Ok that NOPE movie… I love horror films and I am especially excited when Black directors get the funding to fully realize their cinematic vision. A few great examples include Eve’s Bayou by Kasi Lemmons (she also starred in the original Candyman), Tales from the Hood by Rusty Cundieff, Demon Knight by Ernest Dickerson, and Black Box directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour.
Alright, let’s get into NOPE.
What’s Up With The Monkey In NOPE?
The monkey in NOPE is not a Black man.
I repeat: the monkey in NOPE is not a Black man.
Some people will clumsily connect the killer chimp (Gordy) to enslaved Black people, but it’s not that deep. Gordy serves more as a way to illustrate the difference between the two strategies for dealing with the alien. Jupiter focused on his personal experience with Gordy, while OJ focused on the predator’s point of view. OJ cited various wild animals and their rules. (With a bear, you stand still; with a wolf, you make yourself big, etc.) Jupiter was more like the mayor from Jaws–his arrogance and greed led him to f*** around and find out.
My homeboy Derrick Weston Brown (and critically acclaimed poet/author) saw the film and had spoke interesting observations about nature that were on point. “What is the obsession with white people swimming with sharks and hugging monkeys? People always think they’ve got a lock on nature, but they don’t. It reminds me of that Richard Pryor joke about the jungle. Like OJ said in the movie, you have to understand your relationship to nature and make a deal.”
So Is The Movie About Race?
Now it’s a stretch, but if you wanted to make it about race you could. You could compare the UFO to white supremacy and say that taming structural violence (Jupiter’s approach to the UFO) leads to our destruction while understanding your oppressor and directly attacking its weakness accordingly (OJ’s approach to the UFO) is the only way to survive racism. You could comment on Angel’s FFFFFF coworker who is entertained by the predicament of the characters of color but never uses her privilege to offer support. *Insert reparations analogy*. With the erasure of Black jockeys and horse trainers through history, there could be an assertion that Peele is honoring Jerry Dixon Jr., Issac Murphy, and all the unnamed Black horse riders/racers/trainers.
For real, for real–NOPE is not about any of that. I’m cool with just enjoying this as a straight-up alien/SciFi horror film.
The Black Characters Don’t Die First
Black characters usually die first in mainstream horror films. We never get a chance to get attached to them or think too long about why their “urban” dialogue doesn’t sit right. Brown characters are absent altogether unless it’s a Robert Rodriguez flick. NOPE has a more diverse group of main characters than most in the genre without making the plot about race. In NOPE we get to see what would have happened if we weren’t immediately killed off. I know what yall are going to say: BUT NEWNEW’S DADDY FROM ATL DIED FIRST! First of all, put some respect on Keith David’s name. Second, that’s debatable. Chronologically that chimpanzee Gordy gave everybody the business on set back in the 90s when he went ape shit. OJ & Emerald’s daddy Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) died from falling metal debris which suggests the UFO had just eaten a bunch of people, most of whom were likely white based on the characters we see at Jupiter’s Claim and around town.
Peele offers a subtle homage to all those Black characters who never got a backstory. We get to imagine ourselves in these classic horror film situations. Instead of running extra slow and falling at the wrong time and camping out unprotected in the woods where sexually active teens get murdered every year, Peele’s characters have a lot more sense. Angel stays wrapped in tarp and barbed wire just before the creature takes him. OJ strategizes logically from the perspective of the predator using context clues. Even Lucky the horse had sense enough to stay in the cage at Jupiter’s Claim when the creature was on its way to act a fool at the show.
Like the homie Derrick said, “we’re at the point where we’ve had lots of Black firsts. Now we can just make movies and enjoy them.” That said, he also referenced a thought he had about Daniel Kaluuya’s character being named OJ escaping on a horse like the white Bronco OJ Simpson drove. I had to laugh a little because I still remember our elementary school teacher making us watch the trial. It was third or fourth grade and when he was found not guilty I was overjoyed. I didn’t fully understand the situation, but my teacher was big mad at the time. That same joy erupted when the dust clears at the end and we find out OJ survived. I loved seeing him on top of a Black horse named Lucky in his orange hoodie. What if more horror films ended with a Black protagonist surviving a battle against the antagonist? It would be a stoic slap to convention. That’s the gift that Jordan Peele keeps on giving. I will forever appreciate Peele’s Black characters making it past the opening credits and playing pivotal roles in the story.
Behind The Scenes
Ok, can we talk about the music though?
Most of us were introduced to composer Michael Abels in Get Out–Peele’s first groundbreaking feature film. That song Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga (meaning listen to the ancestors) perfectly foreshadows the dispatches from the Sunken Place meant to warn Chris of the danger he was in. We collectively gave him an approving head nod for his haunting remix of Five On It by the Luniz. His self-described gospel horror was simultaneously familiar and distorted. In NOPE we were blessed with his love for mixing contemporary and traditional sounds. Dionne Warwick’s rendition of Walk On By perfectly accentuated Otis’s developing theory about the UFO.
Now personally I would have loved more Black people on hair & makeup. Was Felicia Leatherwood not available? Issa Rae slays in so many natural styles so maybe she can help get on payroll for the next Monkeypaw film. That said, as a #TeamNatural member for three decades, I still loved seeing afros, kinks, and curls. So happy they didn’t have Emerald (Keke Palmer) looking like she was wearing one of those Amazon wigs. You know the ones that look like Ari Lennox in the photo but arrive in real life looking like “Ooh baby no, what is you doing”.
This the Last Thing Ima Say
I’m going to see the movie again this week. Heads up–if you see it in theaters, that Emmett Till movie is in the previews, but don’t worry–NOPE is not about Black trauma.
I didn’t know where this would fit in the article, but yall. The inconveniently timed nihilism of that weird camera guy made everybody in the audience throw up their hands in frustration. First of all–he showed up to a monster fight in a linen caftan and I will never forgive him for that. Between him and the TMZ reporter, I don’t know who I’m angrier with.
We’ve been bombarded with T’Challa-less Black Panther: Wakanda Forever trailers. Some of y’all are plugged into the January 6th hearing. There’s always something in the news that reminds us how heavy it can be to exist in Blackness at times. Peele gives us a couple of hours to just watch a good movie. Best believe I’m going to see it in theaters again soon.