Since its February release, Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out has stuck in our minds in many ways. It’s inspired memes, deep-dive essays and communal jokes about Ben Carson being trapped in The Sunken Place. It’s also still breaking records. Besides being the highest grossing feature debut for an original screenplay, the film made Peele the first black writer-director to reach $100 million on a feature debut. And at $162.8 million, it’s the biggest domestic hit from a black director.
It’s obvious why it’s a hit: Strong narrative, resonance and performances. The most powerfully disturbing character is that of Georgina, the black housekeeper trapped in a town where black people’s minds have been seized and their bodies snatched—a role played superbly by Betty Gabriel. When I reached out for an interview, Gabriel was in the middle of shooting her next film, Stem, a sci-fi thriller, in Australia. She thoughtfully found time to talk about Get Out’s themes (however, she declined to comment on some of the criticism about the film’s black female characters and that perhaps being a blind spot for Peele). In this lightly edited interview, we discuss those themes, Georgina’s remarkably frightening presence and why the world could use a little fictional horror. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
JEZEBEL: It’s been about two months since the movie was released and people are still talking about it, there’s been this steady wave of word of mouth, and it’s turned into memes on the internet about, mainly, the Sunken Place. It’s become a pop culture moment, this movie that means something to a lot of people.
BETTY GABRIEL: Yeah, it’s been a year since we worked on it, and in that year, I didn’t have that much to do with it. Once in awhile, I would hear from Jordan and he would say it’s going really well. Several months ago, I got to see little bits of it, but I had no idea how it was all coming together, how it was gonna turn out. And, of course, when I saw that it was getting so well received and I was on the other side of the world, it just kind of felt so surreal. I don’t want to say that I was detached from it, but I kind of felt like, oh yeah, that amazing thing that I worked on a year ago is now here and being shared with the world.
Was it different to see the reactions in Australia? Did you hear from people who were seeing it there?
Well, it’s actually not out in Australia yet. I think it comes out in May. I don’t know how it’s gonna be received there. While there are a few black folks there, it’s a very white place and they’ve got some interesting racial dynamics there as well, given the immigrant classes, the different groups coming in. I guess most recently was the Sudanese immigrant class and there’s some interesting, pretty horrific ideas and comments that they feel about certain people there.
I’m curious if you’ve read some of the commentary on the movie and if you think audiences have a good grasp of what it means. There’ve been a lot of good deep dives into it. Do you think people get it or have you seen some misinterpretations?
I’ve been reading, not a whole lot, but a couple of the thinkpieces and blogs and some of the reviews and, yeah, I think people have really grasped the main concept. What’s great about this piece of work is that you as a person, given your life experience, given whatever mood you’re in that day or night, you bring part of the story to it. So I think when people riff on it, it’s very much about them expressing their thoughts on the ideas of racism and ideas of being the “only one,” of being with someone else that isn’t like you and what that’s like. I read this one really cute thing—and I say cute because some of them were young—but it was interracial couples talking about it, their experience post-viewing and I thought that was great. It’s good that people are talking about it in any way.
I’d love to hear your reading of the plot and themes and get a sense of your thought process as you were going through the script. Watching it, we can see themes about the fear of whiteness and how that often gets overlooked, and about gentrification being both a physical and mental thing. Those are things I thought about while watching it.
Yeah, there’s so much there. I would say, reading the script, of course all the jokes, quote-unquote, about voting for Obama for the third time, Tiger, you know, to me I thought, oh, okay well this is going to be that movie, these are going to be those racial jokes that will be injected, and we’ll all be able to recognize this and relate, great. And then I got to the auction part and I was like, Ah, interesting. Every time, as I went through the script more and more, it just became more and more disturbing. [Laughs]. And then working on it, I just thought, What is this bizarre world you’re creating, Jordan. I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes. I showed up to hair and makeup and realized I was wearing a wig and I didn’t know I was gonna be wearing a wig. I was curious what they were gonna do with my hair ’cause I have a lot of big, curly hair. So yeah, it was just all these elements that were getting played, that were getting introduced that made me go, huh.
Has your interpretation of the story changed over time?
Yeah, I think like most people it’s sort of lingering with me, it’s making me think of so many things. I feel like, of course, racism is at the forefront of this story, but it’s like the tip of the iceberg. Because it makes me think of colonization, and being in Australia while I was watching it, I was learning a lot about the Aboriginal culture there and how that basically mirrors what went on in America with the genocide of the Native Americans and slavery. The Aboriginals there, they sort of got both experiences and it’s pretty tragic, so I thought about why colonization is such a horrible reality and has been throughout the ages. That shows up in this film and you see it from the get-go. You see this person wearing this helmet that calls back to the Crusades. [Ed Note: The movie opens with Lakeith Stanfield’s character, Andre, walking in the suburbs at night and he’s attacked by a person in a helmet.]
There’s just so much. [Jordan] just injects all these little symbols and tidbits that hearken back to our very long history of violence that does employ racism in order to keep us separate and oppressed and enslaved ’cause that’s how empires work. You can take it so many more places, and I think people have. And I think that’s why it’s so brilliant and so effective and so successful.
What about the idea of how white liberalism can be the most dangerous kind?
Well, I think as far as the most dangerous kind of racism being the most subtle and the most invisible, when no one quite is fully aware that they’re being racist or that they’re on the receiving end of racism, then you have a very sort of chronic illness. And if we all just go about thinking that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re just trying to be down or connect with someone, I think that can get really scary in real life. It’s easy to see hatred when it’s hitting you upside the head. I guess if you’re just going about your life thinking you’re saying the right thing, that you’re simply operating on a level that’s about succeeding in this world—I think a lot of times that’s what we’re all here trying to do. And you think, Wow I can really use you. Black culture, hip-hop, our hairstyles. [People will be] like, I love that twerking style. I’m gonna use that. We think we’re incorporating and integrating, but it’s really some version of exploiting. And if we don’t recognize that subtle difference—which isn’t that subtle to some people, like me—it can be really detrimental to our actual integration and progress.
Right, appropriation. Your character is the black female lead, and there’s the cop character, but Georgina is the one that pushes the story along—
Erika Alexander, who I love and I’m like, oh my gosh I’m in the same movie with Erika Alexander.
I know, when I saw her I was like, “Maxine!”
Yes, oh my gosh, love her.
Clearly with your character, we see the idea of fetishizing of black bodies. The grandma/Georgina is fixated on the mirror image. She keeps looking in the mirror. Were those things you thought about while making it?What did you see Georgina representing in this story? Because it is a black woman, but it’s a white woman...
Right, spoiler alert. She’s a white woman in a black woman’s body. I’m hesitant to say this, but I see this in the real world. We’ll just say that there are members of our country that have assimilated so much, in a very right-wing conservative way and I go, wow, sister girl, why do you believe these things and say these things and support these politicians? I’m not gonna name people because I don’t wanna do that, but I think Georgina represents assimilation and, like, the worst kind of assimilation. Because we all have to assimilate to some level, to some extent. But certain people, I think in their ways of surviving just really take it to a very scary place.
I think she also represents how, in regards to the different kinds of evil, it’s white women in particular. I think back to the slave days, they wore the cotton that was picked and they benefited from the tortured labor of other beings. And while they didn’t crack the whip, although maybe some of them did, they still participated in this horrendous reality. I just think she’s pure evil and she gets off on her power. When I see it in its entirety, it’s very much a predator with its prey and throughout everyone is kind of playing that part. And the way I played it with Georgina was incorporating sexuality. There’s something to be said there, how women can use their sexuality to lure their prey. It makes me think of how when cats—I think bears do this, too—they’ll capture their prey, they’ll sort of just beat the shit out of it and then leave it there alive and lick it and play with it, but leave it there. Go away, come back, lick it some more and just kind of savor this act of dominance and this act of controlling someone. Sort of enjoying the kill, savoring the kill, making it last as long as it possibly can.
That’s such a good analogy.
She also represents years and years of enslavement. I mean to this day, black and brown women and children get sold into slavery of some kind, sex slavery. So when Rod says that’s what’s going on and everyone laughs it off, it’s yet another way in which we can all go, “Damn he’s right.” While we don’t see it, it’s there on some level. So depending on what angle and at what point, she can represent several disturbing realities.
One of the most powerful scenes is between Georgina and Chris when the black woman inside is trying to break through and she starts tearing up. The “No, no, no, no, no...” How did you interpret that scene? It’s one that really stands out to people.
I don’t know if I want to say too much about it because I think it’s... Most of what you see was scripted. I added some little tidbits, but we never really specified exactly what that means. I would say that I made my choices. But I don’t know if I want to share them. It’s really, what does it make you feel? I think that’s all that matters.
You were in another politically minded horror film, The Purge: Election Year and you’re shooting the sci-fi movie, Stem, so what is it about those kind of social thrillers that attracts you?
I am on some level very, very attracted to these stories that have something to say about our society and how it’s functioning, how it’s dysfunctional. This new one is set in the sort of future and it shows how technology has become even more... We’ve just completely become dependent on technology, even more so. There’s driverless cars and everything’s automated, everything’s 3D printed. And it’s a sci-fi thriller but I think in a way, it’s a horror, too, because it’s the idea of giving so much control to machines. At the core, it’s a man... I don’t know what I can say about it. Is there a little summary of it?
There’s a little bit out that I read about a man “avenging his wife’s murder.”
Okay, yeah, and using technology to aid him. And the drama ensues.
It seems like a good time for dystopian horrors and dramas, because they can draw so much from reality.
The atmosphere that we’re in is quite scary so it’s the perfect time for scary stories.
And, like, dystopian themes.
Dystopian realities, yeah. I was never really a horror fan until I did quite a few horror projects and did my dutiful act of research and that involved watching horror movies from way back when and researching why people like horror movies. In our society, we can’t really walk around being scared. We have to function, we have to look like we know what we’re doing at our jobs, and we have to perform these tasks. There isn’t really a lot of space to feel fear and anger and dark emotions, so you go to these movies and you go into this space and it provides this safe space to feel that fear and process it and I think that’s great. I have a lot more respect, I think, for the horror genre than I did before, and while I still don’t quite go run to see horror movies [laughs], I can definitely appreciate them, especially if they have something to say.
How do you think creators should approach talking about race in this era. Does it need to be thought about differently?
It’s just becoming so glaringly obvious how racist we are, and xenophobic. And I think our stories can address that in a way that everyone can identify, like this story, or at least most people can. And sort of lay out what we are, how we act and how we deal with power, the loss of power, the threat of the loss of power. Addressing those concepts, along with the discussions of racism, and pointing out that’s actually racist if you said this even though it sounds harmless. It’s about folding in the social commentary. That’s such a dictionary way of saying it. [Laughs]. But it’s really about showing a true reflection of our inability to see each other and treat each other as our equals. And I don’t know if I’m such a cynic sometimes that I don’t know if that would ever be possible because it would throw off the power dynamic and that’s what the people at the top want, so they’ll work any sort of way to keep us divided. If our stories can somehow integrate us, it’s great. But I sometimes go, at the end of the day, people...
People will be people.
People will be people. [Laughs] I try to be hopeful and I do sometimes think hopeful thoughts.