The devils out there may be nightmarish and creepy, but perhaps we’re all overlooking what genuinely unsettles humanity alongside our grisly wonders of imagination.
It would be asinine to claim Jordan Peele has not impacted the film industry since his directorial debut five years ago. The former Mad TV/Key & Peele star took the reins to jump into horror as he claimed comedy and horror share so much in terms of “pacing and hinging on reveals.” After disclosing his ideas for his first feature to producer Sean McKittrick, McKittrick offered to buy the pitch, and Get Out became a reality of shooting. Upon execution, it gave Peele other ideas to ingrain himself in the horror genre by compiling ideas and themes for his second work, Us. And then, a few years later, when many were distressed over the future of cinema, Peele took a chance with his third feature, Nope, and promised spectacle and a differing approach to the typical horror routine.
And thus far, Mr. Peele has solidified himself as an auteur and innovative moviemaker with the intent to showcase demons that we do not wish, let alone speak, to divulge. He is 3-0 in his film collection so far, something so few filmmakers can claim. Granted, he doesn’t have enough in his arsenal to challenge the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, John Ford, and Stanley Kubrick as pioneers of cinema. And many can lay claim his inspirations are conspicuous as his screenplays spur from other movie classics and directors. However, given his foundation and more time and devotion to his craft, Peele can warmly join those names down the line.
Why? Because much like M. Night Shyamalan, Jordan Peele brings original, fascinating ideas to light. The crucial difference is (outside of a few acclaimed Shyamalan works) that Peele executes such propositions with robustness and ingenious trenchant themes that garner significant discussion and awareness. When features leave a considerable impact, it provides cogitations to explore the “why” factor than the “if and when” aspect. Sideways turned wine tasting into an everlasting consumption/tourism with the iconic beverage. Bambi struck chords over anti-hunting sentiments and ushered in regulations. In 1975, Jaws created turmoil and hysteria over beach gatherings and shark sightings. And Schindler’s List powerfully radiated the injustice and prejudice of the Holocaust and how it impacted Jewish history.
No matter how one spins it, there are things to discuss after witnessing Peele’s works. In a sense, it appears that his main critique is humanity. It is not a bright, beautiful world we relish living in; for a majority, it’s as crippling as watching bodies drop each day. Hell, even Sam Peckinpah got a dig out of the West’s dying days and Vietnam’s disastrous fallout for American folk (check The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs). As humans, we are susceptible to dark, twisted actions rooted in ideals we believed were expunged, such as slavery, nonequality, and exploitation. But, as it turns out, Peele takes risks to showcase our deepest, shadowy consternations, which still exist in some form or another in this world.
A stroll through his three masterpieces may evince humankind’s cruelties and ignorance.
(Note: several spoilers are ahead for all three films.)
In his directorial debut, Get Out embodied the context of white middle-class liberals’ attitudes towards black people to reinforce how race relations in modern times are almost no different than it was centuries ago. Granted, it’s a simple plot: a black individual is dating a white woman, and they are spending some time at her family’s residence, and then upon witnessing their devilish tactics, he must get out. What Peele cleverly dives into is a disturbing tantalization of blackness when the protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), gets even more uneasy through his interactions with the white family. Upon his arrival, the family becomes overly accommodating, referencing how their favorite president is Obama, and they’d vote for him a third time. A party ensues later, with the people insensitively making passive-aggressive remarks about black culture as a “fashion” and praising their “qualities.”
The generalizations come off as ignorant and clumsy because black folks have psychologically struggled through the larger racial dynamic where the white perspective demonizes or lionizes black people. It denies essential human normality when blacks stand viewed as objects of desire. It becomes further entrenched upon recognizing the Armitage family’s issues: they exploit black individuals’ bodies to achieve immortality and preferred characteristics. The display of “Negrophilia” acts as a front for the terror of racism. Witness how the guests arrive at the house (white people traveling in black cars) or the silent bingo session auctioning Chris’s body to a blind individual.
Get Out is an investigation of Afrofuturism, the philosophy and aesthetic of developing intersections of the African race as a technology. Chris stumbles upon his girlfriend’s mother’s hypnosis, which sends him to the “Sunken Place.” A void of space, where he can only witness as a “passenger” as the Armitages seek to transfer the host to a white individual via brain transplantation. The Sunken Place symbolizes the hushed voices of black folk in modern America and stands as a metaphor for the lack of attention of missing black citizens. The stark reality exists due to a medley of racial and socioeconomic factors rendering their culture less valuable than their white counterparts. So why hear about the missing life of one black folk when three white girls get kidnapped?
Peele wonderfully explores a paradox about the origins of slavery because slavery in the early stages had nothing to do with race. The idea of race originated due to the theft of black bodies. It continued in the early stages of civilization when whites demolished Natives and Mexicans and destroyed the lives of Chinese and Japanese during warfare. Nowadays, the abstract thought of race, heck even gender, relations becoming more friendly and coexisting with one another is woefully farcical and ignominious. Black people must constantly try to navigate and assimilate into a society where white colonists decide their identities. Hence, it’s a dual realization, where one side is preserved as its own while the other presents a façade to the outer world.
It’s a thought-provoking work, showering the twisted, sinful light on slavery and racial issues and how they persist to this day.
After getting confused over people’s reactions to Get Out (despite being a massive success), Peele decided to go all out on a horror film inspired by The Twilight Zone episode, Mirror Image. It centered on a woman and her evil doppelganger, and thus, Us was born under a similar premise of a family meeting their counterparts.
But make no mistake: Us reaches deep down into America’s scarred history of situational classism and the festering wounds of privilege. It taps into the symbolic structure of pop culture to grasp hidden history in which the acts of the past rage silently in the present time. Peele’s second feature opens ominously about how “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental United States…many have no known purpose at all” before transitioning into a zoom-in shot of a 1986 commercial featuring the “Hands Across America” event with glimpses of the Twin Towers and several movies next to the television (The Goonies, C.H.U.D., The Man with Two Brains).
Peele sets the stage for symbols of tragedy and duality in one fell swoop, which plays into effect once the “Tethered” make their presence known on the streets of Santa Cruz and eventually the whole country. Walking around with red jumpsuits, gloves, and scissors adds to their devilish personas as they slaughter most of their above-ground counterparts before joining hands together. When Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family encounter their doppelgangers, the leader Red tells a story in a raspy voice about a girl and her shadow. Both were connected (or tethered) with the girl living prosperously while the shadow suffered immensely.
It speaks to a discouraging revelation as the Tethered stand as a metaphor for social inequality, the effigies of marginalization in America. In today’s time, the wealthy and powerful preside over others, while those at the bottom are subjected to their rulings and must claw their way for survival and freedom. In Peele’s mind, the exploration of privilege showcases how entitlement and ignorance continue to blind our advocating of exceptionalism, leaving many in constant misery and suffering. That “we’re Americans” line unsettlingly points to such magnitude.
Additionally, the presence of the doppelgangers implores many to consider if there is an evil side rooted in them, ready to lash out. The scissors, clothing, and reappearing of the Jeremiah 11:11 verse (regarding America’s impending doom for embracing false idols of unrestrained consumption and capitalism) point to the duality of American society. The red jumpsuits and gloves are an ode to Michael Jackson’s Thriller; the same shirt young Adelaide wore at the beginning of the feature. Mr. Jackson was a saint of duality, beloved yet suspected simultaneously back then and now.
Everything about Us feels grandeur because of Peele’s ambition to explore the oppression our country is afraid to bring up, much like his themes in Get Out. His sophomore outing proved his directorial debut was no fluke and kicked it up to twenty by leaving us with one-too-many questions about our identities as humans. It’s such a tense, gritty feature to reflect upon that it indicates how America has tried to hide the blood and genocide that drip onto the soil each minute and how sins stay entrenched in our wisdom and philosophies. Plus, the brutalities we create indicate we’re our own worst enemy, similar to how when indicting others, it can become said for ourselves.
We could prepare for the devils’ arrival, but it seems they exist within us already.
Peele stood set for a third outing with two masterpieces already on his track record and recently signed a partnership with Universal Studios under his Monkeypaw Productions. However, he was anxious about the future of cinema (aka the COVID-19 pandemic) and wanted to create a spectacle, something audiences would have to come to see. It was curious to see what other nightmares Peele could explore after having triumphed in showcasing ghastly realities of racism and classism. This time, the terror came from the sky. Nope became another term to shout when witnessing such a spectacle (which we’ll discuss in a moment).
Much like his previous two works, the plot is relatively transparent: ranch-owner siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) want to capture footage of a UFO on camera to make a fortune after the death of their father. Then, there’s an addition of a traumatizing encounter with a raging chimpanzee on a set for a once popular television show that intertwines its themes and commentary of Peele’s direction. Nope is Peele’s most ambitious film, even when all the tangents don’t bring about viscidity at moments. But, the major takeaway is how humanity views tragedy and spectacle as a whole and exploits it for potential profit.
Philosopher Guy Debord theorized that life presents itself as an immersion of spectacle in societies where modern conditions exist. It conquers our perspectives, embracing the ideal of having, not necessarily living out our livelihoods. The Haywood ranch house and Jupiter’s Claim Park are rich with photos of past TV shows and films. Ricky Stark (Steven Yuen), the same individual traumatized from the “Gordy’s Home” incident, charges a fee for the remnants of the show and mentions a viral SNL sketch about it. It fulfills the motif that being alive is to be surveilled, which becomes further addressed with the UFO in the sky. The flying saucer consumes life forms that look at it, taking in humans and animals for sustenance. The alien does what many of us have been doing for generations, watching people get stripped of power and then consuming their experiences for entertainment.
In evaluating history, books do so much to represent knowledge and facts. So, many of us turn our heads toward the screen but cast aside reality. We cannot look away from the drama. Instead, we witness disgusting shootings, beatings, conflicts, and racism from cameras, and most of us have become so accustomed to it that we indulge it for the entertainment value. And in doing so, it points to another smoldering matter: history overlooks individuals and events that played a significant role. For instance, in the opening credits of Nope, we witness Eadweard Muybridge’s clip of a black man riding a horse. When Emerald mentions her great-great-great grandfather’s contributions to that moment on-set, the crew looks on in confusion. History may entail much. Still, a great deal has become omitted that it speaks to missing documentation of minorities’ history.
Stark’s character utilizes the Gordy incident and his park as maneuvers to profit from the engagement of spectacle. In both scenarios, Starks underestimates the unpredictable and dangerous behaviors of animals (or aliens), which eventually costs him once the saucer catches on how it is getting lured out by the horses that OJ has been selling to Starks to maintain the ranch. It’s his status quo of embracing risk to attain success, like the Haywood siblings believing that filming the UFO will become key to their survival. In the near-death (or death) experiences, it’s no different from the TMZ reporter that appears or filmmaker Antler’s intent to get “the shot” because the obsessive craftsmanship and commerce lines stand indistinguishable as they lead to the same violent ends. Thus, the film symbolically illustrates Peele’s farcical letter to Hollywood that stretching for “that one moment” causes undue consequences to the production staff and viewer, suggesting friction between principled costs and pleasures. Reread that Nahum 3:6 verse at the opening; the UFO judges humanity’s fixation on money and spectacle and raining back down with inorganic filth and blood as punishment.
That’s even more indication to shout “nope” when recognizing our inured mindsets regarding such perils.
The future looks bright for Mr. Peele and his awe-inspiring ideas.
Jordan Peele has taken intricate steps to evaluate the demons and sins of humanity. We possess beauty at our fingertips yet much reckoning by the actions taken from the past, present, and future. The horror genre was once described as “collective nightmares” because they expressed our eminent fears that previously repressed monsters could threaten social norms.
Peele himself has brought back prestige to the overlooked genre by recognizing the black culture experience and social anxiety regarding our subliminal temptations and outlooks. The risk-taking and zeal of these horrors explored radiates with flamboyance and uniqueness. In this writer’s mind, Peele has already toppled Shyamalan’s formula of “fascinating original idea mixed with plot twist endings,” even if he cannot lay claim to being as bankable as him (yet).
What he does next is anyone’s guess (despite his recent words at a premiere). Still, if Peele can continue this path of stardom, he could become another influential filmmaker in the industry and rise to the standards of what Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Kubrick have already set.
Here’s to wishing Mr. Peele well in his next (daring) adventure.