Jordan Peele’s Nope addresses the power of looking. It’s about who has the right to look, and who is being looked upon. It’s about how that gaze can be manipulated to profit some at the expense of others. And it’s about reclaiming the right to look for people who historically haven’t been allowed to do so.
Nope is Jordan Peele’s third outing as a director, and like Peele’s other films, it’s full of layers. On the surface, it’s a classic alien encounter movie. A layer beneath that, you’ll find a critique of how we seek to turn everything into a spectacle. A layer beneath that, and you’ll discover a commentary on the power of the gaze. Yes, I’m talking about something akin to bell hooks’ “oppositional gaze,” which can be dangerous, political, and an instrument of resistance. Nope is ultimately about the way people of color have been looked upon and dehumanized by the white gaze but have reclaimed the right to look for themselves. The characters who best represent this message are OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), both of whom are paralleled with animals to emphasize the way they’ve been stripped of their humanity.
In his very first scene, OJ is paired with the horse Lucky. OJ has come to do a screen test with Lucky for a commercial, hoping to finally get a gig that can keep the family business afloat after the loss of his father. A huge camera stares straight at OJ and the horse, trapping OJ and Lucky under its ominous gaze. All eyes are literally on him. The crewmembers order OJ to move the horse around, talking over him, and moving around him so quickly that he can’t speak up for himself or for Lucky, and even when he does, he’s ignored. He tells the crew not to get too close or look straight into the horse’s eyes, but they disregard what he has to say. When Lucky instinctively retaliates, OJ is the one punished for it by getting fired from the job.
The way the crew and actors on set treat OJ feels purposely dehumanizing. They make demands with little regard for his or the horse’s safety. The crew sees OJ and the horse as one and the same, as something beneath them that is only there to serve their desire to provide entertainment. OJ becomes virtually silent, invisible, turned into a prop for the crew. This sets up Nope’s commentary on the treatment of Black folks and other people of color in Hollywood, specifically, but also in larger society.
Ricky “Jupe” Park is also paired with an animal: Gordy, the chimp who was the titular character on the show “Gordy’s Home,” in which Jupe also starred. The massacre on the set of “Gordy’s Home” is repeatedly returned to over the course of the movie. In an episode celebrating Gordy’s birthday, a bunch of balloons floated to the ceiling and popped, triggering the chimp playing Gordy and sending him into a murderous rampage. As the chimp mauled his castmates, Jupe hid under a table and watched in horror.
The chimp catches sight of Jupe hiding and slowly approaches but never attacks him (importantly, they never make direct eye contact, instead looking at each other through the tablecloth). The chimp reaches his hand out to fist bump Jupe as they do on the show. Just before their hands can meet, Gordy is suddenly shot in the head. This experience clearly stays with Jupe, but he remains stoic when talking about it. He’s enshrined lots of the “Gordy’s Home” memorabilia in his own private museum. Instead of understanding this experience as a horrific result of Hollywood producers pursuing ratings by making a spectacle out of a wild animal they selfishly thought they could control, Jupe has been taught to understand this as a spectacular incident that can be further plundered for entertainment.
Being subjected to the gaze of white Hollywood producers for so long leads Jupe to inflict that gaze on himself. He goes on for several minutes referencing an SNL skit that recreated the animal attack, praising it for how funny it is. Jupe's reaction to what happened reflects how the horrific, the traumatizing, and the ugly are popularized and commodified for consumption in our society today. News outlets and social media in America have been flooded with bad news and horrifying images, from the COVID pandemic to the rise in mass shootings to domestic terrorism to the brutalization of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people in self-recorded videos. We watch tragedies and disasters from the safety of our screens to “reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control."
Notably, Jupe is the only person of color on the “Gordy’s Home” set. The rest of his TV family is white. It isn’t a coincidence that Jupe is the only person left physically untouched in the chimp’s attack. The chimp and Jupe may have a bond due to their onscreen friendship, but they have another, stronger connection because of the way they’ve been tokenized as props for entertainment. Jupe was the token Asian character on “Gordy’s Home,” something special to be observed and laughed at by, presumably, white audiences—in the scene before the chimp attack, Jupe's character is made to be the butt of a joke. Similarly, the chimp who played Gordy was something rare to be observed by white audiences. Under the camera lens, they have been caged and made to act for others’ enjoyment.
Jupe is a product of his environment, so when he discovers the alien, he’s happy to inflict the constraining gaze that has been inflicted on him onto something else. He perpetuates the expectations white masses have had for him and for Gordy. He’s immediately looking for a spectacle that will give him fame and fortune. He hopes that the fame from turning the alien into a show will free him from his life as a washed-up child actor and the tokenizing white gaze that trapped him in such a life.
The Haywoods, meanwhile, learn to reclaim the gaze for themselves. OJ realizes that the alien wants to look upon others, but doesn’t want to be looked at itself. The alien represents the ability to look that OJ, Emerald (Keke Palmer), and other Black people and POC have been excluded from. It’s important to note that the main group of characters who want to look at the alien and capture its image are all members of minority groups who have suffered from the white gaze constraining their potential. Despite their legacy, the Haywoods’ business is struggling because they’re Black in Hollywood. Jupe suffers the same neglect because he’s Asian.
The alien is able to look at all of them, but if they dare to look back, it eats them. This literally makes looking an act of resistance. Once OJ realizes this, he is able to successfully use his “oppositional gaze” to stare the alien right in its giant mouth/eye and take power back. The alien’s mouth/eye is conspicuously shaped like a camera, driving the point home more. OJ looks back at the creature which has held power over him and his family, which has surveilled them and terrorized them, and is able to make it submit to him. Only by understanding the rebellion in the act of looking is he able to do this. OJ has been the object in the gaze of others, subject to their preconceived biases about him based on the color of his skin. By reclaiming the gaze, he stands his ground and defines himself in opposition to those who have judged him. He is liberated from the terror of the "alien."
Emerald and OJ’s quest to record the alien can be seen as a quest for spectacle, yes, but it can also be read as an extension of the oppositional gaze. The act of filming the alien is an act of rebellion that will prove the horror they’ve been facing. This is not unlike the recent uptick in Black folks documenting their own arrests and dangerous encounters with police officers and racists online. They need to record what they’ve been through to show the world what they experience, to prove their reality. OJ and Emerald’s need to catch the alien on video can be read as a metaphor for the need for Black people to record their own lives, to take control of their own narrative before others can warp it or silence it. The characters’ success in capturing the alien on camera ensures they escape with their own lives and possible fame and fortune, but also that they are able to share their narrative with the world. This liberation from fear is a cathartic ending to Nope.
Nope is in theaters now.