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Selling Suffering and the Spectacle of Blackness in Nope

In his new movie, Jordan Peele examines the ways in which the capitalist system forces us to place our lives in jeopardy and sell our own suffering. Spoiler alert!

Emma Boyhtari

October 14, 2022
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Main characters in a desert landscape
Photo: Universal Pictures

Throughout his filmography, Jordan Peele reveals how the power dynamics of society can act as the monsters of a horror movie. As socialists, we know that the problem with these power dynamics does not lie at the level of individuals, but is in fact the problem of the capitalist, white supremacist system we inhabit. Throughout the story of his latest blockbuster hit, the nature of capitalism and the use of our own suffering to make a profit lingers underneath the exploitation and specticalization of Blackness in Hollywood. 

The film follows Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer), who inherit their family’s horse ranch from their late father, Otis Haywood Sr., who dies at the beginning of the movie from debris that falls out of the sky. Months later, Emerald and OJ find themselves struggling financially, and OJ is considering selling the farm to their neighbor and amusement park tycoon, Ju (Steven Yeun). But after spotting a flying saucer they refer to as the “Viewer” (which they come to find out is actually an alien in and of itself), the siblings spend the duration of the movie attempting to capture it on film in order to sell the footage, risking their lives to make the money they need. 

Ju’s character has his own disturbing past. As a child actor, Ju experienced serious trauma on the set of a 90s TV show featuring a chimpanzee, Gordy, as the main star. While filming an episode about the chimp’s birthday, Gordy is suddenly triggered when a balloon pops on set. He snaps, killing and mauling the actors, audience, and crew. As an adult, Ju decides to capitalize off of his trauma, creating a small museum in his office containing items from the set and artwork of “Gordy’s Home.” He charges people a fee to look at and even spend time in his macabre ‘museum’, using people’s obsession with horrific spectacle to his advantage and turning his trauma into something he can sell.

Numerous online summaries and interviews have asserted that Peele is criticizing humanity’s obsession with spectacle, holding a mirror up to his audience to reveal the privilege we hold in watching horrific things from a distance for the purpose of our own entertainment. But one could argue that he’s not criticizing the entirety of his audience, but perhaps the sellers, producers, and providers of this content; or indeed, the system itself that produces these power dynamics. Through the traumatic experiences of the characters in Nope, Peele is questioning the humanity of a system that coerces us to put profit before our own humanity, encouraging people to seek dividends regardless of the content they are putting on display — even if it puts their lives, or someone else’s life, at risk.

Upon learning about the existence of the extraterrestrial predator roaming the desolate area of Agua Dulce, Ju takes this opportunity to capitalize off of its seemingly habitual hunting habits. He creates a circus sideshow in his Wild West theme park with the alien as the star and horses as the bait, demonstrating the willingness of capitalists to sacrifice animals and risk human lives for the sake of making a buck. Of course, his plan backfires due to the unreliable nature of wild animals (and wild aliens), and just as Gordy’s behavior changed when a balloon popped, the Viewer’s behavior changed upon consuming something it couldn’t digest: a fake, plastic horse. The alien arrives earlier than usual and swallows up the audience. 

In addition to the film’s discussion of the exploitation of our own suffering and placing our lives at risk for monetary gain, Peele is sure to include a commentary on race in Hollywood. In the movie, the Haywoods are descendants of a Black jockey who became part of the first image to appear on moving film to create a motion picture. At the beginning of the movie, Emerald addresses an all-white film crew, giving a safety presentation, and talks about her family’s relation to the jockey, stating that everyone knows the name of the man who created the film, but the jockey, Alistair E. Haywood in the film, has gone uncredited. The jockey’s name in the film is fictional, but the fact that his name has been long forgotten is true. Similarly, the Haywoods are the only Black animal trainers for big motion pictures, but they also don’t seem to receive much credit for this, either. This speaks to Hollywood’s racism and utilization of the image of Black folks for its own, largely white, gain — making Black people always a spectacle for the profit of its capitalist creators and beneficiaries. 

From minstrelsy to blackface to racist stereotypes and archetypes, Hollywood has a legacy of using Blackness to entertain white people who can enjoy it as a spectacle and then escape back into their own privilege. Though the movie industry may be attempting to cover its tracks with more diverse films nowadays, no one can deny its long history of exclusion and exploitation. For example, The Birth of a Nation from 1915, was and is renowned as a trailblazing work of art, but is in fact racist propaganda, featuring the KKK as the heroes of the story. In addition, the only images of Black folks featured in the highest grossing film of all time, Gone with the Wind from 1939, are racist caricatures, such as Hattie MacDaniel’s character, “Mammy.” Though Peele may not be discussing race in the film as explicitly as he did in Get Out, Nope nods to the racist history of Hollywood with the uncredited jockey while featuring diverse and intelligent Black characters who stand in stark contrast to the racist stereotypes and caricatures of history, as well as the typical airheaded characters we often see making decisions in horror movies that make us scream things like, “Don’t go in there! What are you doing?!?” Instead, OJ and Emerald are smart in their attempts to outwit and capture the image of the alien. OJ is the one who learns how to evade being sucked up into its maw by not looking at it. Emerald shows off her sewing and motorbike skills and, in the end, is the one who captures the creature at its peak state with the coin-operated camera. Peele’s characters are multidimensional and badass.

Jordan Peele’s Nope considers the way in which capitalism encourages us to put our lives at risk and exploit our own suffering. It also acknowledges the deep rooted racism of Hollywood and the misuse of the image of Black folks for the white man’s gain. The monster in this movie is not necessarily the Viewer, but the very white supremacist economic system that exploits us, and those who benefit from it.

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