Words by Annie Midori Atherton
When I heard that Jordan Peele, who has directed some of the most incisive horror films of the last decade (Get Out, Us), had made Nope, a new movie that’s been described as a “neo-Western science fiction horror film,” and that the cast includes such talented actors as Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun, I knew the result would be something unexpected. Even then, I wasn’t prepared for how strange and thought-provoking it would be.
The film is heady and meta from the outset—opening on the set of a TV show featuring a seemingly normal family celebrating the birthday of a chimpanzee. In this scene-within-a-scene, everyone is having a good time until the chimp goes berserk and starts violently attacking his co-stars. Only the young son, Jupe, (who, for unexplained reasons, is the only Asian member of the family) remains unscathed, trembling under a table where he watches the bloody scene unfold.
While there’s a ton to unpack in the film, this boy, and the man he grows up to be, is who I find most intriguing. When we next meet him, he’s a slick businessman (Steven Yeun), who runs a Western theme park. Not only does he seem to be over his childhood tragedy, but he’s offering interested customers a macabre glimpse of artifacts of the traumatic incident for a fee. As bizarre as this turn-of-events may be, Jupe has “made it” by American standards, achieving fame, fortune, and a happy family of his own. This is partly what makes it so uncomfortable to watch. He forces us to acknowledge how our culture of opportunism can motivate someone to make a mockery of his own humanity.
Decked out in a costumey cowboy hat and bolero, Jupe is a living parody of American mythology. In contrast to the typical idea of a cowboy as a big, strapping white dude, the Asian cowboy is an incongruous image. His neighbors—the black Haywood siblings—similarly challenge our idea of what a western rancher looks like. Yet race is mostly unacknowledged in Nope, despite most of its main characters being people of color. Only once is Jupe identified as “that Asian kid” from a ‘90s sitcom. Still, those three words, easily overlooked as a throwaway line, pack a punch. They reveal that no matter how successful he’s become, he’s still a sidelined figure—identified not by name but by his minority status and his “15 minutes of fame.”
I can’t think about Jupe’s tight “everything is cool” smile, which Yuen executes with chilling, understated subtlety, without thinking about the many ways in which Asian Americans have been compelled to bury their trauma and carry on with their lives for reasons of survival and pride. For my grandfather, this entailed living his entire adult life with quiet resentment over having graduated high school in an internment camp during WWII. Moreover, mental health is still a taboo in many Asian communities, and for men in general. For people like Jupe and my grandpa, who experience unspeakable trauma, “sucking it up” might seem like the best, or only, option.
Then there’s the unidentified object that hovers ominously around the characters’ corner of the desert. No one knows what or who the object is, but as Jupe exploits his own tragedy, they’re all quick to suppress their fear of it in order to try to monetize the phenomena. While chewing on the way this alien presence drives everyone into a frenzy, I’m reminded of how all immigrants, Asian and otherwise, are referred to as “aliens” in official policy and how this language serves to dehumanize them. While the film doesn’t discuss immigration, the UFO is an outsider, as Jupe and the other main characters are to mainstream Hollywood. The entire area they inhabit feels like the physical manifestation of being on the margins—a transition space between the places where “normal” society resides.
This is partly what makes it so uncomfortable to watch. He forces us to acknowledge how our culture of opportunism can motivate someone to make a mockery of his own humanity.
Many reviewers have pointed out how Nope satirizes the entertainment industry by exploring how the pursuit of an audience drives us to devalue life (even our own). And yet. As I left the theater, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there’s something vaguely badass about the film. While it may not be a comedy per se, there’s a sly humor running through it, as if everyone creating the film is in on the joke. As if they’re saying, “Yep, Hollywood is one messed up industry, but we’re well aware of that, and we’re working in it anyway, and we’re killing it.” And they are—killing it, that is. The fact that Peele came out of the gate as a director with Get Out a mere five years ago, and then went on to direct two more extremely weird yet popular movies is deeply impressive.
For his part, Yeun has become one of the most influential Asian American actors alive, while playing a wide range of offbeat characters. In Minari, he’s an ambitious father and small farmer. In Sorry to Bother You, he’s an undercover labor activist. In Okja, he’s an animal-rights activist. And in The Walking Dead, he’s a zombie-fighting pizza delivery guy. I’m maybe (probably) reaching here, but it’s as if there’s a throughline connecting these characters. Something like scrappiness, or a relentless will to survive. Regardless, his resume is nothing if not eclectic, and that is itself important in advancing representation. Part of increasing respect and empathy for people of color more broadly comes from giving them a wide variety of roles. Not comic book villains and not saints. Just people—complexities, flaws, and all.
In Nope, Jupe’s neighbors (and the film’s main characters), the Haywoods, claim their family descends from the first man to technically appear in a movie—an unnamed jockey in a short, silent clip assembled from a series of photographs. I can’t think of this detail without remembering that Peele was the first Black writer to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out. Incidentally, Yeun also claims a “first” for his demographic, as the first Asian American actor to be nominated for Best Actor for his role in Minari. These facts may not be relevant to the plot of Nope, but they give me a sense of vicarious pride for the artists, who achieved their success not by pandering to crowds, not by succumbing to racial stereotypes, and not by shying away from difficult subjects. Rather, they’ve made audiences uncomfortable and expanded the public’s imagination of what people of color can do. While Nope may explore the dark side of the American dream, particularly as it relates to the movie industry, the careers of its creators and cast are something to celebrate.
Published on September 7, 2022
Words by Annie Midori Atherton
Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, editor, and parent living in Seattle, Washington. She covers a variety of topics including parenting, work, and entertainment, and is particularly interested in the way culture and media influence our understanding of ourselves and relationships.