“Nope”: Race, Wilderness, and Commodity in Peele’s Most Recent Movie

7 mins read

Spoilers ahead!

Sci-fi, Western, thriller … Director Jordan Peele’s most recent movie, “Nope,” bends genres, as it can be classified as all of the above and more. 

“Nope” tells the story of OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), owners of the Haywood horse ranch outside of LA. When their father is mysteriously killed by a coin falling from the sky and lodging itself in his brain, they quickly discover that a UFO inhabits the skies above their home. With the help of IT guru Angel (Brandon Perea) and renowned documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), the siblings attempt to protect their ranch from the alien force while also obtaining the “Oprah shot,” a.k.a. indisputable proof of the alien’s existence. At the same time, the Haywoods’ neighbor, child actor, and Wild West amusement park owner Jupe Park (Steven Yeun) tries to capitalize on the alien’s presence with a live show that goes horribly wrong. Along with being a genre-bending original film, Peele’s “Nope” expertly navigates complicated and nuanced themes pertaining to race, wilderness, and commodification. 

Technically, “Nope” is a stunning watch. The soundscape is incredible, and the shots are gorgeous and ripe for close reading. Thematically, it is just as dense. The movie is epic, containing all of the staples of a classic Western — cowboys, horses, the wild west — all with both sci-fi and Peele-specific twists. Jordan Peele has already made a name for himself in the horror/thriller scene by creating excellent films with leading actors of color in a genre typically lacking diverse representation. Westerns are similar to horrors in this way, and Peele yet again introduces minorities into leading roles, with two African American main characters as well as an Asian supporting character, bending the traditionally white Western cowboy stereotype. 

But Peele integrates race into “Nope” in much more nuanced ways as well. One of the ways in which the title of the movie itself, “Nope,” can be interpreted is as a nod to people of color (specifically African Americans) relating to instincts of self-preservation that white people need not be aware of due to racial privilege. In other words, because of the systematic disenfranchisement suffered by African Americans in this country, life has more hazards for people of color than for white people. To put it in simpler terms, white people are able to take more life-threatening risks because life has not cautioned them otherwise. (Think of the saying “White people have found endless ways in which to kill themselves.”) For example, people who participate in extreme sports tend to be young white men. 

Specifically, in “Nope,” there is a scene in which the alien pauses above OJ as he is getting out of his truck, and he promptly closes the door, saying, “nope.” This scene is contrasted with the cluelessness of white side characters who are inhaled by the alien in an effort to confront the unknown, ignorant of their own mortality.

Another one of Peele’s most prominent explorations in “Nope” is that of commodifying the wild, and by extension, the unknown. With the exotic attraction of an extraterrestrial presence in the neighborhood, all characters explore their own methods of commodifying the oddity. Jupe, a flamboyant and ambitious entrepreneur, attempts to make a live spectacle of the alien creature, which unfortunately ends in his and his spectators’ demise. At the same time, the Haywood siblings are attempting to get the “Oprah shot” of the creature as it haunts their property. This theme is perpetuated by the recurrence of mirrors, reflections, and cameras throughout the film: nothing is quite clear, and “the shot” is ever-evading, highlighting the discrepancy in true power between humans and the wild as well as humans’ inability to recognize their powerlessness over nature. The alien is uncanny in its foreign but earth-paralleling mannerisms: it looks like a UFO, but it acts like a predator. When fully extended, it resembles a butterfly or a jellyfish. Its feeding results in a tornado-like phenomenon. These qualities are all ones found on Earth, which in conjunction create a metaphoric conglomerate force of nature: a predator more powerful than a human. 

By extension, “Nope” investigates the limits of human technology and our thirst for ultimate power over nature. One important quality of the alien is that it disables all human technology in its presence, reinstating humanity as mid-level food chain prey for a predator. This motif is further explored in Jupe’s side plot from his time on “Gordy’s Home!”, a 90’s sit-com using a live ape actor that goes crazy, killing and mutilating several of the actors. “Nope” emphasizes the ultimately untamable power of nature and humans’ fatal mistake in believing that they can tame the wild. Even an ape, a caricature of human intelligence, is unable to be controlled by and therefore capable of being fatal to humans. 

In conclusion, “Nope” is a rich and unique watch that is worth your time, and there is so much more to be said about the genius of this film. Peele successfully reinvents the human versus wild motif in a way that bends film genres and explores socially relevant themes like race, ecology, and commodification. Trust me, you should watch it. 

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