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A still from Nope shows Daniel Kaluya's character sitting on a horse, looking off to the right, wearing a bright orange sweatshirt. In the background, on the porch of an old house, is Keke Palmer's character looking exasperated.

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From ‘Get Out’ to ‘Nope’, Jordan Peele Is Reframing the Act of Looking

Peele has codified something crucial: a terrorized Black gaze, ossified by history, and integral to the story of cinema.

By Kelli Weston

From Nope (2022), dir. Jordan Peele. Image © Universal Studios, 2022.

Little has not already been said of Jordan Peele’s gilded rise to the toast of modern horror. Hallmarks of his biography have been thoroughly excavated for their prescience: He was raised by his single white mother on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He met Keegan-Michael Key on the Chicago comedy circuit. They were subsequently cast together on Mad TV, before making the triumphant jump to their eponymous sketch show, which catapulted them both to fame, with two Primetime Emmys and a Peabody Award to show for their trouble.

The enduring popularity of Key & Peele attests to the chameleonic dexterity of its stars, who dipped into a panoply of ethnicities (to say nothing of genders and sexualities) over its five season-run. In both The New Yorker’s “Brother From Another Mother” and her more controversial piece “Getting In and Out” for Harper’s Bazaar, the writer Zadie Smith twice concerns herself with blood quantum: either Peele’s biracial-ness or hers or her children’s. Peele’s work, at least, does not betray the kind of racial insecurity about his positionality that usually marks such authors; perhaps because, as Smith curiously points out in The New Yorker, his “phenotype is less obviously malleable—you might not guess that he’s biracial at all…” The observation skirts the more conspicuous conclusion. Visible or not, Peele’s proximity to whiteness (in the profile, he recalls childhood anxiety around “speaking white”) surely aided his (not at all undeserved) ascent, if only to arm him with all the mores to survive the predominantly white circles in which he found himself circulating; likely providing the seed of inspiration.

By now, Peele belongs to that tenuous class of anointed artists of a certain background —an emblem of cultural advancement, real or imagined—and like anyone with enough sense who finds themselves in such fickle ranks, he set about securing his legacy. In 2012, Peele founded Monkeypaw Productions, which co-produced, along with Peele’s three films to date, Keanu (2016) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018). But the particular, sheer accomplishment of Get Out (2017) cannot be overstated: look no further than the glut of graceless mimicking that has flowed ever since.

From Get Out (2017), dir. Jordan Peele. Image © Universal Pictures

In fact, horror was well on the road to “elevation” years before Get Out calcified its reign. The genre yields these deeper sociological rumblings naturally, of course. Indeed, the very nature of fear compels us to confront instinctive, core apprehensions: seemingly private, if ultimately tribal dread. But in more ways than one, to face the Other is to face thyself; often the monsters that trouble us are not really separate from us, or sometimes they are, but invariably it’s a matter of, well, identity politics. Before the plague of “conscious” horror descended, such a truth was universally acknowledged and—without much fuss or vainglory—merely obstetrical, part and parcel of storytelling. Sinister (2012), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), Green Room (2015), The Witch (2015), Under the Shadow (2016) all make their respective points (and quite well, at that), but above all, these films prioritize a good, lasting, bone-deep, tummy-flipping, skin-crawling scare. Peele, too—for all his nimble scaffolding—never neglects fear.

Underneath the poetry and metaphor and robust ideological framework, there is always the marvelously chilling encounter with urgent threats not just to the body, but one’s very identity, the innermost Self.

In Get Out, you have a simple story, impeccably told. A young Black photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, who reunites with Peele in the upcoming Nope), accompanies his white girlfriend to her parents’ countryside estate, where he falls prey to their depraved family enterprise: kidnapping and lobotomizing Black people, for their wealthy, mostly white clientele to cerebrally inhabit. It should be noted, the film takes its time building to this stunning reveal. Meanwhile, the flesh of this already inviting skeleton—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) but exponentially more eerie—begins to take shape. As an example, the television—which is really to say, the screen, where Black people are typically made either invisible or grotesque—holds great trauma for Chris (and Black people more broadly). Specifically, it distracted him from his mother’s death. Fitting then, that out of his pain he should not only elide the camera’s gaze but make himself the author (master) of the image; and that furthermore, the only way to “awaken” the psychically trapped Black victims—their bodies puppeteered by white invaders—is to take a picture of them on a cellphone. In other words, liberation comes only when Chris disrupts white image-making, or what amounts to biomedical minstrelsy.

From Us (2019), dir. Jordan Peele. Image © Universal Pictures

Us (2019) is markedly more ambitious, far less sleek, and arguably, the more compelling film for it. Brimming with all the director’s intricate ideas—too many, as it turns out, to fully deliver on—Peele’s second feature proves an especially protean force: part-slasher, part-science fiction, part-zombie apocalypse. A middle-class Black family flees a clone uprising led by their mother’s own mysterious doppelganger, determined to “replace” all who live “in the sun” with this long interred underclass who call themselves The Tethered. Like its predecessor, Us has undergone forensic scrutiny, leaving few, if any references or conspiracy theories unturned. By now, Peele has primed his viewers for this painstaking level of engagement, for Us, too, comes cloaked in stalwart political purpose: including, but certainly not limited to an indictment of capitalism, economic and racial exploitation, and the fundamentally (if not quite uniquely) American propensity to fabulate its fetid past. Both films opened to thunderous praise; and although Us failed to garner any nominations, Get Out took home Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, making Peele the first Black filmmaker ever to win that award.

Outside of his directorial endeavors, Peele has been slightly less successful. His revival of The Twilight Zone (2019-2020) earned mixed reviews and was abruptly canceled after two seasons. He produced the HBO series Lovecraft Country (2020), which was canceled after one season, and co-wrote the earnest, admittedly clunky Candyman (2021). Given how famously meticulous his own films have been, the last two projects are not only discernibly less circumspect, but very much within the deluge of garishly politicized horror, excessively inclined to telegraph its own subtextual design, lest the audience come to their own conclusions.  More specifically, Lovecraft and Candyman each reckon—to varying degrees of effectiveness—with corporeal peril, which boasts only one trick, its returns ever diminishing: physical violence. And they flounder where so many productions of the last five years have floundered: commentary takes the foreground.  Such projects are more often political statements merely disguised as horror. So many of these films test the bounds of metaphor; their filmmakers practically shout, loudly and artlessly, in the corners of every frame those cursed words which their respective hauntings poorly veil: Trauma! Grief! Mental illness! 

Generally, this ongoing spate of clumsily political cinema—the latest of which include  Master (2022) and Men (2022)— siphones the form of fear, its primal language. When the fear becomes purely symbolic, a cursory means to a “sophisticated” end, it becomes difficult to feel, which is where all the charisma really resides. Certainly, horror is a site possessed of archetypal institutions (the final girl, the wise or otherwise magical Black person), but at the crossroads between allegory and the murkier, more intuitive business of delivering sensational frights, the best films have always chosen the latter.

And so, worst of all, in the cynical scramble to harness the genre for weighty platitudes, didacticism, and presumably accolades, horror has become dramatically blander. 

There can be no doubt that Get Out ushered in this wave of films that seem to draw only the crudest lessons from what remains an admirable masterwork. For his part, Peele’s approach is rooted in experience, not just as a Black man, but—and this is important—as an obvious admirer of the genre. In other words, he is a student of its history. An incomplete and not at all thorough accounting of his influences, seen and unseen, include Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Sisters (1972), The Stepford Wives (1975), Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), I Spit on Your Grave (1980), The Shining (1980), Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Goonies (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Scream (1996), and so on.

Horror has long gone untapped for the classical accouterments that leave it specially placed to illuminate certain figments of Black life: the preoccupation with captivity and confinement, the haunted houses which may implicate spectral exchanges with the lost maternal. Peele, it must be said, arrives in the tradition of Black filmmakers William Crain, Bill Gunn, and Ernest Dickerson before him. True, his interests may be less ecclesiastical than many of his forebears, but he preserves their major values: a healthy dose of comedy (predictably, given Peele’s origins) and a prevailing regard for Black viewers. In other words, we are in on the joke: Gabe (Winston Duke), father of the preyed upon family in Us, dons a Howard University sweatshirt and chides his wife for keeping a hide-a-key—“What kind of white shit!”—or, more grimly, in Get Out, when Chris dismisses his best friend’s outlandish suspicions about white people and sex slavery, only for them to be proven true.

From Nope (2022), dir. Jordan Peele. Image © Universal Studios, 2022.

What distinguishes Peele’s films, then, from the prodigal crop he inspired is perspective. Peele aligns himself with his Black characters and, more precisely, Black audiences. For all the appeals to representation, it is rarely revolutionary to simply see Black people (or any other marginalized class, for that matter) on screen; the narrative around them, too, must accommodate their manifold histories and the unwieldy implications of their presence. Peele’s films venture even further: Look closely at Get Out and Us, and you find a striking ambivalence as to what visual representation can even achieve. Consider that Get Out is populated by Black characters turned functionally white, their bodies and psyches colonially split.  Yet more pointed, the birthplace of the conflict in Us is a hall of mirrors, where a little Black girl encounters her double: a taxing connection she violently longs to break. And the two foremost images that encapsulate Peele’s efforts thus far are close-ups of Black people looking: the terrified Black man, tears streaming down his cheeks, and the little Black girl, eyes and mouth wide; their screams mangled. He has codified something much more tangible and coherent than a “female” gaze (for what does it mean to be female?): a terrorized Black gaze, ossified by history, integral to the very mode—cinema, that is—in which he operates.

Thus, to shrink the metaphysical range that horror offers into an equivalent expression for mourning or disease or misogyny or racism is not quite the sleight of hand that Peele has at least twice now pulled off; worse still, to do so where it concerns racism in particular, inevitably ministers to the colonial insatiability to consume Black suffering. Peele—whose success came in the wake of The Chappelle Show, and whose own series trafficked in similar parodies—understands perhaps better than most that certain familiar performances of race are well rewarded. It is no coincidence that his first two films betray such a vested interest in masks and mimicry.

Nope continues this overarching project to evaluate Black people in their relationship to cinema and spectacle. The film stars Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as siblings O. J. and Emerald Haywood, Hollywood horse trainers and heirs to a lofty cinema legacy: they are the descendants of the Black jockey pictured in the 1878 photography series by Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion—an early, pioneering moment in film history. Not unlike Chris in Get Out, their efforts to capture footage of the UFO hovering above the family ranch implicate a troubled relationship with the camera’s glare—a desire to control the image rather than be controlled (or, more aptly, transformed) by it—a dynamic affirmed when O. J. resolves that they must not look directly at the saucer: “Don’t look…don’t look…” Emerald whispers as she flees its crosshairs. Naturally, UFOs and alien invasions invite questions of colonialism, and Peele liberally references Hollywood westerns (cowboys and aliens) but, once again, at the center of this work is Black people looking. For among their many spoken and unspoken codes, the siblings share a faithful salute: two fingers pointed at their own eyes and then the other’s. I see you.  

In a 2017 conversation with Elvis Mitchell at Film Independent Forum, Peele noted, “The only way I will ever attempt to create anything again is to be vulnerable with my own emotions. In some way, it has to be autobiographical.” A fascinating, foreseeable pattern emerges. Cinema has long and persistently been charged terrain for Black audiences, certainly for a cinephile like Peele (Take The Sunken Place, which blatantly wields the visual language of the literal theatrical space to convey terror). But unsurprisingly, the key to his vision in all its success is purely individual, an exorcizing of all his own particular reservations and fixations. Therein lies the distinction of his work, crowned in horror’s defining principle: the pleasure in looking is often entangled with terror. 

Jordan Peele’s Nope begins playing in theaters on July 22. 

This essay was jointly commissioned by Seen and FilmBulletin, a magazine dedicated to writing about the best and worst of cinema since 1959. Based in Zurich, FilmBulletin reaches German-speaking Europe with six artfully designed print issues per year, as well as online. A version of this essay also appears in print, in FilmBulletin’s Black Hollywood issue.