“Nope”: Odd, Original Ode to Classic Hollywood
In my History of Cinema class in college, I was repeatedly told of the importance of December 28th, 1895. In Paris on this date, Louis and Auguste Lumière screened “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” in the first public commercial film exhibition. It was the Lumière Brothers this, Louis and Auguste that, it seemed. Though it was possibly taught, my memory does not recall any mention of the Kinetoscope or the Edison Manufacturing Company. I am almost certain we never covered “Gallop; thoroughbred bay mare Annie G,” the famous series of sequential photographs of an anonymous black jockey and a horse in motion.
In director Jordan Peele’s weird Western Nope, the characters of OJ and Em Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) are brother and sister, and descendants of this world’s first movie cowboy. They take over the family horse wrangling business, a Hollywood institution going back to their ancestor, after their father (Keith David) dies from a nickel that mysteriously fell from the sky. Unable to keep things afloat, they begin to sell horses to former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Stephen Yeun), who runs a Wild West theme park nearby. The siblings even contemplate selling the farm to Park.
More mysterious and deadly occurrences happen around their farm and the Haywood siblings discover that an enigmatic energy force from the sky is responsible for their father’s freak accident and other strange happenings. Hoping to make it rich by selling footage of the unexplained flying object, they enlist the help of Fry’s Electronics clerk Angel (Brandon Parea) and eccentric cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to utilize surveillance and motion picture cameras to capture an image of the aerial phenomenon.
With Nope, Peele continues his hit streak that began with his Oscar-nominated Get Out and continued with Us. The lore he creates around the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking photograph collection brings to the forefront the contributions of the Black Americans’ who helped tame the Wild West and pioneered the motion picture industry, whose stories are often overlooked. Deliberate and tense, this eerie film also features motifs that pay homage to the Westerns and creature features of Hollywood’s Golden Age while telling an original story that puts new twists on established conventions.
His characters have depth and personality. The reserved OJ, played stoically by Kaluuya, confronts the financial woes of the family business while fully acknowledging continuing the legacy may not be his strong suit. Palmer’s star continues to rise as the status-seeking Em, more concerned about being a celebrity than animal wrangling. The brother and sister, though opposites, come together in the wake of their father’s death to confront an uncertain future and a looming, mysterious force that threatens them. Yeun is tortured as Park, the Wild West showman, still haunted by a traumatic childhood experience that steered him into a career with animals. Rounding out the talented cast is the hilarious Pareaas gadget guru Angel and Wincott, who will get his due recognition as a cinematic artist dedicated to his work.
Nope, beyond its fantastical premise, is also a story about the bonds of family and the trials of entrepreneurship. Not only do the characters have to outmaneuver an ominous, flying force but they have to figure out how to get rich in the process. Too many Hollywood movies feature characters who do business by less than ethical means or portray business people as greedy, cigar-chomping suits who conspire to exploit their employee base. Peele’s protagonists reflect the vast majority of small business owners—hard-working individuals trying to earn an honest living and provide for their families. Peele, currently one of Hollywood’s talents, also is continuing the tradition set forth by that celebrated jockey. Both men moved movies forward while wowing audiences in their time.