‘Nope’ is an extraordinary film about cinema and beasts
OPINION: Spoilers abound in this look at the themes and meanings of Nope that explains what happened to OJ
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
There’s so much in the name Jordan Peele chose for his third film. “Nope” invokes the age-old Black joke that Black folks wouldn’t be caught in a horror film premise because the moment we heard a weird noise in the attic or see the creepy doll start moving, we wouldn’t stick around to find out what’s going on. We’d say “nope” and run away. Movie over in five minutes.
The subtext of that joke is this: white people tend to think things are gonna be OK because their collective lives have been relatively safe and protected—the systems that power American life are all working in white people’s favor, so they’re encouraged to feel optimistic about the world. They and their ancestors have also never had to worry about white police officers murdering them or white mobs coming to lynch them.
White people feel like they can take a chance and go see why everyone says that old house is haunted. Black people, on the other hand, tend to be more pessimistic because history has taught us to be that way. If you see something that makes you scared, it’s best to run away first and ask questions later. Black people get killed over nothing.
But that whole notion of Black people running away from horror film premises is turned on its head in “Nope” because when the movie reaches its climactic final act the main characters—OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer)—are doing everything they can to bring the monster to them. In the first third of the movie they say, “Nope!” In the last third they say, “Come get me!”
“Nope” is Peele’s first film not rooted in a racial allegory. His first film, “Get Out,” was about racism and his second, “Us,” was about the twoness of Blackness and American privilege. But “Nope” is not about race and that’s fine—I welcome a film that stars Black people but is not a discussion of race. What “Nope” is about is cinema. It’s set near Hollywood, several of the main characters work in Hollywood, they’re directly related to the first actor in the history of moving pictures, and the goal of the central characters is to somehow capture the alien on film. They’re dying to get the impossible shot.
“Nope” is like a love letter to the movies—it mashes up three of Hollywood’s favorite genres—the Western, the aliens arrive, and the horror flick. It makes references to Hitchcock and Spielberg as well as nods to “War of the Worlds,” “Ghostbusters,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” “Arrival”, and more. Also, “Nope” is a movie about making a movie—in the final act they coalesce into a film crew. OJ is the actor slash animal wrangler slash jockey, a triple role that mirrors the roles played by his great-great-great grandfather, the jockey/actor who stars in the first moving images ever shot. Emerald is the director, perched in video village behind the monitors, calling out to the others via walkie-talkie. The deep-voiced Antlers Hoist (Michael Wincott) is the cinematographer who’ll do anything to get the shot. The electronics store guy Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) stands in for the rest of the crew. And, the star of their film is the alien. A difficult star to say the least.
There’s also an old TV show in the “Nope” mix—the tragic tale of Gordy the chimp who was a ‘90s sitcom star until he went crazy (or, reverted to his real self). That story is crucial to the architecture of “Nope.” Both Gordy and Jean Jacket (their name for the alien) are wild beasts who have humans trying to control them. This is the film’s other big theme—humans’ attempts to deal with wild beasts. Gordy is asked to be part of the show and, basically, one of the humans. The chimps who play Gordy go along with that until one of them snaps. Because you can’t make a wild beast be one of the humans.
When Jupe (Steven Yeun) was a child, he saw what happens when you ask a wild beast to be part of a human group but he grows up to do it again, making Jean Jacket part of a show. It’s insane that he’s in the desert doing tricks with a homicidal alien for a sparse crowd of redneck tourists, but Jupe keeps playing with fire until the day he gets burned alive. OJ says Jupe tried to “tame a predator.” I’d say Jupe tried to commodify a wild beast and paid for that with his life. Unlike Jupe, OJ and Emerald have respect for the beast in the cloud. OJ respects all animals; we see that in how gentle he is with his horses, and it’s his understanding of animals that carries them through the battle with Jean Jacket. It’s OJ’s intelligence and experience—as well as Em’s courage and resilience—that gets them to victory.
At this point, Jordan Peele is clearly one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood. He’s certainly someone who can make whatever he wants. Where others go to the studio asking if they can make a script, Peele has people willing to finance whatever he wants to do. His films are popular but also award-winning, complex, and nuanced. He’s an artist. The word horror is attached to his work but that’s a bit of a misdirect. I am not into horror, I don’t like feeling scared at the movies, but I love Peele’s work. His films don’t seek to scare the hell out of us the way “It” or “Saw” does.
Peele likes to make us jump, he loves to play with suspense and release, but he’s not trying to give us nightmares. In moments when he could really freak us out, he turns the camera away. We see a chimp covered in human blood and we gasp but when Gordy is beating on human bodies, the action is hidden behind a couch or a door. We see humans get sucked up into the alien and we know they get eaten because we hear their blood-curdling screams, but most of the action is obscured. Peele’s work is horror lite, if it’s horror at all.
Peele has set all three of his films inside families. “Get Out” is about a young Black man meeting and being trapped by and eventually escaping his girlfriend’s family. “Us” focuses on a Black family and their doppelgangers. In “Nope,” the center is again a Black family, the Haywoods. We meet the patriarch briefly but mainly we follow a brother and sister who must work together to deal with the most powerful beast they’ve ever encountered.
Peele’s films always end with a moment of family reunification. “Get Out” concludes with Chris Washington (Kaluuya) being saved by his best friend (played by Lil Rel Howery), his brother from another mother. In “Us,” the last time we see the Williams family they’re in the car, safe together. This is why I feel certain that at the end of “Nope,” OJ is alive. In the film’s last minutes we watch Emerald destroy the alien beast, allowing them to get back to their normal lives, and we see that she has successfully photographed it, fulfilling their main goal. Our last question, her last question, is: where’s OJ? Is he alive? She looks up at the smoke parts we see … OJ standing tall on his horse. He’s not a ghost, he’s a survivor. Brother and sister complete the mission and then the family reunites because Peele ends his films by uniting Black families.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.
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