“Nope” Perfectly Encapsulates My Disappointment with the Biden Administration

Literature

Jordan Peele is an increasing rarity in Hollywood: a writer-director of original genre films who releases box office smashes every few years. He does what op-ed columnists and anonymous studio execs tell us is impossible: get people in theater seats. If you have somehow not seen Peele’s latest, Nope is a neo-Western that explores visibility and spectacle through a story about alien abduction. It’s also the only movie that has been able to fully capture the many disappointments of the Biden administration.

It’s unsurprising given Peele’s unique talent for capturing nationwide sentiment through genre tropes. Get Out (2017) was an uncanny reflection of Obama-era colorblind racism–has any single line of dialogue encapsulated 2010s white liberalism better than, “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could?” Us (2019) might have had a slightly more obscure gloss but it explored the aftermath of a failed and subsequently abandoned government policy: a perfect piece of Trump-era nihilism. Despite what social media might have us believe, it is possible for a horror movie to be more than an elaborate metaphor for a single family’s grief. Yes, Nope is dealing with individual relationships with grief and trauma, but it’s also asking how we survive in a world that has been largely abandoned by the people supposed to keep us safe. 

Siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) have inherited their father Otis Sr.’s (Keith David) horse wrangling business. OJ is desperate to continue the legacy not just of his father but also of his great-great-great grandfather, Alistair Haywood, a horse jockey who was the first person to be captured in a motion picture. Since Otis Sr.’s death, OJ has struggled to run the business and has been forced to sell some of his horses to neighboring amusement park owner Jupe (Steven Yeun). When an alien appears in their desolate valley, OJ and Emerald become obsessed with capturing an image of the creature they dub Jean Jacket to sell—“the Oprah shot.” It’s their last chance to make some money and preserve the legacy too many have tried to steal.

Key to Nope is that OJ and Emerald are not naive and trusting victims. They’re savvy and smart, and know the best way to handle a situation. The Oprah shot is not a harebrained money-making scheme: it’s their only recourse to save what’s left of their father’s ranch and they need to move quickly. If someone else finds out about Jean Jacket, they’ll get the shot and steal their glory. OJ and Emerald will be forgotten just like Alistair was.

Fittingly, there is never a discussion of calling the authorities. It would be too easy to make a joke where Angel suggests calling the police, and OJ and Emerald guffaw about being Black people who don’t trust the cops. That’s the type of low-hanging fruit Peele’s imitators might go for. In Nope, authorities simply don’t exist. Otis Sr.’s bizarre death by Jean Jacket is dismissed. Only OJ seems to think it’s strange that a low-flying airplane would have dropped a bunch of metal objects on a remote farm at a velocity strong enough to pierce his father’s eye and his horse’s haunch. All he has is the coin that killed his father, which he keeps in the medical bag in his room. It’s a reminder both of human fragility and the utter apathy of a system that was never going to protect us. Nope is playing by Western rules. There’s no stranger who’s going to step in and secure justice for a wronged party. You’re alone on the prairie, and no one is ever coming to help you. 

In January of 2020, four senators sold stock after a classified briefing on the then-mysterious COVID-19 outbreak. Three of those four senators are career politicians who remain in office. Dozens more senators and representatives profited during the early days of the pandemic through trading. Their response to learning about an incoming, unprecedented global pandemic and the magnitude of death that would ensue was to find a way to make more money off of it. Some of this trading is likely illegal under the STOCK Act, which comes with the devastating punishment of a $200 fine. It was a concrete example of what too many of us knew, what I’ve always known as a Black woman–that most politicians view their responsibility to the people as secondary to their own interests. When asked to choose between their own interests or the interests of their constituents, they choose themselves. Every time.

When asked to choose between their own interests or the interests of their constituents, they choose themselves.

Nope feels perfectly attuned to the Wild West of the American government, which has repeatedly failed to protect us in far too many ways. The Biden administration has struggled to create comprehensive policy dealing with COVID-19, school shootings, climate change, and reproductive justice. It’s become a Twitter meme to respond to a politician’s milquetoast call to action with “DO SOMETHING.” Instead we’re told that we need to vote, wear a mask, reduce our emissions, call our senators. These are individual actions that don’t actually create systemic change or address the problems we’re facing. Recycling a plastic water bottle or buying an electric vehicle does not counteract the 100 million barrels of oil used by the US military every year. Moving to a city that has protected abortion rights does not secure reproductive freedom for the millions of people unable to “just pick up and leave” their state. 

Individual choice has been sanctified as the ultimate freedom, and the easiest way politicians kill bills is to claim socialism and invent scenarios where a policy could theoretically infringe on an individual’s rights. Making it harder for domestic terrorists to have guns they’ll use to shoot up churches, nightclubs, and schools infringes on my scared right to have an arsenal of military grade weaponry. Requiring masks to be worn in public spaces during a pandemic infringes on my God-given right to cough, sneeze, and mouth-breathe on the elderly and immunocompromised. Never mind their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever. What about my needs?

As lawmakers waffled on the jurisdiction of mask mandates in the summer of 2020, my then-employer decided that they’d had enough of people working from home. The central office of the company, which was thousands of miles away, instituted a plan to return staff to in-person work while still maintaining six-foot boundaries and bans on conference room gatherings. The obvious impracticality revealed itself quickly: I sat in a cubicle next to coworkers I would only be allowed to talk to over Zoom. When I said that having an online staff meeting of several people in a semi-open office would result in an unlistenable mess of feedback and echoes, I was reminded, “Headphones exist.” My boss insisted that since we were responsible adults, we could trust each other (and each other’s households) not to go somewhere we could become infected and potentially bring the virus back to the office. The plan would be rendered null when cases skyrocketed but the damage to morale was irreparable. Our company was not just apathetic, it was actively hostile to our health and safety. The lawmakers who batted stay-at-home measures back and forth felt the same way.

Our company was not just apathetic, it was actively hostile to our health and safety.

The only avenue OJ, Emerald, and Jupe have for survival is quick profit. They do what so many desperate westerners have and try to get ahead of a potential gold rush. Jupe’s plan to create a rodeo show with Jean Jacket is informed by his background as a child star and his relationship with the chimpanzee who played Gordy. Whether desperation or delusion, Jupe misinterprets his survival as proof that he can partner with a wild animal and control its actions. He’s purchased an amusement park downwind from a horse farm after a series of failed enterprises, banking on the nostalgic capital of a character he played decades ago on a sitcom. The rodeo show is his syndicated reinterpretation of trauma, his chance to recreate the horrific experience of filming Gordy’s Home as an adult with agency.

The violent incident on the set of Gordy’s Home eerily reflects the epidemic of violence against children, especially in how Jupe has compartmentalized his trauma in order to survive it. Seeing a young Jupe cowering alone reminded me specifically of the stories we heard from Uvalde, where nineteen students and two adults were shot while police lingered outside. When we see the massacre, it’s unclear how much time has passed but the set is empty. The audience, the crew, the cast are all gone as Jupe’s young co-star is repeatedly pummeled by the chimpanzee. Presumably security would have been required on set during a live taping of a sitcom but they’re nowhere to be seen. When an adult descends down the stairs, we think he might be coming to help the girl who has been attacked by Gordy, or distract the chimp to give Jupe an opportunity to escape. Of course not—he thinks of himself and tries to run, only to be made another casualty of the rampage. As the chimp approaches Jupe, its intentions unclear, an unseen gunman shoots Gordy in the head,  ending the carnage. 

It’s also unclear what took so long. Maybe the set flouted the site’s security restrictions and there was no one immediately present to help: they clearly weren’t following best practices by allowing balloons on set that would antagonize the chimp. Or maybe, like in Uvalde, the authorities were worried about themselves, placing their individual safety above their duty to protect our most vulnerable. They let little Jupe be the bait, let at least two people get horrifically attacked, before someone stepped in. If you didn’t want to be ripped apart by a chimpanzee, you should’ve thought about that before going to a live taping. You should’ve run faster than the others who escaped. And we can’t restrict the use of animal actors on sets because that infringes on a studio’s right to sell toys and print money.

Or maybe, like in Uvalde, the authorities were worried about themselves, placing their individual safety above their duty.

By the end of the film—Jean Jacket’s last stand—there are no police or FBI or Agent Mulder types coming out to see what’s wrong. TMZ has arrived first, threatening to capture and monetize OJ’s ride the same way Haywood’s ride was. Knowing Peele’s work, it’s not a coincidence that OJ shares his moniker with OJ Simpson, possibly the most notorious person to ever be in a televised car chase. When the dust has settled, it’s only more media that has arrived, hoping to capture some of the bizarre spectacle laid out before them and throw it into an unrelenting content mill. 

I caught a mild case of COVID-19 in July of 2022. I’d worn a mask and washed my hands, but was I the safest I could’ve been? I’d been vaccinated, but I also ate at restaurants and went to the movies. I took the subway. I didn’t require that everyone I interacted with show me their rapid test results. So it’s my fault. If I didn’t want to get a disease in an unprecedented global pandemic, I should have made the individual decisions that would keep me safe no matter how improbable. It’s the flip side of the conservative bootstraps myth that proclaims all success as deserved: if bad things happen, it’s your fault. As we are reminded every day by the federal government, you are not entitled to any protections or kept promises. If you didn’t want to get sucked up into an alien or struck down by the detritus it dislodges, you shouldn’t have been there. A monster is coming to kill you and nobody is riding out to help. You’ve got to do something about it yourself.

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