Jordan Peele’s 2017 surprise hit “Get Out” inaugurated a new era of Black horror. His latest film, “Nope,” highlights both his impact as a filmmaker and a welcome cultural trend. Black people have always been part of horror. They just have mostly not been the ones making money off of it. Peele himself, though, has transformed those dynamics in Hollywood.
Jordan Peele’s 2017 surprise hit “Get Out” inaugurated a new era of Black horror.
“Nope” centers on the horse-wrangling Haywood family, descendants of the jockey who rode a horse in the first moving picture ever filmed. Dad Haywood (Keith David) has created a lucrative family business training horses for Hollywood films. Then he’s killed in a freak accident by a bunch of airplane debris falling out of the sky. His introvert son O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and flighty daughter Emerald (Keke Palmer) are ill-suited to take over the business.
With bills piling up, the siblings grasp at the idea that their father may have been killed not by an airplane, but by a UFO. As evidence mounts, they decide to try to film the object in order to sell it and make their fortune. The UFO, though, doesn’t intend to just passively sit there and have its picture taken.
Peele has said “Nope” was inspired by movies like “King Kong” and “Jurassic Park;” films that “really deal with the human addiction to spectacle.” “King Kong” isn’t just about spectacle, though; it’s about racist spectacle.
Kong, the giant ape taken from a remote land in chains, is an obvious metaphor for enslaved African people. His horribleness is a deflection so that (white) viewers don’t have to think about the horrors they’ve committed. Black people, monstrous spectacle and vicious repression are at the center of one of the seminal Hollywood horror films.
“Nope” nods to “King Kong” directly with a flashback sequence in which former child star Jupe Park (Steven Yeun) remembers a sit-com on-set tragedy, in which a tame chimpanzee went rogue, murdering several actors.
The incident doesn’t end well for the chimpanzee, as you might imagine. Jupe is traumatized, too. But as an adult owner of a carnival, he also manages to turn the event and his own fear into a lucrative tourist side-business. Fear of the bestial — often conflated with fear of Black people — is monetizable and exploitable.
Turning Black people into nightmares like Kong has long been lucrative.
Turning Black people into nightmares like Kong has long been lucrative. But after “Get Out" made around $4.5 million and grossed a stunning $225 million worldwide, it suddenly seemed lucrative to give Black people the chance to put their own nightmares on screen, too. A rush of mainstream Black horror followed.
Some of these new Black horror projects have come directly from Peele himself. As a director he released “Us” in 2019; he also produced Nia DaCosta’s 2021 remake of “Candyman” and Misha Green’s 2020 television show “Lovecraft Country.”
Other creators have also produced new work, though, including Remi Weekes’ 2020 “His House” and the stunning 2019 documentary survey of Black horror “Horror Noire.” The Renaissance has also unearthed earlier works; Tananarive Due’s seminal, largely forgotten 1995 Black horror novel “The Between” was just reprinted last year.
Most of these films, television shows and books explore Due’s insight that “Black history is Black horror.” They view a legacy of white terrorism and white violence from the perspective of the Black people who have been terrorized and had violence visited upon them.
“Nope” takes another tack. While the UFO does hide in an ominous white cloud, the movie doesn’t function as a clear or direct metaphor for racism. Instead, it chronicles the effort of Black workers in the film industry to seize control of the camera and of the gaze.
O.J. and Emerald need to figure out how to get their recording equipment to function since the UFO blacks out electricity. They have to negotiate getting a first-rate cinematographer on a low budget. And they also have to carefully control where and how they look at the terrible spectacle. The UFO is triggered by the whites of your eyes, more or less literally. The word “Nope,” repeated a number of times through the film, accompanies a refusal to look, which is also an insistence on controlling the look. O.J. insists on being the one who directs the gaze.
The Heywoods, in other words, are scrappy indie filmmakers, putting together a jury-rigged crew and jury-rigged equipment to capture a new, exciting, potentially lucrative horror.
The movie can be seen as a restaging of Peele’s own first film. Or it can be seen as a call to peers to find new spectacles, bigger, better and less racist than Kong. The camera pans across cumulus, looking up, taking a white landscape of horror and transforming it through a Black filmmaker’s lens.