*Warning: spoilers for the plot of Nope below!*
Not even my momma could make me go back to Bible study, but if there’s one thing Jordan Peele can do, it’s the seemingly impossible. So here I am reading the book of Nahum again because Peele has started his latest horror-comedy Nope with a quote from the minor prophet, and it’s the key to understanding the film:
“I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” Nahum 3:6.
In context, the “I” in this scripture is God and the “you” are the citizens of Nineveh, the prosperous capital of King Hezekiah’s empire. Nahum’s name may mean “comforter,” but his visions from God for Nineveh are anything but. Nineveh is a wicked city and Nahum’s God is “jealous,” “violent” “angry” and “vengeful.” “The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished,” Nahum writes in chapter 1:3. “His way is in the whirlwind of the storm.”
It’s judgment day for the people in Nope. And God appears to be a flying saucer that hides behind an unmoving cloud in the sky over Agua Dulce, CA, about 40 minutes outside of Nineveh, er, Hollywood. Since the horror takes place in Agua Dulce, it proves that the monster of Hollywood is less about location and more about a system of beliefs and behaviors; an industry where profit is God, and God is fed by a steady stream of recorded images and performances, at all costs.
Our first shot is on the set of a 1998 TV show that’s being taped before a live studio audience. But when we enter the scene, there’s no audience. Only a woman’s legs are visible from behind a sofa, one Keds tennis shoe on, one shoe off and mysteriously balancing itself on its heel, a splotch of blood on the toe. A bloody chimp wearing a birthday hat, knocks against her foot to wake her. She doesn’t wake. He knocks his hat off his head. The party’s over, but the sign that says APPLAUSE still blinks in the background.
The Erasure of Black Hollywood History
We came to see a spectacle. A summer blockbuster comedy-horror should be nothing less. And after the title card rolls, it begins, in Agua Dulce, in the present day, on the Haywood horse ranch.
Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) and his son, Otis Jr., or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), are training the horses they use in Hollywood productions. Apparently, the business has been facing some financial issues as of late, but Otis Sr. has a plan so they don’t have to keep selling off horses to keep the business afloat. All they have to do is “execute” it. Seconds later, the sky darkens and what sounds like bullets start raining from the sky.
When it’s over, OJ sees it was an assortment of loose change that’s fallen from the sky. A single key has stabbed a horse in its hindparts. And his father has fallen off his horse, a nickel, emblazoned with the motto “In God We Trust” has gouged out his eye and lodged in his brain. This is a story about capitalism, insatiable greed and its casualties.
In the hospital, Otis Sr., lies dead, pelted with filth, missing an eye, covered in blood. Peele’s camera lingers on his horrific image. A spectacle. But what has Otis Sr. done to deserve God’s judgment, if Nahum 3:6 is to be believed? It’s soon evident that Nahum’s God and Nope’s God may not be one and the same.
Six months later, OJ has taken over Haywood Hollywood Horses and has his horse Lucky filming a commercial on set with a famed cinematographer. The white star, Bonnie Clayton, seems terrified to learn that her Black man horse trainer is named OJ, and he faces a series of other racist microaggressions from the all-white crew as he waits for his sister Emerald to show up and lead the animal safety meeting. In the meantime, OJ tries to tell the assistant director not to look the horse in the eye (because it puts the horse on defense) but the AD ignores OJ's authority. OJ is lost without his father and doesn’t have his commanding presence or full command of the horse. It’s clear that the Hollywood machine is what’s really in control. OJ shrinks himself, not wanting to be perceived; in our modern culture that’s obsessed with performing and documenting every detail for an audience, OJ still uses a flip phone. But all eyes are on him, and it’s showtime.
Fortunately, Emerald (a dazzling Keke Palmer) finally shows up to lead the safety meeting and tells the Black history Hollywood has erased. The first moving picture ever created was of a Black man riding a horse. The white man, Eadward Muybridge, who filmed it is credited. The name of the horse is recorded as Annie G. But there is no record of the Black horse jockey’s name. While this is true history, and the Black jockey’s name has been successfully erased IRL, in the Nope universe, that Black horse jockey’s name was Alistar Haywood, Emerald and OJ’s great-great-great-great grandfather.
Why Otis Sr. Gets Killed
Their father, Otis Sr., made it his life’s work to build Haywood Hollywood Horses as an homage to their erased ancestor, and to bring his name back to the forefront of history by retelling this story at every safety meeting, just as Emerald is doing now (we see Otis Sr. recite this same script on an old VHS tape Emerald watches later in the film). Otis Sr. was iconic in the industry; he changed the game for Black stuntmen and trainers and paved a path for his own children in Hollywood. But the industry changes, and productions rely more and more on CGI. What do they even need real horses for anyway? With less available productions needing horses, Otis Sr. was facing financial ruin, selling off horses to keep the business afloat. Then he was felled by the almighty…nickel. But that’s showbiz. It chews you up and spits you out, despite your best efforts – especially if you’re Black.
Through that lens, “I will pelt you with filth…I will make you a spectacle,” is less a judgment from an angry God but a warning. If you put your heart and soul into a dirty business like Hollywood, whether through violent erasure or collateral damage, you might not make it out alive.
OJ and Emerald learn as much when they’re promptly fired from the commercial shoot after the AD once again looks Lucky in the eye and Lucky bucks and scares the star and her crew. Tension builds between the siblings as Emerald's desire for fame and fortune leads to her neglecting the family business. Since they didn’t make the money they needed, OJ and Emerald take Lucky to be sold to the wild-west-themed amusement park, Jupiter’s Claim, nearby their ranch. The amusement park is owned by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who starred as Jupiter in a huge wild west 1996 show Kid Sheriff.
As OJ tries to negotiate with Jupe a way to buy back Lucky and the other ten horses he’s sold so far since Otis’ death, Emerald can’t help but be distracted by the Kid Sheriff memorabilia in Jupe’s office. Jupe is more than happy to change the subject, as he has no intention of selling the horses back to OJ (surprise, they’re dead already). Though he did make OJ an offer to buy the ranch altogether, to expand his theme park, OJ is not interested in selling out.
The Spectacle of Gordy’s Home
Jupe loved the spotlight as a child star and is desperate to recreate that magic again, preying on people’s nostalgia with his theme park. And what better metaphor for Hollywood than the Wild West? We learn that Jupe is also infamous for being a child star on another hit but short-lived show with a tragic end, Gordy’s Home. The 1998 show starred the chimp we saw in the prologue of the film as Gordy. During the “Gordy’s Birthday” episode, a balloon popped at 6:13 PM and it triggered the chimp who goes on a rampage, killing most of the cast and maiming his child co-star Mary Jo Elliott’s face, but leaving only Jupe unharmed.
The chimp tries to fistbump Jupe, as that was their special handshake during the show, but in the midst of the fistbump, police storm in and shoot the chimp dead, splattering blood all over Jupe. The applause sign is still flashing, but it’s dead silent in the studio. The audience has long-since scattered from the carnage like Josh Hawley running from the rioters he incited on January 6. Were they not entertained?
It’s a memory so traumatic that Jupe can’t even access it when Emerald asks him what happened on set. Instead, Jupe refers her to the Saturday Night Live sketch made about the tragedy starring Chris Kattan, a spectacle of a spectacle. (Kattan did actually play an ape character, Mr. Peepers in real life on SNL). He’s sharing this while showing OJ and Emerald the secret museum he has of Gordy’s Home memorabilia, including the one, blood-spattered suspended shoe which he keeps upright in a glass case. A couple paid him $50,000 to spend the night in his museum and he was more than happy to profit from that trauma.
Jupe invites them to come back in a few days for the “brand new live show” he’s doing that he promises is going to change people’s lives. But OJ and Emerald have their own agendas. OJ goes home to feed the remaining horses and do all the work that needs to be done on the ranch, while Emerald is more interested in drinking their dad’s liquor and having fun for the one night she plans on being in town.
While Emerald has inherited her father’s on-stage charm, OJ’s the only one who’s inherited Otis’ responsibility and loyalty to the ranch. That’s because Emerald always felt slighted by her father. On Emerald’s 9th birthday, for example, Otis Sr. had promised to give her the horse Jean Jacket to train, but instead, Otis got called to the set of the blockbuster movie The Scorpion King, so he let the older OJ help train Jean Jacket for the film. That’s when Emerald gave up on the business, feeling invisible and invalidated by her dad. But OJ, she remembered, saw her and acknowledged her pain. That strengthened the siblings' bond. As she recounts that memory, the chill between them softens, just in time for us to meet the flying saucer that killed Otis Sr.
What’s a ‘Bad Miracle’?
Keke Palmer as Em, Daniel Kaluuya as OJ, and Brandon Perea as Angel
OJ is outside trying to figure out what’s spooked their horse, Ghost, into running away. Across the valley, he sees all the lights on at Jupiter’s Claim and hears Jupe speaking into a microphone. Jupe’s practicing for the new live show he mentioned to OJ and saying that six months ago (the same length of time since Otis Sr. was killed) he witnessed a phenomenon. Before Jupe can say much about what he witnessed, all the lights go out. OJ watches as the lights and music that Emerald is playing upstairs all go out too. Something is hovering over them that looks like a spaceship, a UFO. OJ runs from the sky saucer and hides in the shed as Ghost screams in terror and gets taken up in the “whirlwind of the storm,” as Nahum describes in 1:3. "No animals were harmed in the making of this production," is a mandatory requirement in our modern times, but who can confidently say that when what should be wild animals are inherently broken down for use in the Hollywood machine?
The next day, OJ and Emerald are convinced that they’ve had an encounter with a UFO, a “bad miracle” as OJ describes. Emerald suggests they get camera equipment to record proof of aliens so they can sell it and make the money they need and become famous. While fame is more Emerald’s speed, OJ just wants to keep the ranch and the business going to honor his father’s legacy and his great-great-great-great grandfather’s as well. This time, the Haywoods would not be erased from history.
They venture out to California’s iconic Fry’s Electronic store (which went out of business as they were filming last year) to buy equipment and meet Angel (Brandon Perea), the store clerk who offers to install the cameras for them. He’s obsessed with aliens and UFOs (or their new government name UAPs) and isn’t quite convinced by Emerald and OJ’s insistence that they’re not trying to catch a UFO. While Angel and OJ set up the cameras around the property and point them directly at the sky, Emerald has stolen a decoy horse wrapped in a colorful pennant banner from the amusement park. Since the UFO disappeared Ghost, she thinks the plastic decoy horse can draw the UFO out again.
The Oprah Shot
That night, as they prepare to get what Emerald calls “the Oprah shot,” OJ runs into what he thinks are aliens, but turn out to be Jupe’s three teenaged kids dressed in bizarre alien-chimp costumes from the upcoming live show that Jupe’s preparing. The kids are pranking the Haywoods because Emerald stole their decoy horse. As they scurry away and Emerald falls asleep watching a YouTube clip of Oprah’s 1994 show about alien abductions, the flying saucer returns.
It comes down and eats the decoy horse, but a praying mantis has landed on the camera pointed at the UFO, blocking their Oprah shot. Angel, who has been illegally watching Em and OJ’s camera feed from his desk at Fry’s calls Em to tell her that the camera closest to OJ has gone out and that the other camera on the roof is covered by the praying mantis. While OJ is trying to survive and the UFO swirls up another of their horses, Clover, Em does her best to make the praying mantis move, but it only moves seconds after the UFO leaves.
First thing in the morning, Angel drives over, certain that there was alien activity on the ranch. Emerald and OJ let him in on their plan to capture footage of the UFO with his help. OJ and Emerald try to bring in the famous cinematographer from the commercial shoot they got fired from, but he declines to help and eerily tells Em about her obvious thirst for fame, “That dream you have where you’re at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you, it’s the dream u never wake from.” All the while, OJ’s grown suspicious of what Jupe has planned for his live show and decides to drive over to get Lucky back.
Meanwhile, Jupe’s live show has begun in broad daylight before a stadium audience. He even has his childhood co-star from Gordy’s Home Mary Jo Elliott make an appearance in the stands, wearing a hat with a veil that covers her maimed face and neck (reminiscent of what Oprah guest Charla Nash wore to cover herself during a 2009 interview on the Oprah Winfrey Show after surviving a horrific chimpanzee attack). He explains that every Friday for the past 6 months at 6:13 PM, a strange phenomenon occurs. It’s the same time that the Gordy’s Home chimp went on his rampage in 1998.
When I Googled 6:13, the scripture Matthew 6:13 popped up first, a line from The Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Jupe was failed as a child by the adults who made Gordy’s Home and broke a wild animal’s spirit for profit. Now as an adult himself, he’s also fallen into capitalist temptation and is an active part of the evil. There will be no deliverance.
The Spectacle of Jupiter’s Claim
Steven Yeun as Jupe in Jupiter's Claim amusement park right before the spectacle
We now see why Jupe has manufactured alien-chimp costumes for his kids to perform in the show and merchandise to sell afterwards. Everything at Jupiter's Claim is a capitalistic endeavor. This is his path back to stardom. Though Jupe is obviously still traumatized by his childhood tragedy, he seems to have not learned that wild animals can’t be tamed for human profit and enjoyment for long.
Instead, Jupe believes his survival back in ‘98 means that he has a special relationship with wild unknowable beasts. He tells the crowd that there are aliens in the clouds surveilling them and he calls them “the watchers”. His obsession with fame makes him unable to contextualize the alien as anything other than a spectator. The alien-beast in the clouds “trusts” him, he reassures his audience, who don’t see what’s coming until it’s too late. Jupe lifts the veil over a glass cage where he’s holding Lucky as bait for the alien-beast to come out from behind the clouds. But the alien-beast is playing by its own rules and Jupe cannot tame it.
As it hovers over the arena, the wind blows, lifting Mary Jo Elliott’s veil and giving us “the Oprah shot,” a call-back to Oprah’s 2009 interview with Nash where she revealed her face to Oprah on her own terms. But Mary Jo gets no such agency. Nor do the audience members, who were only promised a show, not any details about what kind. It’s no matter. Jupe, his wife, his three kids, Mary Jo, and all the children, adults and crew in the audience get sucked up by the alien’s whirlwind. This is the inevitable outcome of our spectacle-obsessed culture. No matter who you are, you can still get caught up.
Inside the Belly of the Beast
This is the first time we get an inside view of what’s only been a flying saucer up to this point. Like the prophet Jonah, cast into the belly of the whale when he refused to be God’s messenger in Nineveh -- but with a much worse outcome -- the spectators become the spectacle as we watch them in the alien’s esophagus getting crushed and digested, wailing in unending terror and pain.
OJ arrives at the destroyed amusement park to see rows of cars in the parking lot but no one around. He makes his way to the arena, which is littered with trash, but otherwise empty–except for Lucky, who’s still in the glass cage. OJ tries to get Lucky out, but every time OJ makes himself visible, the alien comes down from the clouds to try to eat him. OJ tries to hide but the force of the wind kicked up by the alien knocks him unconscious. When he awakes, he calls Em to try and warn her, “It’s an animal. it’s alive. it’s territorial and it thinks that this is its home.” Too late. Before he can finish the sentence, the alien has hovered over the ranch looking for Em and OJ. While OJ’s loading Lucky in his truck to make it back to Em and Angel at the ranch, Em and Angel are under attack.
A “bad miracle,” it turns out, is a plague, and the cries from the dying people fall out every time the beast opens its mouth to rain down torrents of blood and debris of biblical proportions on the house, terrifying Em and Angel who are trapped inside for hours. OJ tries to get to them but as soon as he drives the truck close to the ranch, it shuts off, as the beast sucks out all power and electricity. Stuck in his truck, OJ barely survives when the beast spits out the decoy horse and sends it through OJ’s windshield. The beast is smart. It knows OJ and Em tried to trick it and get it on camera so it punishes them by pelting their home and truck with filth. Welcome to Hollywood’s dirty game. They’re in the thick of it now.
When the famous cinematographer sees on the news that all the people in Jupiter’s Claim have mysteriously disappeared, he decides Em was telling him the truth about aliens and comes to help OJ, Em and Angel capture proof of the alien beast. He brings with him an analog IMAX camera that will not be impacted by the electricity going out when the alien beast gets close.
The Rules of the Beast
Daniel Kaluuya as OJ riding Lucky
OJ has formulated a plan to draw the alien beast out, using himself as bait, because he believes he understands the animal’s rules: don’t look it in the eye. Its spectacle is so grand and mesmerizing, you won't be able to look away. But you can scare it off with things it doesn’t like, such as the pennant banner that was wrapped around the decoy horse that the alien beast couldn’t digest. OJ calls the alien beast Jean Jacket, after the first horse his father let him train, and he wears his orange The Scorpion King crew hoodie as an homage to his father who taught him all he needed to know, and his ancestor. He symbolizes in this moment, all of the erased Black cowboys and Black stuntpeople and below the line talent in history. It's also the hoodie from his first horse training gig. He’s reminding himself that baiting Jean Jacket is just like training a horse. “Anything that got a spirit can get broke,” he says. But this time, Em also gets to take part in the training of Jean Jacket. This is her legacy too. “What we about to do, they can’t erase that,” he promises her.
A terrified Angel wants to be reassured that they’re doing this work to capture proof of Jean Jacket for a greater purpose than wealth and fame. He wants to know they’re going to help people and possibly even save lives. It’s evident that he’s shaken to the core by the dangers of Hollywood spectacle and therefore does not get consumed by it when OJ successfully lures Jean Jacket out the next day.
They’ve installed battery operated sky dancers, (waving inflatable tubes) all around the path where they want to lead Jean Jacket to get the Oprah Shot. Angel and the white cinematographer are in place, filming using digital cameras and the cinematographer’s analog IMAX camera. Em is in the shed, observing the feeds from the digital cameras, though Angel has forgotten to hook up a feed to the analog camera because he was busy stealing batteries from the dead people’s cars at Jupiter’s Claim to power the waving inflatable tubes. No matter; it’s now or never.
OJ puts a fly mask over Lucky’s head to protect him from looking up at Jean Jacket and rides out across the plain with the cinematographer recording analog, and recreating the Haywood ancestor’s experience of Horse in Motion. But as OJ’s about to lure out Jean Jacket, a TMZ "reporter" on an electric motorcycle drives up on Em. She tries to get him to leave so he won’t mess up their plan or steal their Oprah shot, but it’s TMZ. They live for spectacle and will not be turned away for anything, let alone their own well-being.
As TMZ Guy gets closer to OJ, Jean Jacket nears and TMZ Guy flies off of his electric bike that no longer works under the force field and he lands horrifically in the dirt, his body a mangled spectacle. OJ sees TMZ Guy survived the crash, so he rides to him to try to move him out of the way before Jean Jacket comes, but the TMZ Guy won’t be moved until OJ takes a picture of the aftermath of the crash. “Don’t you want to be famous, Scorpion King?” TMZ Guy asks OJ, reading his hoodie, but he mistakes his own desires for OJ’s.
OJ never wanted that. He wanted to be seen and not be erased. He only wanted his family legacy secured. TMZ Guy couldn’t understand that, and neither could Jupe. Both men’s stories are Peele’s indictment of our culture’s inability to even suffer without trying to flip it for profit. “Not me dying,” he might as well have Tweeted out to his followers in his final moments. But alas, there’s no phone, and he’s resisted too long for OJ to save him. And because TMZ represents the worst of the worst of this Hollywood cesspool of exploited images for profit, TMZ Guy is wearing a mirror ball helmet, which reflects the beast back to itself and anyone else who looks at it. It puts OJ in danger to get too close to him. So, TMZ guy must die. OJ leaves him with a “my bad,” and rides off on Lucky as Jean Jacket consumes TMZ guy.
Next, Jean Jacket chases OJ, and OJ brings it directly in the path of Angel and the cinematographer to get the shot. At the moment when Jean Jacket seems like it’s going to swoop down and eat OJ, he unfurls a colorful balloon parachute with a pennant banner attached to it to scare off Jean Jacket and give OJ a chance to ride to safety. It’s brilliant. It’s perfect. The legacy is secured!
Damn the white-washed history
But, of course it isn’t. A veteran in Hollywood, the white cinematographer knows the game is the game and that he’s got the power as a famous, white man who’s holding the camera and telling the story through his lens. He tells Angel, “You don’t deserve the impossible shot,” even though Angel helped him get it, Em brought him in on the plan and OJ literally made himself bait for it. Like Muybridge did to the Haywoods’ ancestor, the cinematographer is ready to do to them. “You’ll be alright,” he says more to himself to ease his conscience than to Angel. The cinematographer takes his camera, climbs a hill, and records Jean Jacket, head on. The night before, he’d sang a slowed-down version of the old kid’s song from the 1950s, “Purple People Eater,” where the monster had promised not to eat the song’s narrator because he was “too tough.” The same agreement does not exist between Jean Jacket and the cinematographer. He’s already lost and he knows it, as the beast’s whirlwind sweeps him up into its esophagus, camera still rolling.
Angel survives the whirlwind but is worse for wear, tangled up in tarp and barbed wire, but at least not in Jean Jacket’s guts. Jean Jacket obliterates the ranch house and Em gets caught up in the whirlwind briefly but spit out, never looking Jean Jacket in the eye.
To give Em a fighting chance at survival, OJ breaks the rules and looks Jean Jacket in the eye. The OJ that shrinks himself is gone, empowered by his family legacy. Jean Jacket unfurls itself as we’ve seen it do many times to eat people (h/t to @theerkj for pointing out that the mouth of Jean Jacket looks exactly like a camera lens!). But despite the show of aggression, Jean Jacket doesn’t eat OJ. Though eye-contact can be interpreted as hostile to animals, some trainers use it not to dominate or control the wild animal, but to connect with them, to understand its significance and recognize its existence, and for the animal to do the same. OJ’s ready to be perceived and to see this dirty business for what it is, in all of its magic and its horror, without being consumed by it.
While OJ’s coming to the agreement Jupe thought he had with Jean Jacket, Em is hopping on TMZ guy’s electric bike and driving as fast as she can to Jupiter’s Claim, like OJ told her to. There, she releases the giant kid sheriff balloon into the sky, in hopes to lure Jean Jacket away from her brother and into the line of sight of a coin-operated camera at the amusement park that spits out large polaroids.
With coins everywhere from Jean Jacket’s last attack, Em puts in coin after coin trying to get the Oprah shot of Jean Jacket. Finally, she gets the shot, just as Jean Jacket is devouring the giant balloon. Within seconds, the balloon bursts inside of Jean Jacket, killing it. Battered and bruised, Em limps and rejoices at her victory.
Just as in real life, Black people have saved the day. But when Em looks around after she’s destroyed Jean Jacket, news crews are descending on Jupiter’s Claim, meaning one of them might have gotten the Oprah shot as Jean Jacket fell out of the sky. But it’s no matter. When she turns back around, she’s smiling, because in front of her is OJ and his literally lucky, faithful steed, alive and well. Damn the white-washed history, and the capitalist traps of Hollywood’s fortune and fame. The beast has no more power here. OJ sees Em – as he always has – and she sees him too.
Does anything else matter? Nope.
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