If you’re black and want recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, your film most likely follows a very distinct formula.
12 Years A Slave tells the story of a man from New York who gets sold into slavery. Precious details the life of a 16-year-old pregnant girl growing up in Harlem in the late 1980s. Selma depicts the fight for black people to gain the right to vote in Alabama, as told through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr. and the epic march to Montgomery in 1965.
Each of these movies can be sorted into specific categories that consistently gain the Academy’s attention. Black directors, producers and writers who have been nominated for top Oscar awards — like best picture, best director and best original screenplay — often helm movies that are about slavery (12 Years a Slave), a historical figure (Selma, Lady Sings the Blues) or inner-city life (Moonlight, Precious).
That is, unless you’re Jordan Peele. On Sunday, Peele could win his very own statuette at the 90th Academy Awards for Get Out, his directorial debut.
“I think Get Out is a movie that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as an Academy movie two years ago,” a new Oscar voter told Vulture. “It doesn’t really fall into any of the boxes that we think these movies do. … It actually is provocative. It questions everything. It’s brilliant.”
Get Out follows the story of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he takes a trip with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to visit her parents. Chris spends the weekend skeptical of the family’s black servants while simultaneously dealing with a barrage of microaggressions — houseguests ogle Chris’ athletic body while Rose’s father promises he would have voted for President Barack Obama a third time. In a twist near the end, we learn Rose is actually a honeypot in the family’s scheme to collect and repurpose black bodies.
The movie smartly discusses race — without relying on history or stereotypical portrayals of black people on screen — to depict a wholly original idea. Chris doesn’t live in the civil rights era or on an impoverished street corner; he’s just a black guy who likes photography, who’s staying with his girlfriend’s family for the weekend. Meanwhile, the other black characters in the film, like dinner party guest (Lakeith Stanfield), the maid (Betty Gabriel) and the field worker (Marcus Henderson) are all under mind control.
That twist might feel unusual for an Oscar contender, but that’s exactly what’s so refreshing about Get Out: Because it’s a horror film, Peele’s able to explore the nuances of race in ways that aren’t as familiar or tired as the tropes usually seen in more straightforward dramas.
“Horror is this fun-house mirror that you can view your trauma through in a way that makes it more palatable to stare at head-on,” author and educator Tananarive Due said in an interview with Mic. Due is an expert on the film and teaches a class on Get Out at UCLA. “A more realistic film, like dramas about racism, do well with the Oscars. But do we really want to see that again? You wonder, ‘Is this just going to be more torture porn?’”
The first Oscar given to a black actor went to Hattie McDaniel for the 1939 movie Gone With The Wind. McDaniel won the best supporting actress award for her depiction of the housemaid Mammy. Since her win, fewer than 40 other black people have won Oscars. That number itself is appalling. But when you look specifically at the three categories in which Peele is nominated, it becomes even clearer that recognition of black talent leaves a lot to be desired.
Only a handful of black-directed films have ever been nominated for best picture, including Precious (Lee Daniels); 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen); Selma (Ava DuVernay); Fences (Denzel Washington); Moonlight (Barry Jenkins); and Get Out. John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Daniels, McQueen and Jenkins round out the list of black people nominated for best director. And for best original screenplay, Suzanne de Passe (Lady Sings the Blues), Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), Singleton and Peele have garnered nods. Minus Peele, all of these films fit neatly into boxes that appeal to the Academy.
Even if you look at Get Out apart from the context of race, it’s an anomaly. Movies released in February rarely see best picture nominations; the last was Silence of the Lambs in 1991. (The film went on to win the award). Horror and thriller movies rarely get nods, with the Academy nominating only five for best picture before Get Out.
Oscar nominations aside, the film has already made a big impact on culture and the film industry. It was the most profitable film of 2017, raking in more than $250 million on a budget of $4.5 million. Peele brought the movie back to theaters a year later for free, and fans showed up. It’s inspired others within Hollywood, like Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, to pursue horror stories surrounding people of color. The movie introduced us to “the sunken place” and inspired so many great memes.
Due said that in the three times Peele has dropped by her class, she’s learned something new each time. She also said the film winning an Oscar would be a big moment.
“It’s very important if Get Out wins an Oscar,” Due said. “It opens up the idea of what it means to be a filmmaker of color beyond the very strict lanes we have now. Get Out winning an Oscar will help validate other young filmmakers who want to make off-the-cuff projects. That kind of inspiration always makes the difference.”
Correction: March 4, 2018
A previous version of this article referred to Lakeith Stanfield’s character as one of Rose’s former boyfriends.