I returned to the movie theater for the first time in three years—the last thing I clearly remember seeing is “Aquaman”—to see Jordan Peele’s latest film, “Nope.”
This film made my return worth the wait. I won’t write any spoilers in this, but there are two things that stood out to me. “Nope” is a modern take on the Black western and it’s very much about love and trust between siblings that have grown apart.
I’ve never really liked Westerns. I have vague recollections of my grandfather watching them ever so often and a more solid memory of my mother watching “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It wasn’t until I saw “Posse,” released in 1993 and directed by Mario Van Peebles, as a kid that my interest in Westerns began to congeal. All those Black gunslingers standing up for what’s right and having some fun while doing it sealed things for me. From then on, I’ve always moseyed toward westerns that featured and focused on the lives of Black people in the West.
My decision to visit the Alamo Drafthouse to watch “Nope” proved to be a good decision because ahead of the film, I got to watch “A Brief Intro to Black Westerns with Mia Mask.” In it, Dr. Mask gives the audience insight into the history of the Black Western and how our roles have shifted and changed over the decades. Her explanations and revelations about the Black Western connect “Nope” to the history of the Black Western sets it up as an entry into the genre. Her explanations of other Black Westerns and real-life Black cowboys and other Western historical figures helped settle the audience into the desolate backdrop the Haywood’s live and made their livings as horse trainers in.
“Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture was a two-second clip of a Black man on a horse?” Emerald Haywood, played by Keke Palmer, asks staff on a set her and her brother OJ Haywood, played by Daniel Kaluuya, are working on.
This bit of history is true. According to Insider, “The clip used in “Nope” comes from a later project Muybridge worked on with the University of Pennsylvania in around 1883. [… He] published his final compendium, titled ‘Animal Locomotion,’ in 1887. The collection included photographs of an unnamed Black jockey riding a horse named Annie G. The only other person of color featured in the collection was Ben Bailey, a mixed-race boxer.”
While “Nope” is a movie about the possibility encountering extraterrestrials and the threat they can pose, setting an alien invasion movie in a traditionally western setting made for a richer exploration of the story.
The Haywood siblings are isolated by both location and grief. The majority of “Nope” takes place at the Haywood family ranch, deep in a rural area in the California desert. Their only neighbor is a local theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, a roadside attraction with fun for the whole family.
Emerald and OJ are still reeling from the loss of losing a parent and dealing with all the things that come along with it. Keeping or selling the business, silent resentment toward one sibling striking out on their own while the other decided to stay home, and the undercurrent of tension that can exist between introverted and extroverted siblings.
Peele’s writing of these characters gives Kaluuya and Palmer plenty to work with as the subtext of what it means to be a Haywood now that their father is gone. OJ’s early frustrations with his sister are easy to identify with. Emerald appears scattered, unfocused, and unattached, while OJ lives mostly in his head and outwardly struggles with his new role as head of the family business. What transpires on the surface of this film, while very fantastical, is more like a metaphor for the in between time after a parent passes away. It’s a phase where life must be reconsidered within the context of a new normal and the surviving siblings must decide if they will simply remain connected by the bond they had—or didn’t—as children or through the bond they have as adults.
The unraveling of the Haywood family dynamic is happening within the backdrop of an extraterrestrial threat. While the siblings work hard to figure out how to deal with what they’ve stumbled on, and how it might help them answer the question of what to do with the Haywood ranch, they are forced to reconnect and trust each other again as adults.
“Nope,” turned out to be a thoughtful, exciting, melancholy examination of what it means to count on family set in a Western; oh, and aliens.