The actual process of making movies is mostly drudgery. Filmmakers, having invented a new form of glamor, don’t like to talk about that very much, preferring to show those above the line stewing, pouting and yelling. Dramatic conflict, it seems, only comes with top billing. On any production, these figures are surrounded by skilled artists and technicians going about the business of making, which, in popular understanding, never quite adds up to filmmaking.
Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, is a strange amalgam of various genres yoked together under the framework of an alien abduction movie, but there is nothing so unexpected as its decision to tell the story of Hollywood from the vantage point of these crew members. These are the people who make movies happen, but are, at best, set decoration when it comes time to tell cinema’s story; they're often so far below the line that they aren’t even due the kinds of awards that get cut out of telecasts. It is a fitting undertaking for Peele, whose brand of comedic horror relies on sniffing out the discomfiting tensions of any social situation where those who have been left out begin to command the frame. This is a popular moment for “recentering” narratives around the historically marginalized, but all too often this stops at the level of quantifiable representation. Peele’s project in Nope, and throughout his career, has pushed the question of representation further than mere presence. His form of revisionism tries to discern whether it is possible for Black cinema to be integrated into the idioms of American cinema.
Nope tells the story of siblings O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), who run a historic horse ranch that has provided trained animals to studio productions for several generations. They inherit the ranch because of a freak accident wherein a cloud of debris falls from the sky and, due to its gathered velocity, a coin pierces their father’s head like a shot. O.J. and Emerald are polar opposites, narrative foils. He is brooding, gruff, happier around animals than people—just as a Western horseman ought to be. She is an exuberant, multi-talented aspiring actress. Together, they are barely keeping the family business running, just as changes in film technology and the desires of an expanding local amusement park threaten to put the ranch out of business entirely. For nearly the entire length of the film, all of their financial and familial struggles take place in the shadow of some unidentified flying object, which has ominously deposited itself in the clouds above the ranch’s valley and only peeks out to draw their horses up into the sky. With the expanding big business, the untamable foreign animal, and wholesale theft, Peele follows the blueprint for Westerns more than he does horror or science fiction.
From practically the beginning, Westerns have been obsessed with correcting themselves and, consequently, their national myths. This suits Peele well, whose taste runs towards pulp and whose movies function as cinematic critique as much as social. Much of the film plays as a sort of riposte to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019): as much as Tarantino luxuriates in a supposedly more innocent version of Hollywood, that pop nostalgia for the ’60s is tainted by our knowledge of the disasters to come. The good old times and the bad old times are, unfortunately, often the same time depending upon the tint of your lenses. Tarantino has made a series of revisionist works that delight in his hysterical violence while operating under a framework of righteous vengeance. The wrongs of our world—the Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds (2009), slavery in Django Unchained (2012), and the Tate-LaBianca murders in Hollywood—are righted by a cleansing fire, which consumes, respectively, Hitler, an imaginary slaveowner, and a member of the Manson family. At the end of Once Upon a Time, Tarantino not only averts the violent traumas that came to mark the end of one of his favorite eras, he offers an equally violent fix. Bloody vengeance is meted out in order to compensate for what we know happened more than what occurs in the film’s world.
Nope, like Once Upon a Time, also delights in the act of making movies, but this movie finds its heroes in the craftsmen and the craft, the grit behind the glamor. When Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a grizzled old cinematographer who raises and answers the question of how a raspy-voiced Quint from Jaws would behave if he were dropped off in the desert, tries to record filmic evidence of the alien, the corner of the frame is sure to show that he’s shooting in 1:1.375—the old Academy ratio. The Western is full of men like this: prospectors, cattlemen, farmers, guards and thieves who all believe you can make a living, maybe even strike it rich, by doing things right and exploiting what’s been placed in front of you. The Western hero may have a code of honor, but he’s also the fastest gun in the West and you don’t get that way without practice, without respect for a machine and the need to keep it well-oiled. Famously, by the time of High Noon (1952) and The Searchers (1956), major Westerns were already broadly acknowledging that these characters were anachronisms. The Western hero rarely resists the coming social and technological change. He stands like a stone in the river, the world both diverted around him and slowly wearing him down.
Peele is one of the most adept practitioners of studio filmmaking working today, in part due to his mastery of tone. All of the popular genres, when successful, work by walking the narrow line between meeting expectations and reinventing conventions. Peele deftly manages his fealty to a tradition of well-crafted Hollywood filmmaking and revision of broader narratives, most notably concerning Black Americans. (Even his titles—Get Out , Us , and Nope—are subtle nods to Black popular culture. “If you know, you know,” might as well be the tagline for his Monkeypaw Productions.) He likes to begin his movies with the same joke: a Black person of means or property minds their business and expects to continue doing so indefinitely. All of his films gain their momentum from the competing forces of how we know the genre works and how we expect Black lives to work. In Get Out, a Black man saves his life by stuffing himself with cotton and then attempts to strangle his traitorous white girlfriend to death. These are the kinds of nightmares which, for decades, could not even be shown directly in the American cinema, but they coursed like a current just beneath the surface: a cultural fixation with interracial relationships, an obsession with the notion of Black men committing acts of violence against white women. In most situations, showing such an occurrence would risk coming too near that current, but Peele is always at his most incisive when his jokes are most vicious. “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” may be the iconic quote, but it seems in part because nobody can quite bear to repeat the punch line of the whole film. Peele bet that if you unspooled it slowly enough, the audience would root for a Black man getting away with trying to kill his white partner. That is more than a sendup of corny white liberals. It is Tarantino’s revisionist impulse taken many steps further. When Peele fixes the world, he gets people to cheer for their nightmares. Two movies later, the audience is still applauding, even when he names his protagonist O.J.
Us flips Get Out’s central premise. Instead of a Black man realizing he is not safe in a white home, a Black family realizes they are not safe in their own home when a quartet of clones attempts to take their lives. This would not be a particularly novel insight if the film’s main characters were not the kind of well-off Black people who have been lulled into the belief that their assets might protect them. The house in which they’re spending summer vacation has wide glass walls, the better to let the light pass through. It’s an expensive feature and not the kind conducive to keeping people out. There is a reason that in the home invasion film The Purge (2013), Ethan Hawke’s character makes a living selling metal barriers that can slide down in front bay windows. In Us, Winston Duke’s character has something else. He appears, at first, typical of any suburban dad in these kinds of films, down to the gray college sweatshirt. But when he discovers that calling the police cannot protect him from the shadowy figures standing at the head of his driveway, he takes a bat and slips into a more recognizably Black vernacular, shouting, “Now I thought I already done told y’all to get off my property…the cops are already on they way.” Peele’s caustic humor returns. The father’s gambit fails dramatically, and as soon as the figures take a step toward him, he retreats. They break into the home and his doppelgänger beats him savagely. If you have to find out that you are not really about that life, it is best, I suppose, to hear it from someone who looks just like you.
Nope is more expansive than Peele's previous films, drifting along like a pleasurable hangout. Still, it runs on the same barbed joke that animated this scene in Us. “Get off my property” is, after all, the root of the Western as much as the home invasion film. But there is something incongruous about watching a Black American shouting about property rights within images that echo earlier eras of filmmaking. Unlike the work of, say, the L.A. Rebellion, whose forms burst out somewhat orthogonally from Hollywood’s preferred modes, Peele has grown progressively Spielbergian in his attention to the mass ornament of his youth: in Us with Hands Across America, boombox commercials, the coy use of old hip-hop; here again in Nope with Fry’s Electronics, the Icee machines, the audience laughter of a bygone era of television. He moves beyond homage to a lost childhood, repurposing the forms of blockbusters like Jaws and Close Encounters of a Third Kind to probe America’s cultural psyche more deeply. Blackness is narrative material for Peele. It is why Daniel Kaluuya does not rush towards the flashing police lights for help in Get Out, why the Haywoods are so obsessed with asserting that they have always been there, and why O.J. refuses to abandon their ranch when the crisis peaks. In the Eddie Murphy special Delirious, the comedian said that any Black family in a horror movie would, unlike their white counterparts, immediately leave if a spirit whispered “get out,” thereby avoiding the whole problem. But if you wanted to make just such a movie, you might start with somebody who has grown tired of running.
In Nope, Peele does what our cinema has done perhaps better than any other artform, if only because of its intense commitment—he put a man on a horse. Hollywood has manufactured a whole ethos out of this iconic silhouette, a man on a horse in a land filled with dust and hostility. But the man was necessarily white. Who else was staking so many claims? Who else wouldn’t know that they had brought the hostility with them? The race-flipped retelling of many American stories often flounders upon the fact that the whiteness of old characters, though unremarked upon, is a plot device. Without it the mechanics collapse. All of the “wrong man” noirs would have had an easier time if they just pinned the crime on a Black man. Johnny Guitar (1954) has to be about a white couple because it would strain credulity to have a Black couple pass through an armed posse after murdering a white woman. The Western is the story of the expansion of white dominance across the continent, often fueled by former Confederates still searching for a world to make their own. It has rot at its core, and has also given us some of the medium’s most beautiful and affecting images. It is hard to think of America and not envision it in terms of the pictures provided by Anthony Mann or Delmer Daves or John Ford.
When Daniel Kaluuya finds himself atop a galloping horse in Nope he is almost, but not quite, the spitting image of America’s best dreams of itself. Peele has, with every film, pushed the tension of his unlikely images even further. O.J. tries to sacrifice himself to save the others, but somehow survives. It is a relief to see him, in a vulgarly American shot, sitting atop his steed while the dust settles. It is another one of Peele’s wry happy endings, only earned by first passing through the absurd until everybody has to go along with the joke. Sure, there are Black cowboy heroes in mainstream American cinema. They arrive at the same time the aliens do.