I don’t do scary movies. I’m so skittish, I still sleep with some sort of light on at my big age. So when I first saw a preview for Jordan Peele’s latest foray into racial horror films, I belted out, “Nope,” which is also the title of the motion picture. But these days feel so dystopian that I was up for seeing if Peele could script anything more terrifying than the overlapping forms of violence we’re confronting. What he accomplished was actually inspiring.
This ongoing hurricane season marks my third as a homeowner in New Orleans. Living here has rewired my perspective on climate change and disaster preparation. It’s probably why I couldn’t help but view the film starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as commentary on the power of Black-led solidarity against climate change and a warning against the dangers capitalism and individualism pose to the planet we share.
Palmer and Kaluuya play siblings who grew up on a horse-training ranch—Haywood’s Hollywood Horses—in Agua Dulce, California, about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. As a descendant of the Black jockey who appeared in the first-known moving picture, Emerald Haywood (played by Palmer) jokes about literally “having skin in the game” at a nearly all-white commercial shoot featuring one of the siblings’ horses.
Black rurality and cowboy culture as the film’s backdrop makes for both stunning cinematography and a safe space that is almost immediately shattered, ostensibly by aliens in UFOs in the film’s first moments. After a fatal incident on the ranch, a looming and fixed cloud appears in the sky overlooking the Haywood homestead. One night, O.J. (played by Kaluuya) spots a flying saucer that “lives in the cloud,” a nod to encroaching surveillance systems, especially in Black communities. (Ironically enough, our increased reliance on cloud storage and digital currencies also requires energy-intensive server farms and cloud campuses that increase carbon emissions in the rural areas where they tend to be housed.)
The UFO stamps out electricity and causes blackouts, which Peele signals musically: before the lights go out, a song will melt into a chopped-and-screwed version. O.J., who ends up seeing the object close up before others, clarifies that it’s a “living thing” with a vacuum-like hole that sucks up people who look directly into it. Emerald entertains abandoning their home, a reality many in the throes of climate change are reckoning with. “I ain’t never seen no shit like this,” she exclaims to O.J. “It ain’t worth it.”
But they find a way to resist. Initially, O.J. and Emerald desperately seek out ways to document the “living thing,” considering it first as a get-rich-quick ticket if they can achieve an “Oprah shot” of it. Once they come face to face with its danger, the siblings change their tune: they wholeheartedly and perhaps naively believe that if they could show the world proof of it, they could also be protected from its wrath. The siblings buy camera systems they can’t afford and enlist the help of a famous white filmmaker (played by Michael Wincott) known for getting “impossible” shots.
This pursuit dovetails with skepticism about extraterrestrial life, spirituality, and climate denial. Belief, whether in a higher power or misinformation, is incredibly powerful. And in this post-truth world, it was challenging—and relatable—to see the Haywoods bend over backward to publish proof of this threat, knowing that Black people are often not taken at face value when it comes to the violence we face.
O.J. utters a throwaway line that stuck with me as it mirrors the way he learns to interact with the “living thing,” which takes the form of something like a flying stingray or a jellyfish. To paraphrase, O.J. doesn’t believe in taming wild animals—you can’t—but, rather, he enters into an “agreement” with them. One of the ways O.J. learns to adapt to the “living thing” is to divert his attention away from it. In one scene, it hovers over him out in the desert but doesn’t take him if he avoids looking directly at it. He finds a way to cope as he balances bowing out of danger, uttering “nope” as our people do, and committing to a utilitarian solution.
The film has drawn parallels to Don’t Look Up, a star-studded apocalyptic satire about the dangers of climate change and the dismissal of science that could save us from it. But where Don’t Look Up focuses on two white scientists trying to warn the masses from inside the political machine, Nope emphasizes the importance of Black-led, grassroots climate movements as the Haywoods cobble together a plan to eradicate the monster.
The “living thing” also riles up the horses as animals provide us a tell when storms are afoot; they scream, gallop, and buck out of their cages. The monster also emits a screech that’s both whistling and grinding, somewhat like the unassuming sound of hurricane-speed winds overhead. The orb can spin up a tornado of dust—or dust devils as they’re known, a continuation of Peele’s religious imagery that frames the film.
Nope emphasizes the importance of Black-led, grassroots climate movements.
The movie opens with a title card of a Bible verse from chapter three of the Book of Nahum. “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” I’m far from well-versed in any scripture—don’t tell my aunties—but given Peele’s intentionality, I researched it after the showing. Nahum’s chapter focuses on Nineveh, a city where horses galavant throughout a land known for sin, vice, idolatry, and bloodshed. The verse Peele plucked is a warning from God, who turned against Nineveh to shame its people for their violent behavior.
In one scene, the flying monster attacks a western theme park not far from the Haywood ranch. Ricky “Jupe” Park (played by Steven Yeun), a former child actor and park owner, has seen the “living thing,” too—but only from afar. Instead of fearing it the way the Haywoods do, he tempts it by inviting spectators to his park to witness it, too. His goal is to capitalize on its wonder. Instead, he angers the creature.
Some might argue that Park’s exploitative behavior made him deserving of this havoc or invasion, but I don’t think the film’s message was that the Haywoods warranted this, either. I believe that the “living thing” had borne witness to this planet’s destruction. Its animate qualities were a trauma response: a fear of plastic, capitalists, and voyeurs. And perhaps its wrath has been conjured from centuries of neglect and industrialism turned capitalism. This land has been through a lot. Zooming out for a moment, real-life Agua Dulce was home to a devastating wildfire in 2019 that sparked from a barbeque during a planned power outage.
Climate change is coming for the 1%—even if they won’t be its first victims, as depicted in Nope. Climate change is coming for all of us. As the film reminds us, Black grassroots leaders, even newly radicalized ones like the Haywoods, come from a tradition of forging collectives to face the monsters that threaten us—even when our gut is telling us “nope.”