Jordan Peele’s 2017 surprise hit “Get Out” ushered in a new era of black horror. His latest film, “Nope”, highlights both his impact as a filmmaker as well as a welcome cultural trend. Black people have always been part of horror. They’re just not the ones making money off it. Peele himself, however, transformed that dynamic in Hollywood.
Jordan Peele’s 2017 surprise hit “Get Out” ushered in a new era of black horror.
“Nope” centers on the equine feud Haywood family, descendants of the jockey who rode a horse in the first movie ever filmed. Dad Haywood (Keith David) has founded a lucrative family business that trains horses for Hollywood movies. Then he dies in a freak accident due to a heap of aircraft debris falling from the sky. His introverted son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and fickle daughter Emerald (Keke Palmer) are not fit to take over the company.
As the bills pile up, the siblings understand that their father may have been killed not by a plane, but by a UFO. As the evidence mounts, they decide to film the object in order to sell it and make their fortune. However, the UFO does not intend to sit there passively and take a picture.
Peele has said “Nope” is inspired by movies like “King Kong” and “Jurassic Park;” movies that “really deal with the human addiction to spectacle”. However, “King Kong” isn’t all about spectacle; it is about racist spectacle.
Kong, the giant monkey fetched from a remote land in chains, is a clear metaphor for enslaved African people. His horror is a deflection so that (white) viewers do not have to think about the horrors they have committed. Black people, monstrous spectacle and brutal repression take center stage in one of Hollywood’s groundbreaking horror films.
“Nope” nods directly to “King Kong” with a flashback sequence in which former child star Jupe Park (Steven Yeun) recalls an on-set sitcom tragedy in which a tame chimpanzee went rogue and killed several actors.
The incident doesn’t end well for the chimpanzee, as you might imagine. Jupe is also traumatized. But as an adult fairground owner, he also knows how to turn the event and his own fear into a lucrative tourist sideshow. Fear of the bestial – often combined with fear of black people – is monetized 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 and grossed about $4.5 million, stunning $225 million worldwide, it suddenly seemed lucrative to give black people the opportunity to bring their own nightmares on screen as well. A torrent of mainstream black horror ensued.
Some of these new Black horror projects come straight 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 TV show “Lovecraft Country”.
However, other creators have also produced new work, including Remi Weekes’ 2020 “His House” and Black horror’s stunning 2019 documentary investigation “Horror Noire.” The Renaissance also uncovered earlier works; Tananarive Due’s seminal, largely forgotten 1995 black horror novel “The Between” was just reprinted last year.
Most of these movies, television shows, and books explore Due’s understanding that “black history is black horror.” They look at a legacy of white terrorism and white violence from the perspective of the black people who have been terrorized and subjected to violence.
“No” is about a different tack. Although the UFO hides in an ominous white cloud, the film does not act as a clear or direct metaphor for racism. Instead, it describes the effort of black workers in the film industry to seize control of the camera and the gaze.
OJ and Emerald must figure out how to keep their recording equipment working as the UFO cuts out the electricity. They have to negotiate getting a top notch cameraman with a low budget. And they must also be very careful where and how they view the horrific spectacle. The UFO is activated by the whites of your eyes, more or less literally. The word “No,” repeated a number of times throughout the film, is accompanied by a refusal to watch, which is also an insistence on controlling the look. OJ insists on being the one to set the eye.
In other words, the Heywoods are shoddy indie filmmakers, assembling a jury-drafted crew and jury-drafted equipment to capture a new, exciting, potentially lucrative horror.
The film can be seen as a retelling of Peele’s own first film. Or it could be seen as a call to peers to find new glasses, bigger, better and less racist than Kong. The camera pans over cumulus, looks up, takes a white horror landscape and transforms it through the lens of a black filmmaker.