Talking to Daniel Kaluuya about 'Get Out', Race and Samuel L. Jackson
"I’m not really comfortable with the words black and cheap being used in the same sentence."
Get Out is not the only film out this year to deal with the structural politics of race in America. But it's probably the only one to mould said politics into a taut, comic, terrifying, destabilising piece of classic horror.
In the year that Moonlight scooped a Best Picture Oscar, Get Out is another cutting-edge, trope-skewering black narrative; the villains here aren't monsters from the Deep South or swastika-bearing Nazis, but liberal white folk from Middle America. Having made its writer-director Jordan Peele – best-known as half of US comedy duo Key and Peele – the first black person to head up a $100 million-grossing debut, it's set to also clean up on this side of the Atlantic.
At its centre are a mixed-race couple, Rose (Girls' Allison Williams) and Chris (Black Mirror and Skins actor Daniel Kaluuya). A weekend away at her parents' house descends into something rather unsavoury, with Chris soon noticing the strange behaviour of the black people he encounters; housekeeper Georgina is seemingly sweet but speaks in cold non-sequiturs, groundskeeper Walter is oddly protective of Rose and visitor Logan flies into a rage, nose bleeding, when a camera flash goes off. And then there's Rose's mum, a psychiatrist who is a little too keen on wanting to hypnotise Chris, apparently so he can quit smoking.
While the audience is led to believe it could all be in Chris' head ("I would've voted for Obama for a third term, if I could," Rose's dad offers during one particularly excruciating exchange) that proves too facile for this jumpy horror, with Peele using the twisty tropes of the genre to create heroes from villains and vice versa.
Unlike Peele, Kaluuya himself isn't a horror buff ("some boys were babysitting me as a kid and they kept on showing me Freddie Krueger – it creeped me out. Whenever I used to go toilet at night I thought he was behind the door – it fucked me up"), but the script struck a chord with him as a young black man. "I was like '12 Years a Slave: The Horror Movie' – fucking yes! My friends would love this.' I felt like it was really fresh, and it made me feel some shit," he tells me over the phone from the US, where he's filming Marvel's Black Panther reboot.
Although its subject matter is timely, it's a project that Peele was working on long before the emergence of Black Lives Matter or the concept of being "woke". "A lot of people thought, because Obama was president, racism was fixed," says Kaluuya. "Jordan wanted to talk about a different type of racism in the liberal world, and what it's like to make people feel alienated. There's a bit when Chris is saying, 'Why us? Why black people?' Because, you know, why us? Everyone knows black people were subjected to racism, but no one can pinpoint why it's happened. It doesn't make any sense, but the media justifies and makes excuses for it daily."
The 27-year-old is razor-sharp, and speaks in the same slang-heavy way many working class black guys do in London. It's a testament to his skills that he's entirely believable as an African American who instantly worries about what Rose's parents will think of his race.
What was it like as a British actor to engage with the complex issue of race in the US? "I feel these themes are universal," he tells me. "I don't think it's documented, the racist shit that happens to black British people, but it's happening every day. I'm getting followed in Lidl, that's real. I'm just trying to get some fucking oranges and I'm getting followed. It's constantly around. We see the same shit because we're all from Africa. We're all from the same roots, trying to navigate a society that deems you as a minority. I've been to god knows how many Ugandan weddings and funerals as a kid, and there's that cousin that brings a white girlfriend. And it's a thing. So those themes really resonated with me, and I felt it. I feel like I know what it feels like to be other in the room on both sides of the Atlantic. Sometimes I'm other in the room in England because I'm black; now I'm the other in the room because I'm British. It's about not being seen as an individual."
A few days before I spoke to Daniel, Samuel L Jackson made his now-infamous comments about black British actors working in the US – with specific reference to Kaluuya – not being able to fully engage with the African American experience. "There are a lot of black British actors in these movies," Jackson told a US radio station. "I tend to wonder what that movie [Get Out] would have been with an American brother who really feels that." He also added that British actors were being cast as they were typically cheaper to hire. Jackson later claimed his comments were a critique of Hollywood rather than British actors, but the debate had been sparked, with David Harewood writing an impassioned response for the Guardian, in which he described himself as "not exactly the budget option".
I ask Kaluuya what he'd say if he could sit down with Jackson and address the issue. I expect him to be pretty annoyed (John Boyega, for example, called it "stupid ass conflict"). "Sam has done the work – him, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Wesley Snipes, Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Omar Epps, god knows how many people. They've done the work for me to have this opportunity," he says.
Kaluuya is keen to stress his respect for those who've done the groundwork for a new generation of black actors whose choice of roles aren't dictated by stereotype. Even so, there is a point Kaluuya is keen to stress when it comes to the idea that it's cheaper to hire Brits. "I'm not really comfortable with the words black and cheap being used in the same sentence," he says. "We have a huge problem with being devalued in the public consciousness already. So all I can say on the matter is black women, black men, we're not cheap – we're priceless. And that's African Americans, that's black Brits, that's black Africans. That's a billion black people worldwide. We are not cheap. We are human and we are individuals."
Inadvertently, Kaluuya also sums up the brilliance of Get Out. It reminds us of the many ways black people are exploited, erased or appropriated, with no thought of their own value. Get Out is a film about challenging old, dangerous ideas – and even Kaluuya would likely agree that those are scarier than Krueger ever was.