps no surprise that Get Out has become a key text on syllabuses and reading lists across the globe. With such academic interest brewing, Dawn Keetley’s edited collection Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror offers a timely exploration to Peele’s film that not only fills an emerging gap in modern scholarship but also interrogates the film in relation to the politics of the early twenty-first century United States as well as its position within the modern horror tradition.

The book opens with Keetley’s insightful introduction to the film, which contextualizes Get Out and analyzes it in relation to concepts including racial politics, repression, and body horror. Arguing that the text stands as a “parable of complete colonialization” through the coagula procedure that sees white men “pulling the strings” within African American bodies (8), Keetley illustrates the pessimism at the core of Get Out, namely that the film utilizes body horror to “dramatize the persistency of slavery” through the theft of black bodies as well as the immutability of racial difference and white dominance (14). This lens sets the tone for the rest of the book, managing to balance academic enquiry with key contextual information and offering students and academics groundwork for their studies.

The book is organized into two sections each made up of eight chapters. The first part features essays that explore Get Out’s relationship to the horror tradition, analyzing how the film uses the “gothic and horror to shape its (political) meanings” (14-15). The second section takes an alternate approach by focusing on how the film’s politics offer a “sustained critique of racial institutions and practices” in the contemporary United States (16). 

In analyzing the film’s relationship to the horror tradition, the first section offers a variety of essays that consider the film from a wide range of perspectives, from Shakespearian tragedy and the Zombie film to both female and African American gothic. Robin R. Means Coleman and Novotny Lawrence offer a particularly informative chapter on the history and context of the ‘Whitetopia’ within horror cinema. Drawing on a number of examples including Birth of a Nation and Candyman, Coleman and Lawrence argue that Hollywood horror films have frequently “advanced storylines of white preservation” (48) with “cultured, advanced whitetopias” often set against “deviant, roguish Black communities” (49). This racist ideology is then set against both Get Out and Blacksploitation cinema of the 1970s, with the latter appearing to shatter the binary that marks “whitetopia as good and predominantly black urban space as bad” (51) and the former portraying black, urban home spaces as “sites of multidimensional cultural belonging, socio-political savvy, and love and loyalty” (55) and the whitetopia as dangerous, sterile, and monstrous (56). In another compelling chapter, Bernice M. Murphy writes about how Peele’s film recontextualizes the ‘White Trash’ trope within the ‘Backwoods horror film’ represented by texts such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (78): through the Armitage family’s affluent, professional status, large rural home, and dehumanizing treatment of their victims (82-83), Get Out equally inverts and replicates such tropes in fresh and interesting ways.

The second section of the book changes gears by analyzing the film’s politics in relation to the modern United States. Chapters again offer a range of perspectives, including analysis of critical reactions to Get Out and the film’s engagement with the historical context of slave revolt, among others. Robert Larue undertakes a fascinating close reading of the film’s teacup scene, arguing that the sequence offers “an extremely compelling visual representation of the psychological—and by extension material— injury visited upon black males’ sense of identity,” particularly in relation to the historical collapsing of manhood and boyhood in U.S. society (175-176). By being presented within a medium that historically misrepresents black men as ‘boys’ and black youths as ‘men’ (175), the film illustrates how black men often internalize white values and ideas to the point that they “displace any others” (184). For Larue, Get Out makes visible “the assault on black males within a society that claims to have given them all the space and tools they need to survive” (185). Cayla McNally offers another noteworthy analysis of the film in relation to the violence of scientific racism. Arguing that the Coagula Procedure works as a “modern iteration of scientific racism” through its focus on controlling black bodies (213), McNally further illustrates how participants “project their realities onto black bodies” by seeing them as simply strong and virile vessels (220), which in turn mirrors racist cultural attitudes within mass media, particularly in relation to professional athletes (221).

Overall, Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror offers a wide-ranging and accessible introduction for students and academics studying Peele’s landmark film. While the second half of the book may prove more challenging for some readers than the first, the whole collection is an excellent starting point for any scholarly exploration of the subject. I suspect that this book will prove of particular interest to scholars and instructors working primarily in film and television, but will also have value for those who study genre criticism or popular culture more generally.

-28 July 2022