Directed & Written by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun, Wrenn Schmidt, & Keith David.
Horror / Mystery / Sci-Fi / Thriller
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
Jordan Peele started with Get Out, aiming many tropes in horror films at unravelling a lot of white nonsense in the genre and looking hard at the experiences of many Black people in America. Then he moved to Us, which similarly spoke to the experience of Black America, and also took on a Marxist perspective of class by examining the sometimes hidden, often violent line drawn between the haves and the have-nots. Now, Peele’s brings us his vision of science fiction-horror with Nope, the story of a Black showbiz family—OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood—grappling with the death of their father, Otis (Keith David), after a strange accident on their ranch. What unfolds involves Peele’s unique concept of what aliens and UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena) might actually be, and how they terrorise people, as well as suggesting why they do. All the while, the Haywood siblings attempt to save their ranch while documenting the extraterrestrial events occurring on their ranch in the hopes it might gain them fame and fortune.
Beneath the interesting and strange tale of aliens and UAPs is Peele shining a bright light from the sky onto Hollywood and American pop culture’s exploitation of Black people and animals. Nope also employs a heavy dose of Western motif to revise old, outdated cultural narratives in America about cowboys and the Wild West not having any place within Black history. Most of all, the focus of Peele’s film lies in how Black bodies and animals have been used as a form of currency in cinematic history—the often hidden price paid to create movie magic, commodities used up and forgotten. Although OJ, Em, and their horses fight against the encroaching alien presence on their ranch, they have more in common with the aliens than they can possibly comprehend, and all of the struggles, from human to alien, relate back to the rage of Gordy, the TV sitcom monkey whose bloody, retaliatory violence opens the film.
A part of Nope‘s brilliance comes from how Peele looks at revisionism via commentary on the disappearance of the Black cowboy; not only revisionism in Hollywood and pop culture, but in history as a whole. It’s because of Hollywood’s historical depictions of cowboys (typically fighting and killing Indigenous peoples, don’t forget) as white men and white men only, until recently, that many folks see this as the story of American history itself. Many of the first cowboys in the fabled Wild West were actually Black people, a lot of whom were formerly enslaved and gained their freedom. But because white men like John Wayne and Gary Cooper made the cowboy famous in American films, far too many white people wrongly assume there was little-to-no-Black presence in the American Wild West. That’s why shots like OJ sitting atop his horse amidst a tourist attraction built as a replica of the Wild West are so important. Though the film’s critique is far more elaborate than a single image.
Our full introduction to OJ and Em really gets going with The Horse in Motion, a series of cabinet cards (a form of photography) that are largely regarded as a major foundation for the motion picture. The man riding the horse in the clip, in Nope, is framed as being Alistair E. Haywood, a Black jockey and original stuntman, as well as ancestor of OJ and Em. Peele, without openly having to say it through dialogue, is laying out a discussion about how cinema history has an official, yet revisionist history of how film came to be, and most often (white) film historians look at the Lumière brothers as the beginning of cinema, leaving the Black history of The Horse in Motion, and its role in the advent of cinema, buried and largely forgotten, at least by white audiences. In reality, a Black man and a horse were figureheads in the development of movies. This is also why Peele includes the American Western Buck and the Preacher (1972) in his film, stating in an interview that it was the first film he remembers to feature a Black cowboy, going against what Hollywood created as the ‘official’ historical narrative of solely white cowboys in Westerns and the actual Wild West.
“We don’t deserve the impossible”
Aside from revisionism concerning cinema and Black history, The Horse in Motion clip intertwines the history of Black people and animals being exploited by Hollywood. Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) is the most egregious culprit of exploitation in Nope. He didn’t learn anything from watching Gordy the monkey murder people on a television set decades prior, despite living through the trauma firsthand. He neglected whatever connection he and the monkey formed, to the point Gordy spared young Ricky’s life, growing up to be a man who mistakenly believes he’s formed another connection with an extraterrestrial being, only to commodify that connection so he and his family can profit off it. At the same time, OJ and Em are also part of a cycle of exploitation, though they don’t wholly recognise it. While the alien cloud is terrorising the ranch, it embodies the effects of human exploitation of the natural world. The fact Em and OJ want to document the alien life form, exposing it the world not just to make people aware but to maybe get an interview with Oprah and make money off it, shows how, despite being Black and aware of pop culture exploitation, they’re perpetuating cycles of exploitation that have wreaked havoc on nature.
Nope charts an evolution of revenge from Gordy to the sky alien, as the natural world continues to fight back against the historical/continued exploitation of humans. In Peele’s film, the natural world’s creatures have evolved to a point—represented by the alien cloud—at which they refuse to continue accepting the disruptive, violent presence of human beings. The use of the cloud as being an alien, first believed to be a craft but then discovered to be an actual creature, is an allegory about climate change and the increasing destruction of nature by humans since the Industrial Revolution. While Gordy represents Nope‘s commentary about the treatment of animals in Hollywood, the alien cloud represents the film’s commentary on how humans have drastically and negatively affected the real world—the idea that the natural world itself is fighting back against us, an evolution of a natural revenge that’s been brewing ever since humans started up the first industrial piece of machinery and its motor coughed into existence.
Peele’s use of a biblical quote at the beginning of the film sets the stage for how he deals with themes concerning nature seeking revenge against humans for being exploited. The quote comes from Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” This quote, at times, relates quite literally to Peele’s aliens treating people the way people treat animals and the rest of the natural world, from watching people, to using, abusing, and discarding them, like how the alien cloud sucks up everyone/everything in its path before spitting out whatever it can’t digest. The fact that sometimes people, like OJ and Em’s father, are killed by what the alien cloud discards gives an unsettling, corporeal face to how human impacts on nature eventually violently return against humans; an alien allegory for the floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that result from human practices like drilling for oil, pollution, and more.
Nope contains yet another Marxist perspective from Peele, ensconced in a social science fiction-horror film. Get Out and Us each had their own Marxist ideas about Black bodies and class division and drove them home with social horror. Nope uses a mix of sci-fi and horror, interrogating the chaotic consumption of humans, paying particular attention to the ways white pop culture consumes Black bodies and animals alike. The capitalist critique within Nope is especially present in Peele’s focus on the consumption of American popular culture via Hollywood films, in which animals and Black people, among others—like Indigenous peoples, queer and trans folks, disabled people, and people of colour in general—are the commodities used to make millions upon millions for studios, made flesh through the alien cloud’s process of consuming whatever it can and discarding whatever’s non-consumable.
Nope does mix messages a tad by posing Em and OJ as triumphant heroes in the end while somewhat ignoring that they’re continuing an exploitative cycle by snapping the alien cloud’s photo, though the line “We don‘t deserve the impossible” seems to at least acknowledge, to a degree, that humans are at the root of the problem; their exploitation is not to the same extent as that of Ricky, but it’s nonetheless exploitation, serving to further the natural world’s resentment towards human beings. Perhaps this is actually Peele’s most significant point: humans, even the most well-intentioned sometimes, never seem to learn from their mistakes, nor the mistakes of those who came before them.
One thought on “NOPE: Confronting Historical Narratives of Cultural Revisionism & Exploitation”
Pingback: Reviews: Nope (2022) – Online Film Critics Society