What is the ever-present thing that haunts you, the ever-looming threat that hurts the people you love, that gaslights you, that tries to devour you any chance it gets? The thing that haunts in Jordan Peele’s new sci-fi epic film, “Nope,” could easily be a metaphor for racism and oppression. So let’s go with that.
The Haywood family, owners of Haywood Hollywood Horses, has deep roots in Agua Dulce, 40 miles north of Hollywood. The audience is introduced to their ancestor, Alistair Haywood, a Black man depicted in a vintage film clip riding a horse in the first-ever moving picture.
The story of Alistair is also a brilliant marketing tool used as a commercial to introduce the famous Haywood Hollywood Horses. Here, Peele reclaims a place for Black people in the lore that is Hollywood. This ancestor also serves as a powerful counter narrative to the story of westward expansion that insists cowboys were always White. The Haywood family’s presence and work over generations underscores Black contributions as foundational to American history.
Emerald, played by KeKe Palmer, gives a dashing sales pitch to onlookers on a movie set and explains that they are witnessing history because of the cinematic contributions of her “great great grandfather” adding another “great” when corrected by her brother standing in the background. In an image tied to memory, Alistair appears in a projection with a slim Black jockey with perfect posture, riding a black horse. The scene is haunting because of the background music that accompanies it and the precision of man and horse moving forward but never fully arriving at a final destination.
Meanwhile, Emerald’s brother, Otis, Jr. wrangles a horse on the set. Better known to the family as “O.J.,” he is a stoic, workaholic, played by Daniel Kaluuya. The history lesson is abruptly cut short after a horse named Lucky, inherited by the sibling duo, kicks some ass because folks on the movie set got too close. O.J. had tried to tell them about the horse, but they didn’t listen. O.J. communicates with Lucky on a frequency that only a man and his horse can understand, and O.J. listens. From Lucky, he learns an early lesson about facing fear. Don’t look it in the eye. Keep your head down and do the work of defeating it.
Lucky’s reluctance to give direct eye contact is not just about survival but resistance to the passive consumption of the oppressive force intent on destroying us. It’s in the air, in the clouds. And unlike UFOs, this is not some random occurrence. It happens every day because the menace is embedded into the very structure of our society. Those who are power hungry, greedy, and lack integrity are bound to be devoured, as “Nope” shows.
As the audience, we are unknowingly glancing from the bowels of this creature into an abyss that is reminiscent of what we have come to know as “The Sunken Place” from Peele’s 2017 debut social thriller “Get Out.” This place/state of mind is the gatekeeper’s paradise, a place for oppressing marginalized people. But instead of seeing a black bottomless void, we are privy to something else altogether thanks to the suspended character of Chris, brilliantly played by the “Get Out” protagonist Kaluuya.
O.J. surmises some other qualities of the thing that looms. “It’s territorial,” O.J. says to Emerald at one point. It thinks the land the siblings were born, raised, and labored on belongs to it. But the Haywoods are embedded in this place they cultivated and built, and they aren’t going anywhere.
O.J. decides to face the threat. He gets to work to capture video evidence that it exists and to deal with it for once and for all.
Emerald is not trying to do all that work. She seeks to live a life without complication. Like so many of us facing the menace that hovers over our days and fills the chambers of government and institutions where bad, dangerous decisions are regularly made, it seems she just wants to be.
She is reminded by a gruff O.J. that he “has mouths to feed” and that there is “always work to do” in their family business. It isn’t until the invader starts attacking more aggressively that Emerald is finally onboard and ready to fight.
This shift in Emerald’s character gives hope that if you just get down to the business of doing the work to destroy this ugly monster, perhaps you can inspire others to do the same. This is true especially for those who understandably do not make the effort to stay informed as a coping mechanism for the traumas we endure. Think about what society has experienced in this pandemic and the transformation of the political landscape.
It is not until O.J. has a flashback to his time on set with Lucky that he gains insight into how they can conquer the looming threat. It’s a wake-up call, and in an odd way “Nope” shows there is hope for those of us who are willing can take on this “thing” that wants to erase our legacies, the institutions we’ve built, the stories that reveal who we truly are. “Nope” reveals that all things are possible if we dissolve ego, work together — and get very creative.
Ja’nell N. Ajani is a curator, cultural producer, and writer. Her most recent curated show, “Peace to the Queen: A Retrospective on the Work of Jamel Shabazz,” will be on display at George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in Austin, Texas, until Sept. 17.