‘Nope’ Updates the Story of the West and Who It Belongs To
Jordan Peele's latest film explores how Hollywood has tokenized non-white people and commodified landscapes and wildlife, nowhere more than in westerns. Can the genre reclaim those marginalized stories and all their complexity?
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In the 19th century, an estimated one in four cowboys were Black, but you’d never know from reading and watching western books and films. This canon has served as an act of cinematic and literary nationalism, portraying cowboys of the Old West as white, craggy men of few words and many pistols. And when Black and Indigenous people, in particular, have been included, the genre has relied on spectacle and romanticization that has demonized, tokenized, or fetishized them instead of telling their rich stories.
But the histories of Black cowboys and other marginalized groups in the West are gradually becoming less forgotten. A group of Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latinx filmmakers and writers have started to update the story of who the West belongs to and who belongs in the West. The most high profile recent example of this reassessment is director Jordan Peele’s alien-horror movie, Nope, which came out last month. (Spoilers ahead.)
Nope is a western. It’s not an homage to westerns, nor a nod toward westerns, nor a subversion of the western genre. It’s just a western, but it’s one with a modern Black cowboy and his sister at the center of the story. Nope replaces the cowboy’s hat and stirrups with streetwear, and his pistols with a fleet of cameras—from a smartphone to an old-fashioned crank. It is a story not of racing against death, but of racing against the world’s hunger for spectacle, and racing towards one’s rightful inclusion in history.
In Nope, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), are presented with an opportunity to save their family’s ranch in Agua Dulce, California, after their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), is mysteriously killed by a coin falling out of the sky. The Haywoods have a rich but ignored history as the descendants of the first person captured on camera, a Black man riding a horse. (A Black jockey was the subject of the first motion picture, but in real life, history has erased the man’s name.) Without their patriarch, the siblings struggle to keep their business afloat training and wrangling horses for TV commercials and movies in nearby Hollywood. When OJ and Emerald discover a UFO-like object hovering above their property, they hatch a plan to sell footage of it to the media—what Emerald calls “the Oprah shot”—and cement themselves in Hollywood (and western) history once more.
After watching the movie, I was curious what some of the non-white authors and critics who have been reimagining the western thought of Nope and what it adds to the genre. Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of the 2022 western novel Woman of Light, is from Denver and currently lives in Wyoming. Fajardo-Anstine is mixed Chicana with Indigenous and Filipino heritage, and her book is a generational epic based on her own family stories, exploring the history of Indigenous, Filipino, Black, and Chicano people in Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Seeing Nope’s Black, Latinx, and Asian characters in a western horror film was invigorating to Fajardo-Anstine. “I really hope that we’re on the cusp of a new movement in western literature and media,” says Fajardo-Anstine, also pointing to the popular AMC series Dark Winds, which is Native-American written and stars Indigenous actors.
Stephen Graham Jones, the Blackfeet author of the upcoming western horror novel Don’t Fear the Reaper, told me that awe-inspiring nature—like the rolling, wide-open landscapes shown throughout Nope—is part of what defines the West and the marginalized people who live there. It’s also what contributes to outside desires to conquer it, to make it a spectacle, to cast filth upon that which is beautiful. “People who aren’t Native look at it, see it’s pretty, and say ‘I want that,’’’ he says. Ironically, he points out he’s talking to me on the phone while parked outside the abandoned Buffalo Bill’s Market and General Store about 20 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Buffalo Bill (William Cody) was a white man who exploited Indigenous people in his Wild West shows, including Lakota resistance leader Sitting Bull, who had to work in and lend his image to these spectacles in order to survive.
It’s not just marginalized people in the West who are flattened by this kind of spectacle, but also its landscapes and wildlife. Nope subverts the tropes of both westerns and alien movies by gradually revealing that the mysterious flying saucer is really just a hungry, sensitive animal. OJ and Emerald even give him the endearing name of Jean Jacket. Viewers begin to see Jean Jacket as more than an abstraction, and are rewarded with glimpses of the alien’s anatomy and psyche.
Chinese-American writer C Pam Zhang is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a western novel that centers two Chinese-American siblings in the California hills who have to go on the run. The book highlights how even though Asian-Americans have a centuries-long history in the West, racist western narratives have depicted them as contradictory to the myth of the American West and liminal to its story.
Zhang was also a fan of Nope. She says there’s danger in seeing the “inherent and awesome danger” of western American landscapes and wildlife as spectacle alone, which is conveyed in the film by the contrast between OJ and Jupe (Steven Yeun). Jupe is a former child-actor turned owner of a western-themed amusement park neighboring the Hayward Ranch that is reminiscent of Buffalo Bill’s shows. For Zhang, Nope almost functions like a Greek tragedy, warning against the dangers of hubris. “Characters like Jupe die because they underestimate the natural phenomenon that is the UFO, just as selfie takers at national parks have died by slipping to their deaths in the quest for a better shot,” she says. “Flattening the natural world is a matter of life or death.”
But Peele gives Jupe’s story complexity, as well. Jupe himself was made into a spectacle when he played the adopted Asian child of a white family with a pet chimp on a sitcom called Gordy’s House. His appearance next to white children is seen as almost an oddity to laugh at. In a creepy subplot, viewers learn that a chimp playing Gordy was triggered on set, causing him to kill or maim almost everyone except for Jupe, who received a fist bump from the chimp right before animal control shot him.
Graham Jones thought Jupe’s storyline was one of the most compelling and creepy. He felt the movie was saying “that both kid actors and animals are disposable. Jupe has also been forgotten, which is why he is in the desert doing his little shows.” Although Jupe was made a spectacle of, he understands that the gaze of the stupefied masses is powerful, and he prefers this to erasure. What Jupe really wants is to be truly seen, and he chases that desire all the way to his death.
If Jupe had been able to see past the spectacle and understand Jean Jacket’s primary needs—food and shelter—the outcome would have been different. Jean Jacket isn’t like aliens from movies past. The territory Jean Jacket wants to call his own is relatively small, just a tiny part of Agua Dulce. He’s not concerned with domination or human subjudgation; he’s just hungry. Even the death of OJ and Emerald’s father is revealed to be, as Fajardo-Anstine points out, “just a function of Jean Jacket eating”—the coin was excreted after the flying saucer was finished gobbling some people up. Most interestingly, each character could escape Jean Jacket if they wanted to. Almost no one in the movie is trapped until they trap themselves. But all are drawn in by the spectacle—or more aptly, what the spectacle can bring them.
“Black people helped shape the American West by respecting the authority of the land, cattle, and people already there. They gave without simply taking from it,” Tinubu says.
Jupe and OJ aren’t so different in this regard. They both see something to gain from Jean Jacket. But what allows OJ to survive is his ability to see Jean Jacket as a multidimensional being. By realizing that Jean Jacket doesn’t eat people who avoid looking at him in the eye, OJ evades death. He has the same savvy as Jupe, but lacks the hubris. “OJ is a rare character aware of his human fragility in a vast western landscape that could care less about him,” says Zhang.
Aramide Tinubu, a Black film critic and entertainment journalist, says this storyline illuminates Black people’s long-held reverent respect for western American nature. “Otis and Em learn about the beast and respect its power, like the horses they train. Black people helped shape the American West by respecting the authority of the land, cattle, and people already there. They gave without simply taking from it,” Tinubu says. OJ survives by treating both his horses and Jean Jacket as complex beings who require a careful, nuanced approach. It’s a story of animal revenge, but also of how respecting animals is crucial, and how marginalized people can take their own power and histories back in doing so.
Graham Jones, whose 2020 book The Only Good Indians is also a tale of animal revenge told through an Indigenous lens, feels that the western genre is finally recognizing that the voices that belong to it aren’t all white—that they’re Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latinx. He says the genre is moving past “this idea of what the Old West was.”
The West is a battlefield of history and narrative, a place where people go to create the myth of this nation. Within the western genre, there’s something exciting happening—something that’s always been happening. Rich stories are pushing back against tired old ideas, and marginalized people are grabbing their own cameras and pointing them towards their own lives and those in power. All this is creating lightning, and a much more dynamic genre.