ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN years ago, Woodrow Wilson hosted the first-ever film screening at the White House. It was for D. W. Griffith’s adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman, which was published originally as a novel but made famous as a stage play that traces the lives of a white family through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Griffith called it The Birth of a Nation. “It’s like writing history with lightning,” the president is reported to have said when he walked out of the East Room. “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
In the century since its release, The Birth of a Nation has become shorthand for a specific, and specifically virulent, kind of early-20th-century American racism that was obsessed with relitigating that war and the legislation that came out of it (a shorthand so enduring, in fact, that Nate Parker’s 2016 The Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner and the rebellion by enslaved people he led in 1831, was very plausibly greenlit because of its title’s provocation). Even given that reputation, the film is shockingly bigoted. Its depictions of Black people, including those elected to Congress in what Griffith alleges were sham elections designed to punish white Southerners, would be cartoonish if not played for such menace; white actors in blackface chase white women through the wilderness until they have no apparent choice but to leap off cliffs to their death. Intertitles say things like: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”
Birth also invented whole swaths of cinematic language still in use today. It is likely — probably inevitable — that other filmmakers would have, on their own, in time, devised dramatic close-ups on actors’ faces, tracking shots to follow action as it moved, cross-cutting between different sequences, or fade-outs to exit scenes. But no one had done so before Griffith. The late critic Pauline Kael wrote that “[o]ne can trace almost every major tradition and most of the genres, and even many of the metaphors, in movies to their sources” in his work. The Los Angeles Times called Birth “the greatest picture ever made.”
And yet Woodrow Wilson was not talking about cross-cutting when he called Griffith’s movie “so terribly true.” Aside from sympathizing with its Klan-agitprop politics, the president, who grew up in Virginia and codified Jim Crow laws within the federal government, was apparently engrossed by the film’s other great technical achievement: its intricate battle sequence, where Griffith skips between disorienting close-ups, wide vistas, and the literal fog of war — gun smoke choking the camera.
This footage was not filmed on the ground of old battlefields. It was captured on arid land across Los Angeles County and edging into the Inland Empire. (While some of this filming took place in Griffith Park, that preserve is not D. W.’s namesake; as the Times clarified in a headline earlier this year, “Griffith Park is named for a guy who shot his wife.”) Where, as Kael writes, the literary “history of Russian movies could be based on the ice breaking up in Griffith’s Way Down East,” the industrial lessons Birth had to offer were metabolized immediately by the Hollywood system that was then emerging.
Desert and near-desert backdrops in L.A. proper, Glendale, Whittier, Malibu, and San Bernardino came to stand in for the old American West, sure, but also for the African Sahara, the Arabian Peninsula, and biblical Palestine, cheaply and, at least for a time, without complex permitting processes. And then came the alien planets: unrecognizable races of beings at Point Dume, UFOs crash landing just off the 101. Studios spent hundreds of thousands of pre- and barely post-Depression dollars recreating the streets of Manhattan on tightly secured backlots. They were able to do so in part because when they wanted to film the most desolate scenes of the galaxy’s farthest reaches, they simply had to step outside.
On its most basic level, Jordan Peele’s third movie, Nope, is about filmmaking — or, more comprehensively, the capturing of images. Near its beginning, Otis Jr. and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, respectively), inherit the family business — training and handling horses for film and television productions — and the Agua Dulce ranch where they and those horses grew up. The family lore, which Em grafts onto the beginnings of her animated on-set safety seminars, is that the Haywoods are descended from the unnamed “Bahamian jockey” who rides a horse named Annie G. in Plate 626 of Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion: An Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements (1887), one of the first widely known moving pictures.
The Haywood children are not able to maintain whatever success their father, who dies in the film’s first present-day sequence when metal debris falls out of a cloud above the ranch, had been able to secure. Em lives in Los Angeles and is distracted by other creative pursuits. Otis Jr., or OJ, struggles to communicate with the non-equines he encounters (Kaluuya, who recently appeared onscreen as a voluble Fred Hampton, plays OJ instead like a nearly mute Clint Eastwood protagonist). As months crawl on and business remains slow, OJ is forced to sell off horses under the vague pretense that he’ll buy them back once film commissions pick up again.
The man OJ sells these horses to, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is a former child star who founded a western novelty park near the Haywood ranch. Visitors drink in mock saloons and pay for hand-cranked pictures taken from the bottom of a plastic-bricked wishing well. Park’s biggest role was on a late-1990s sitcom called Gordy’s Home! that took its name from the TV family’s pet chimpanzee. The show was canceled after one of the chimps playing Gordy flew into a rage during a live taping and, as we see at Nope’s very beginning and later, in expanded fashion, mauled a number of cast, crew, and audience members.
There is Gordy’s Home! memorabilia scattered throughout the park, and as OJ and Em discover during one horse transaction, a private room off Ricky’s office where he keeps his most prized mementos. While in that room, Em asks Ricky what really happened during the chimp incident. In the film’s best display of acting — I mean by Yeun, though this is a speech Ricky has possibly honed over the years to elide the true horror in his memory — Ricky recounts the Saturday Night Live riff on the attack, representation standing in for the genuine article.
It’s around this time that OJ and Em witness bizarre electrical phenomena, not unlike the event that preceded Otis Sr.’s death. All their devices, grounded and wireless, fail; their horses run across open desert; the lights in the barn flicker to life. OJ investigates and is ambushed by what looks like a group of small, anthropomorphic aliens. Before realizing that these are local kids playing a prank, OJ, terrified and stumbling backward, does not run, but opens his phone in hopes of capturing the extraterrestrials on film.
On exiting the barn, OJ sees what scans as a classic flying saucer darting across the night sky. When he admits this to Em later, he’s sheepish. But the siblings, especially Em, sense opportunity. With the help of an overeager electronics-store employee (Brandon Perea as Angel), they rig the ranch with expensive surveillance equipment, the monitors for which all three pore over at all hours of the night, hoping for clean footage of the UFO that they can sell for a huge profit. The trio soon enlist the help of a renowned, hammily villainous cinematographer (Michael Wincott) whose antique cameras are supposed to solve the group’s electrical-failure problem.
From here the script escalates, as scripts do. The group hatches a plan to bait the alien — OJ correctly infers that it’s not a spaceship, but an organic being capable of taking that shape — and capture it with any of the n cameras trained on the sky, which, they have by now realized, includes an unmoving faux-cloud that acts as the alien’s daytime hiding place. In a truly unnerving sequence, the Haywoods notice an interloper on their property: a TMZ videographer (Devon Graye) on a motorcycle who never flips up his mirrored visor and who begs, even after being nearly killed by the alien, to have his maimed body on camera. In the final chase sequence, when the being has abandoned its disguise and revealed itself as something like a giant jellyfish made out of ripped bedsheets, its mouth, hungry for flesh, appears as a camera’s aperture, firing again and again as a paparazzi’s shutter would.
The climactic moment comes when Em, who has fled to Ricky’s now-abandoned theme park, cranks that wishing-well camera until she gets a souvenir polaroid of the alien as it swallows a giant balloon in young Ricky’s likeness. She collapses, exhausted, as news crews clamor on the other side of caution tape. We do not see OJ, who had put himself at risk to lead the alien away from the others, die on screen, and it’s possible that Peele’s intention is his survival. But when he appears to Em in this moment, he does not run over to her, as a brother would to his sister after they survived almost certain death. Instead, he sits perched on a horse, clouded in fog, an image as indelible as the supposed ancestor of whom they own no pictures.
Through all this, Peele imagines the divide between real life and its filmed representation as the uncanniest of valleys, one that is never exactly bridgeable. The inability to capture life as it really is makes his characters feel as if they’re in a dream where their screams are muted: to name the force that is so obvious, the one that took their father and home and has now turned its eyes on them, would make them seem like crackpots to those who haven’t witnessed it in person. And even if there’s a record of it — as there is of the Gordy’s Home! incident — so what? It becomes another spectacle that will be downgraded, like those before it, to trivia.
Like Peele’s last two screenplays, for Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), Nope is built around a verse from scripture. This one opens with Nahum 3:6, which reads: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” As suggested by the TMZ motorcyclist and the camera-flash mechanism of the alien’s jaw, Nope is a parable about fame, particularly as experienced by Black American celebrities. Peele can be cryptic, but he’s not subtle; Otis Sr. is killed by money that falls from the sky, and at one point Em encourages her brother to “run, OJ, run!” In literalizing fame as a beast that could kill him at any moment — and his loved ones, in this case the horses, as totally dependent on him — Peele puts his OJ in the same bind that traps so many stars. Toward the end of Nope’s second act, after he, Em, and Angel have fled the ranch for Angel’s apartment in the city, OJ announces to the disbelieving others that he’s heading back out to Agua Dulce. He’s “got mouths to feed.”
Beyond the traditional routes to fame — sports, entertainment, even politics — Nope hints at a morbid dovetail between its twin focuses on race and film. Though its protagonists are motivated by profit, it’s difficult to watch without thinking, at least in passing, of the way police brutality was disbelieved or minimized before the broad dissemination of videos depicting it — or of the way those videos are in turn reduced over time by cable news and political pundits to mere spectacle.
Underlying all of this is the persistent marginalization of Black people in westerns, a genre so influential for so long that its stories of how the West was settled have come to stand in as real history, flattening and tidying it. Near Nope’s middle, we see that Ricky, the Asian American former child star, has been feeding the horses he buys from OJ — supposedly on a sort of layaway — to the alien, which he hopes to lure to the ad-hoc amphitheater near his park and amaze his paying audiences. Having heard about the tragedy that befell the Haywoods, he rhinestoned a jacket, wrote a few checks, and sought to cut them out of the last, lucrative steps of commercialization.
In 1998’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, the writer and L.A. historian Mike Davis synthesizes the environmental and political histories of the city to cast it as uniquely imperiled, by the whims of nature and by its plutocrats’ death drive. But he also dedicates a large part of the book to analyzing how the city is drawn, in literature and on film, as the leading edge of the apocalypse, destroyed time and again by nuclear weapons, drought, the devil, terrorism, tsunamis, a sandstorm, floods, the Crips, plague, extraterrestrials, volcanoes, blizzards, and, in one entry, “Everything.” Over time — and seeing as the production of these stories is effectively the town industry — that “imagination of disaster” becomes as much a part of the city’s ecosystem as the Santa Ana Winds.
In Nope, the Haywoods exist on the fringes of the industry that drives this imagination. But these are, truly, the fringes: Agua Dulce, practical in the age of computer-generated imagery, horse handlers when superheroes have replaced cowboys. The land that the studios have found to be such a convenient stand-in for the moon, Mars, and beyond — the land that is meant to support them as they support the city, unseen until needed — has turned, if not hostile, something just short. Peele’s script makes no overt mention of the environment, but the ranch is surely less hospitable than it was 30 years ago, and might not be around at all in another 30.
The film takes pains to underline the overwhelming power of the natural world, at least insofar as a giant UFO is “natural.” While OJ is not comfortable asserting himself on a commercial set at Nope’s beginning, he comes close to raising his voice when reminding actors and crew members on the set of a commercial to respect his horse’s boundaries; they don’t, the horse revolts, and OJ and Em lose the gig. He has an abiding respect for the animals, which he applies to the alien while successfully pushing his sister to safety. Ricky, by contrast, evidently believes himself to have an exceptional relationship with the alien, just as he did with one of the chimp actors — itself an exploited captive — who played Gordy on his sitcom. In the present day, he is, of course, swallowed whole.
One of the most charming things about Los Angeles, at least in my mind, is the way the infrastructure feels arrested in progress. Sidewalks crack like tectonic plates in miniature, cell service drops out for blocks at a time, sinkholes — sinkholes — open up in the middle of posh neighborhoods which, it should be said, are unlike the posh neighborhoods from back east in the sense that these have winding, capillary streets and coyotes. The city has long had the sense of being half-finished. Where the geopolitical tension that dominated the second half of the last century (Davis found that “nukes” were, by far, the most common cause of hypothetical annihilation) has faded from the popular imagination, the land itself seems to have had enough. And so Nope becomes an entry in a new genre, one that chronicles how it might feel to live in an increasingly alien world as it grows increasingly clear that it will never truly be finished.
Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, New York, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post, among other publications.