Jordan Peele is a comedian. But “Get Out” is no comedy.
So when the news broke this week that one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films would be submitted to the Golden Globes as a comedy, folk weren’t having it. Not fans, not film co-star Lil Rel Howery — and writer/director Jordan Peele himself cynically tweeted, “‘Get Out’ is a documentary.”
OK, this horror film isn’t exactly a documentary either. But it is rooted in racism — the real monster. The movie, about a young black photographer meeting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time, offers moments of comic relief meant to break up the tension as supremacy dines on the soul of black folk.
“We don’t want our truth trivialized,” Peele told IndieWire Wednesday. “The label of comedy is often a trivial thing. The real question is, what are you laughing at? Are you laughing at the horror, the suffering? Are you disregarding what’s real about this project? That’s why I said, yeah — it’s a documentary.”
Regardless, as Entertainment Weekly reported, Universal Pictures entered the film as a comedy. The Golden Globes were already a joke, where sci-fi drama “The Martian” won the comedy/musical prize in 2016. This controversial victory led to a rule change: “Motion pictures shall be entered in the category that best matches the overall tone and content of the motion picture. Thus, for example, dramas with comedic overtones should be entered as dramas.”
Studios enter movies in the Globes’ comedy category thinking it is less competitive than the drama category. Horror films have it hard in Hollywood. They make box office bank. “Get Out” brought in $250 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget. But at the Academy Awards, rarely does horror win best picture or screenplay. “Silence of the Lambs” is an Oscar unicorn.
Sometimes a Golden Globe win can drive momentum for the more coveted, more competitive Oscars, which don’t separate comedy and drama. But in this case, remixing a serious film into a comedy to pursue some sort of legitimization just hurts.
This is a movie about racism, marginalization, stereotypes, interracial dating. And yes, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and even Peele have found ways to use comedy to expose the injustice of these things. But “Get Out” was not a laugh-out-loud, good time. LOL? Nah.
While other Golden Globe moves can be shrugged off as Hollywood shenanigans, this miscategorization is more troubling.
The film came out a month after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, when a scab had been rubbed raw and exposed the Divided States of America. Black people weren’t surprised at this election: We’d long known the climate was ripe for a president stoking racial tensions.
“Get Out” was horrifying because never have I seen a film breathe life into what W.E.B Du Bois called a second sight, a double-consciousness for black people:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Du Bois penned that over 100 years ago. And today is no different.
When you grow up constantly facing the fact that your very humanity is scrutinized and people see your existence as a threat, you live with a certain fear.
“Get Out” digs into that terror. So, yeah, it’s not easy to see it treated as a comedy. Especially when black people have historically been made to shuck and jive for white validation. This movie is critically acclaimed — 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, the studio wants to play the game, hedge its bets and enter the film as a comedy in hopes of scoring that win for both best film and, perhaps, for star Daniel Kaluuya. We’d like to believe that’s a win they can get on their own, no sleight-of-hand needed.
Earlier this month, Peele told The Hollywood Reporter what a letdown it was when “MADtv” refused to let him out of his contract so he could regularly play Barack Obama on “Saturday Night Live” during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.
“Ultimately it was a teaching moment and a lesson that you can’t sort of expect the system to look out for you,” he said. “You have to make your own way.”
In the movie, the lead character gets trapped in “the sunken place.” It’s a metaphor for marginalization and oppression.
Maybe this comedy category is a chess move. Maybe it isn’t.
But so many of us can’t laugh about it because we all know we do what we have to do to get out.
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star columnist: @jeneeinkc