Jordan Peele and the Social Horror
From goof ball to master satirist, Jordan Peele has had one hell of a turnaround the last few years. We are well into his career enough to acknowledge this new version of Peele that, perhaps, seemed very foreign when we first got to know the director, producer, writer and actor. However, maybe his roots were more of a foreshadowing than we ever could have imagined. It takes an outsider to notice situations in a different way, and Peele has always been fascinated with the absurd. If you think about it, there really isn’t that much of a stretch between his televised antics, and his cinematic successes thus far. With the worldwide release of Us just around the corner (and its premiere at SXSW result in unanimous praise), let’s connect-the-dots with Peele: the man who wants to get rid of the dots entirely.
It’s so bizarre to think of how we perceive Peele now, because his career upbringings were of a very different caliber. The very beginnings take us to the oft-forgotten sketch show Mad TV, where Peele started somewhere in the middle of its duration (at season nine of fifteen). That is where he met his comedic partner Keegan-Michael Key, who specialized as a cartoonish actor on screen. Eventually, Key & Peele happened, but even then, Key seemed to usually be more of the driving force on camera. Some Peele parts were side characters or punch lines for Key’s insanity (including Peele being the final student featured in the famous A-A-Ron sketch). Now, it’s clear that Peele’s expertise is what happened mostly off camera (despite Peele having his own starring sketches, of course). Peele had parts, either decently sized or small, in shows like Fargo and Children’s Hospital, and films including Wanderlust. Otherwise, Peele was to make a bigger splash in a different way.
And so he did. His cinematic directorial debut was an instant pop culture smash hit. Get Out was a brilliantly written (and directed) look at racial tensions in society, down to the barest of screenwriting essentials. The notion of turning the oppression that marginalized communities feel into an identifiable state of hypnosis made Get Out more than exciting: it became important. The “sunken place” is a reality for many people. Of course, the brilliance of Peele’s labyrinthian uses of symbols is also worth noting, but it’s this idea of a sunken place that really sticks. The first time I saw Get Out, I was able to predict the majority of the ending twist from very early on. By the second viewing, I already realized that Peele wasn’t making this film for its twist. By the umpteenth viewing, the twist was history, but the message was stronger than ever.
Peele is skilled enough to know how to craft a story and also deliver a slice of pop culture at the same time. This is where his sketch show experience comes in; in fact, it is exactly the point where this happens. As a writer and actor on a very popular series, Peele has always had his hand on the pulse of both culture and how our minds work. In some ways, horror and comedy are alike: these are uncontrollable reactions elicited by the decisions of others (whether these events are happening to us, or we are onlooking instances from afar). The type of humour Peele and Key use is often surreal or off-kilter enough to work (there’s a reason why some of us love The Eric Andre Show). Who would dare come up with a worker sitting on someone’s head making a hat as a punch line? These guys sure did. There’s a knack when it comes to conjuring recognizable emotions through something different, and we know that Peele is an expert on it.
Hysteria is a definite confusion between both comedy and horror when done in a specific way. With Peele, he is able to make comedic gold out of non-identifiable images and phrases. With Get Out, his stamp on his own brand is so powerful, we can already understand his position on the throne of modern day satirists. Remember when Get Out was labeled a comedy by the Golden Globes? It resulted in a huge uproar, but maybe the designation — as questionable as it may be — may not be the strangest ever. Get Out is definitely a satire, in a way that modern day society is being exposed in a very hyperbolic way. That’s why the sunken place exists. Peele created a concept that is so foreign but relatable at the same time. For the privileged, the sunken place was a glaring metaphor. For the oppressed, this was life explained in a way that was never done before. Peele was channelling two different environments with one idea: that you could be stuck motionless against your will at any second.
Right away, it seemed like a no-brainer that Jordan Peele would be the successor to Rod Serling (and Forest Witaker) when it came to the Twilight Zone reboot. All of this after one first? Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Get Out was more than just a good thriller. This was a modern horror film that latched onto all groups of cinephiles; even those that didn’t quite like it felt compelled to see it. That’s yet another validity with Peele’s works: he knows he has something to say, and finds a way for you to at least try and see what it is. In a near-surreal way — as if Peele concocted it himself in one of his shows — we can suggest that Peele knows how to pick apart your mind and all of its accessories in a way that he can toy with it.
We arrive at the highly-coveted follow up to Get Out with Us. There are people who have viewed the available trailers inside and out, eagerly waiting to view this world that Peele has created (or reinterpreted) once again. There are those like me that are trying to stay away from any sort of plot description entirely, because we wish to go into this one without any preconceived notions (outside of anticipation). With continuous praise that is still pouring out of SXSW, the hopes many had about Peele’s capabilities seem to be coming true. One extra affirmation was his producer role for the brilliant BlacKkKlansman from last year; he identified with an essential piece of social commentary. If anything, it almost felt like Spike Lee was inspired or influenced by Peele’s ability to tip-toe between comedy and tragedy; it feels this way, yet we have to remember that Lee was doing this for way longer.
Where do we conclude this? With the decision that Jordan Peele knows what an uncomfortable conversation is, because he understood awkward comedy first. This ability to tap into the vulnerability of humanity is important, even if it’s just the weird jokes we all somehow figure out in unison. This was his key to giving us something a bit more. It’s refreshing to have material that piques our interests, take us somewhere we’ve never been, and finish it all with the necessity of wrapping our brains around the finished product. Peele can play us like fiddles in every sense of the word. It’s no wonder why he is one of the best candidates at making works of the social horror genre, despite only having so few works to show for it. There is no correct answer when it comes to difficult topics, so Peele goes a different route; one that is leading cinema to exciting places.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.