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‘Get Out’ and the Golden Globes: A Lesson Not to Laugh At

The potential nomination of Jordan Peele's thriller in the Globes' Comedy or Musical category suggests a larger prejudice against genre films.

It’s easy enough to mock — or maybe get on your high horse about — the fact that “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s brilliantly creepy lightning-rod racial thriller, is now in the running to be nominated for Best Comedy or Musical, rather than Best Drama, at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards. The movie, of course, is neither a comedy nor a musical. (Discuss.) It’s drama of the most riveting and original kind, one that sucks you into a vortex of (justified) paranoia, turning into a nightmare that suggests a forbidden “Twilight Zone” written by James Baldwin and staged by the Roman Polanski of “Rosemary’s Baby,” with a ghostly touch of “Mandigo.”

Tempting as it might be to blame the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for this particular screw-up, it was the film’s distributor, Universal, that chose to submit “Get Out” for Best Comedy or Musical, doing so without Peele’s knowledge. That accounts for why he first commented on the issue, to Eric Kohn of IndieWire, in a way that was critical (“We don’t want our truth trivialized. The label of comedy is often a trivial thing. The real question is, what are you laughing at?”), only to wind up making a quick peace with the studio decision in a statement that ran on Deadline (“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”). The waters of social media got into a brief boil, but the attitude now seems to be: If Jordan Peele is cool with this, then why shouldn’t everyone else be?

Everyone probably should, though the pesky and dated Golden Globe categories (drama! comedy! musical!), which sound like they’re offering accolades to ’70s daytime variety shows, can be a useful pop-culture barometer even when they’re wrong. The Globes provoked a Best Comedy or Musical kerfuffle in 2013, when “American Hustle” was nominated in the category. In that case, the movie had its share of laughs, so you could argue that it qualified, but “American Hustle” was also a swirling vertiginous panorama of sleaze and corruption — no more a “comedy,” really, than “GoodFellas” or “Pulp Fiction.” The nomination seemed, in its way, to be trivializing what was left of ambitious mid-budget movie culture. In 2015, the nomination of “The Martian” in the same category seemed to be a mindless way of saluting a good popcorn film.

The nudging of “Get Out” into the Comedy or Musical category may be a slipshod gaffe (or a ruse calculated to increase the film’s awards chances), but it doesn’t feel quite that simple, since the mistake, as Peele initially suggested, carries a telltale overtone of racial pigeonholing. It says, implicitly, that when you’re watching a highly entertaining commercial thriller about African-Americans, how could there not be something funny about it?

Yet given that no one takes the Golden Globes too seriously, there’s a lesson here that extends beyond the Globes’ schlock categories. The shoehorning of “Get Out” into the Comedy or Musical slot, while certainly patronizing, is also a kind of code, a shorthand for the following idea: “It’s not a serious movie. It’s a genre movie.” And that’s a perception that “Get Out” will need to overcome during awards season. You could say, quite rightly, that it’s a horror film (as, indeed, “Rosemary’s Baby” was), but the problem with that formulation is that the very phrase “horror film” now carries the connotation of something bloody and juvenile and over-the-top. That’s why the Peele-endorsed description of calling it a “social thriller” is so much better.

Whatever you call it, “Get Out” is now going to have to contend with the larger prejudice that says that a movie that’s this much of a gripping, suck-in-your-breath experience of dread and violence and kinky sinister racist mind games is too much of a pop sensation to qualify as the kind of “serious movie” the Academy Awards traditionally nominate. In that sense, it will have to battle the same kind of middlebrow art-vs.-mainstream pop thinking that “The Dark Knight” did (and that movie, in the end, failed to vault over the anti-pop prejudices of voters). It’s a grand irony indeed that Hollywood has a long and fabled track record of honoring message movies about race. “Get Out” fits right in with those films, or should, except that it’s more scandalously honest in its perceptions, made from inside the experience it’s about. It’s a racial funhouse mirror that turns the liberal message of  “tolerance” on its head.

One reason why “Get Out” may have been mislabeled as a comedy is that horror today often works the same way comedy does, as a kind of heartless transaction with the audience, one that places us on the other side of a divide from the people on screen.

Drama, on the other hand, invites the flow of empathy. To experience “Get Out” not as a buy-your-ticket-and-have-your-jolts genre film, but as a bona fide drama, is to say that what Daniel Kaluuya’s photographer is going through isn’t just a “ride” but a combustible projection of the psychology of black and white interactions at a time that’s too thick with well-meaning piety to allow those dynamics to be talked about in the public square. In the era of Black Lives Matter, “Get Out” offers a crucial nightmare vision of what’s really going on, under the surface, when black lives don’t matter. The movie could use some year-end love from critics’ groups to find its proper place at the awards banquet. But if that happens, what the critics will be doing isn’t just their usual honoring of a work of art. They’ll be opening a great many minds to what a work of art is that doesn’t necessarily (at least to everybody) look like one.

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