Director Jordan Peele’s new science fiction thriller, Nope, tells the story of two siblings, Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), continuing their father’s legacy of handling horses for television. Their family history has been intertwined with Hollywood and horses for generations.
The first motion picture ever made was an 11-frame clip of a Black man riding a horse. Emerald and OJ are his descendants. The Haywood story spirals out from there as Emerald and OJ work to maintain their family’s legacy while grappling with the emerging extraterrestrial dangers that threaten their ranch home in rural California.
While the clip of the man on the horse is ubiquitous in cinematic history, focus is generally given to the man who created the motion picture, while the identity of the rider himself is overlooked. Despite having heard about this pivotal motion picture in film classes and personal readings, I didn’t know that the man depicted in it was Black until I heard Emerald’s brief explanation of the clip’s history in Nope.
This relegation of Black people to the background of the cinematic world is pervasive, not only in film history, but in present-day filmmaking as well. Peele actively rewrites this narrative by creating films like Get Out, Us and now Nope that position Black people at the center. The stories unfold from their point of view—a profound contrast to other popular horror films of recent decades in which Black characters are often either tokenized or treated as dispensable.
Emerald is effervescent, charmingly disorganized and disarmingly thoughtful. We see this exemplified in her professional communications for the family business and in her personal relationship with OJ, in which she repeatedly attempts to draw him out of his own emotional shell.
The central focus of Nope pulses outward from Emerald and OJ, using characters like Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor turned amusement park operator near the ranch, as foils for their own spectacle. As a child acting on a sitcom, Jupe watched his fellow actors suffer gruesome violence at the hands of a chimpanzee-gone-rogue on set. When Emerald asks him about the experience, he brushes it off as a funny story, though the repeated traumatic flashbacks the audience experiences through Jupe’s eyes suggest otherwise. Jupe’s emotional suppression in the wake of his trauma is a depiction of the price one must pay for a cinematic spectacle—foreshadowing the reckoning that Emerald and OJ come to terms with later in the film, as they experience the dangerous consequences of attempting to craft a spectacle of their own.
Time and again, the only adult character in Nope who exhibits emotional range is Emerald. While her male counterparts parry their way through fear-inducing experiences (in the case of OJ, often with a verbal utterance “nope” for comedic effect), Emerald carries the emotional arc of the story. The audience quickly learns to take our emotional cues from Emerald. It is her range, skillfully expressed by Palmer, that forms our emotional connection to her. She is funny, spontaneous and unfiltered at first—a stark contrast to her brother’s stoicism. As the film progresses, Emerald’s emotions follow suit: amplifying, getting serious, growing afraid along with the audience.
Emerald’s emotionality is the bridge between the audience and the film. Without the personal, private scenes of Emerald as she sways with a certain calm and grace to the soft sweeping music from the record player in her room, or the close-ups on Palmer’s face as she watches her brother narrowly escape death, it would be easy to ignore the humanity of the film, to distance ourselves rather than embracing the full spectrum of feeling that comes along with the delicacy of fear.
Emerald’s expression of emotion is a far cry from either the scared-girl horror movie trope or the tokenized Black character. She is not portrayed as weak, nor is she one-dimensional. Rather, her emotional range from sunny and self-possessed, to determined and tenacious, to caring and afraid, brings a more complex level of depth to Nope.
In media depictions, femininity is frequently associated with emotionality, from Disney princesses crying over their stolid princely counterparts to the hot-and-cold, drama-fueled high school girls in teen shows like Glee and Euphoria. Emotionality, and conversely, femininity, become regarded as weakness. This is particularly true when, as in the case of many of these depictions, emotional distress is portrayed as something that male characters must save the females from. This trend is exemplified in a study of female agency in film from the University of Washington, which found that women are consistently rendered as submissive or dependent in comparison to their male counterparts. The study, however, doesn’t account for race. Black women are often also trapped in the cinematic trope of feminized submission, as in the case of films like Soul Food (1997), which emphasizes the role of female characters as domestically subservient to their husbands. Despite receiving more screen time throughout the film, Black women in Soul Food had significantly fewer lines than the men, and that dialogue repeatedly circles back to discussion of the men in their lives.
Although Black women endure the brunt of sexist tropes in film, the lens through which they are portrayed is deeply altered by race. Black women are more likely than white women to be portrayed as hypersexual, overbearing, and violent. In general, Blackness has often been associated with violence in film, with different iterations of the “dangerous Black male” trope or the “brute caricature” as exemplified in formative popular films such as The Color Purple (1985) and What’s Love Got to do With It (1993) that feature Black males as abusers.
Whether it be in the context of violence, sexualization or submission, Black bodies on screen are often tokenized as spectacles in and of themselves. By positioning Black characters at the center of the film, Nope subverts this notion. Emerald and OJ are not spectacles: they are the observers, the eyes through which we see the inconceivable phenomena unfolding. Both Emerald and OJ appear strong and capable in different ways— neither weak nor violent—from Emerald herself who is determined to expose and profit from the mysterious UFO sightings to quiet, serious and thoughtful OJ. When danger and fear build, male characters are not put in the position of saving or soothing Emerald. Instead, they work together with their disparate emotional approaches to cope with the risks that threaten them.
Emerald experiences the emotions of the film with us. She is strong, yes, but she also gives in to her feelings in an authentic, refreshingly human way. As an audience, we don’t fear for her: we fear alongside her.
Top Photo: Screenshot from Nope Official Trailer