Director Jordan Peele, whose groundbreaking movie Get Out is nominated for four Oscars, spoke to TIME columnist Eddie S. Glaude Jr. about his film, his fears and his hope for American culture
Getting four Oscar nominations is a big deal. You’re only the fifth black director to be nominated in 90 years of academy history, and for a social thriller about race. How have you processed all of this?
I’m trying. The only thing that makes it make sense is the realization that it’s bigger than me. I’m inspired by the wonderful black directors that have come before me and realize that I can pay it forward. I am also proud to be a part of this renaissance happening in Hollywood. There used to be the view that black films couldn’t sell overseas. Straight Outta Compton proved them wrong. It just feels great to be part of this moment in which directors who come from groups that have been marginalized by the industry in the past are getting opportunities.
You have that Oscar recognition, but then you have the misrecognition of the Golden Globes: you didn’t get a Best Director nomination, and the film was nominated as a comedy, which upset a lot of people. You’ve made light of it, but to my eyes and ears it says something about the moment. What do you make of it?
I am honored to have an international body recognize the film. And, you know, that my first film was celebrated by the HFPA and the Oscars is beyond my wildest dreams. As far as the question of genre, I actually like that the film doesn’t fit easily into any one box. We knew we were creating a movie that defied categorization, so the fact that it continues to do so is pretty satisfying.
There’s a tendency among critics with a film like Get Out to run past the craft of filmmaking to the politics of the film. You’re really comfortable talking about the politics of the film. That’s clear. But talk about your aesthetic. What are your influences, and what do you want people to feel as they see?
You know, I wanted this film to have this combination of esoteric, refined imagery, and then a certain emotional richness to it. Certainly, I thought of it in terms of Kubrick and Spielberg. I thought of Alfred Hitchcock as being probably the master of beautiful refinement in the [horror] genre. And then there are moments of other maestros that I’m pulling from. Cronenberg. There are David Lynchian moments. John Carpenter and Ang Lee. And there’s a major relationship to Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. Many horror films go to the depths of dirty, seedy, filthy Gothic horror. I’m much more drawn to films that explore a beautiful, disarmingly attractive aesthetic. That’s why I wanted to set the movie in this idyllic Northeastern-y home.
You’ve said that “every frame has to be beautiful.” That really struck me, along with the lighting and the way you focused on facial expressions. How does your training in puppetry inform this?
Puppetry is basically another outlet to combine visual aesthetic and theatrical performance. When I went to college, I declared puppetry as a major–partly because I was obsessed with puppets, but also because I didn’t feel like I could fail at puppetry. Puppetry was a rare art form to see in any type of success, so I wasn’t setting myself up for failure. Now, this was a liberal-arts education at Sarah Lawrence. I took a puppetry class, I took a sculpture class, I took acting, comedy classes. I also took philosophy, literature and psychology classes to give me this well-rounded perspective. And I fell in love with sketch and improv. That was when I realized that the most intricate puppet was something I was born with–my body, the natural puppet. If I could apply what I was learning about puppetry to myself, I might be coming at it from a unique perspective.
Flash forward to actually directing, and directing is just that. It’s this huge collaborative, intricate puppet show–I don’t mean to suggest that performers are just puppets. On the contrary. I learned from puppetry that you have to listen to your puppets as much as they need to listen to you. You have to have a symbiotic relationship, you have to understand one another, because all you’re really doing at the end is setting them up to blossom and to do what they do.
You have talked openly about your early childhood. Having to contend with this sense of being “other,” and then finally checking the box: “black/African American.” You felt the ground beneath your feet. When I watch your comedy or hear you talk about race, there is an organic feel you have with black culture. It doesn’t appear to be the result of choice. You don’t hear folks saying, like some did with President Obama, “He’s trying a bit too hard.” How did you navigate all of this as a child?
My education in what it means to be black in America came from growing up black in America. Popular culture helped me contextualize that in terms of how we are allowed to be seen. Films like Glory and Malcolm X inspired me on the reverent side. In Living Color inspired me on the irreverent side. I loved that show, because where most shows had a token black actor, this one had a token white one. I didn’t quite catch the early Eddie Murphy on SNL, but his films influenced me as well. Aside from black people from around the neighborhood, I had a few black role models at church– one of whom, artist Houston Conwill, was particularly cool.
But mostly I learned what my place was as an African American by how I was viewed and treated by others–when black kids at school told me I sounded white, or the time I was stopped by the police with my Nerf bow and arrow, I began to understand that I was expected to fit into a certain categorization.
My mother got it. She understood the importance of all of this. She encouraged me to explore that side of my identity.
You have said that the source of your attraction to horror movies is that you were a terrified child. So was I. But I was deathly afraid of my father. What was the source of your fear?
I didn’t really know my father. I guess if I was to engage in psychological theory, part of my fear of unknown horrors might be because he wasn’t around, but that might be me reaching in retrospect.
I think the major source of my fear is that I have a vivid imagination. I grew up in New York. Single mother. Latchkey kid. I had time on my hands–time to imagine what was hiding in all the crevices of New York City. Darkness and silence and the fear of the unknown have haunted me. The fear of death is the big one, right? I think comedy and horror are both ways in which we deal with the existential crisis of the knowledge that the pattern of life we’re so used to will one day be broken, and we don’t know what will happen next.
When I was about 13 years old, I went on a class trip to a campground, and I told a scary story around the campfire. This was a turning point for me because I remember the story hitting–like, it worked. It really scared the–it just really worked. You could just feel this palpable shiver go through the place. After that moment, I remember walking through the woods to fetch something, alone, at night, and just feeling like I had a new superpower, where I was no longer afraid of the dark. I was not afraid of the unknown.
It taught me that wielding the power of fear put me on the other side of it. And it allowed me to appreciate the artistry of horror and fear. I almost felt like I was on the side of the monsters — I was to be feared, and therefore, if there were any monsters out there, they would treat me as one of their own. That was kind of the feeling I had.
What does it mean to wield the power of the fear of race? I’m always going back to James Baldwin, maybe because I’m writing a book about him, but he has this line from “Stranger in the Village” that people who insist on remaining in a state of innocence, long after that innocence is dead, turn into monsters. He would later associate that formation with white liberals, particularly. The monstrousness of white liberals comes into view in Get Out. What are you saying to us about white liberals?
We have this association of the monsters of racism being a certain type. Being a Klan member. Being a Nazi. Being a vicious, outwardly violent, murderous police officer. They are the monsters, but in categorizing them as such, I think we often lose sight of the demon of racism. It is a systemic thing, and it’s something that we all have to deal with within ourselves. I am less scared of the person who calls me “nigger” than the person who is thinking it near me.
Even though it’s awful, I can identify someone who’s vocal, and therefore I can stay away from them, I can call the cops, I can try to have a conversation with them — whatever. But when there’s silence, when there are people who are not in touch with their inner racism, that’s when the violent culprits find room to fester and grow. And that’s where all those checkpoints in systemic racism are allowed to flourish as well.
It’s like that moment in Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He is speaking to those liberals, those preachers who are standing by, watching the demonstrations, silent in the face of it, who claim a certain kind of progressivism but who urge us to go slow–a certain kind of moral stance in relation to the world.
A big part of why I made this film was I felt like the way we talk about race as a culture is broken. We haven’t even agreed on the definition of the word racist. Anybody in this country, whether they carry tiki torches or whether they are just a cog in the system —if you call them a racist, it’s the worst insult you can use. Calling them that is not entirely wrong, but [the gut reaction to the label] prevents many people from looking at their own racism. “I can’t be racist, because I’ve got a black friend.” How many times have you heard that one, right? So, my hope with this movie was to add this piece to the conversation, to observe the connection between the subtle, “not hurtful” racism and the worst racism, of violence and slavery and abduction. I felt that by drawing that connection, even if we have a hard time talking about racism, we might have an easier time talking about the movie Get Out.
We’ve got to have some hope in all of this. What do you think is the role of art, and the artist, in this panic-stricken moment, where terror seems to be around every corner in the age of Trump?
The beauty of art and the beauty of story are society’s ways of encouraging empathy. Take Get Out as an example. There is a lot that can be accomplished by expressing the fears within the African-American experience. There’s a lot that can be accomplished by white people experiencing those fears.
The Coagula operation in the film is absolutely a way that white people can live in the head of a black person for 90 minutes. That’s a narrow, specific example. Every artist who puts their truth out there means to provoke conversation or to provoke emotion. They are already doing something that is promoting empathy. They are inviting us into their heads. The division in this country comes from a lack of empathy. It comes from a denial of one another’s experiences. It’s not a mistake by any means that this outwardly divisive time is juxtaposed with people of color making ambitious and beautiful films and television, and art.
Glaude is the chair of the department of African American Studies at Princeton
This appears in the February 26, 2018 issue of TIME.