Posted on November 6, 2022

Jordan Peele’s Nope, Spectacle, and Surveillance

Guest Post

Film is a medium for conveying a director’s message. In the last five years, Jordan Peele has directed three horror films – Get Out (2017), Us (2019), and Nope (2022) – that are each infused with a message (indeed, many messages). Get Out was a commentary on casual racism in the contemporary US; the film Us focused on social class and the “underground’ existence of the oppressed, but what does Jordan Peele say in Nope? Nope is many things – and one of them is a comment on modern surveillance culture in America.

Nope takes place between 1998 and the early 2000s on a horse ranch just north of Los Angeles, California. There are four main characters in the film, Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), and a giant UFO. The plot centers on the characters’ efforts to get footage of the UFO to prove its existence to an inevitably skeptical public. It is this intended exploitation of the UFO, central to the film, that symbolizes surveillance culture in the United States.

Peele personifies the UFO in Nope to make us question modern American society’s morality when it comes to surveillance. Attempting to capture the UFO on film, the characters thus try throughout the film to turn it into a “spectacle.” Seeing this film for the first time, a viewer would most likely label the UFO as the “villain,” because that is how media consumers are primed to understand aliens. However, this is not the case. The UFO only attacks when threatened and/or provoked. Indeed, OJ has the revelation, about halfway through the film, that “It’s alive. It’s an animal.”  Perhaps, the UFO is not too far from being like us. The personified UFO is a being that, above all, wants to be left alone.

Jupe and his audience “witness” the UFO

The first character to discover the UFO is Jupe Park. After his discovery, Jupe began to lure in the UFO by sacrificing live horses to it in front of a paying audience. By doing this, Jupe capitalizes on a living being. As part of his live show, Jupe says to his audience that they will be “witness to an absolute spectacle” – and that “We are being surveilled by an alien species we call the Viewers.” But he is, of course, himself surveilling the UFO – and encouraging others to do so in order to make money. He and the guests at the live show at Jupiter’s Claim are also “the Viewers.” Jordan Peele said himself in a July 2022 interview about the film, “the movie itself deals with spectacle, and the good and the bad that comes from the idea of attention” (00:00:51-00:01:30). Soon after the scene at Jupiter’s Claim, everyone begins to jump on the bandwagon – from the Haywoods trying to capture the spectacle with an IMAX camera (a camera known widely for its ability to create “the maximum image”) to a TMZ reporter trespassing on private property just to get a photograph of it.

Jupe is no stranger to the idea of capitalizing on spectacle. Jupe was once a child actor in a sitcom called “Gordy’s Home,” starring a chimpanzee named Gordy. During a special birthday episode, a combination of loud laughter and the pop of a balloon sent Gordy on a killing spree on set. Jupe hid under a table to avoid Gordy, but, in the end, Gordy sees him. Surprisingly, Gordy spares Jupe’s life and even tries to reach out to him. But why? Why was Jupe the exception? Like the UFO, Gordy was being exploited as a spectacle on “Gordy’s Home,” an exploitation that was central to his violent rampage. And so it was actually the semi-transparent tablecloth dividing Jupe from Gordy that saved him – saved him because it meant Jupe couldn’t look at Gordy.

Jupe and Gordy’s hand about to make contact during the fictional traumatic incident in 1998

Hiding in the action of Nope is a crucial dynamic involving looking. It always starts the same: the character of interest makes full eye contact with a creature; the creature gets spooked and attacks the character. Most obviously, as OJ realizes, every time direct eye contact is made with the UFO it attacks in response. At the beginning of the film, one of the ranch horses, Lucky, sees its reflection in a mirror and freaks out. But in the scene in which Gordy fails to attack Jupe, it’s because Jupe’s vision is slightly impaired by the tablecloth: he wasn’t fully looking Gordy in the eye; he wasn’t making him a spectacle.  Jupe’s mistake as he gets older is to believe that he now has a special place in the world, that he was “chosen,” because he was spared.

Rally for Muslim rights, January 13th, 2015 (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

But how does this relate to us? What is the message to be learned here? In modern American society we see examples of constant surveillance everywhere. Always being surveyed- always being looked at – is bad for a community because it can lead to vague and unsupported claims about the threat that community poses, just as the horse, Gordy, and the UFO all seem to get turned into threats by being put under surveillance, by being turned into spectacles. An article from Al Jazeera, for instance, reports that there is “lengthy history, practices, and law behind the US surveillance state and its systematic targeting of Black, immigrant, and/or Muslim communities, with a particular focus on the US South.” These communities have organized to protest this surveillance.

I would argue that Nope’s UFO, while standing for a multitude of things, is in part symbolic of minority communities that are systematically targeted for surveillance, separated out as a spectacle. Nope highlights and then critiques modern surveillance culture – which is tied to the culture of “spectacle” – in America. It asks us to question every character’s desire to turn the UFO (and Gordy before him) into a spectacle, not least because when we turn something or someone into a spectacle, we also risk turning it into a threat.

In some ways, the epigraph Peele chose for the film says it all: “I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” Nahum 3:6.

Similar: The Twilight Zone episode that anticipated Get Out; Get Out and Scientific Racism; Us and the Horror of the Class System.

About George Parker – For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in motion pictures. My goal at Montclair State University (through the BFA program) is to become a Director/Writer and create my own films. I have an eye for the visual arts and consider myself to be creative-minded. I have created content officially selected in multiple film festivals in the United States. I’m also an active member of the Video Production Club at Montclair State University (2022). Check out my website.

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