American Empire, Biblical Prophecy, and Cosmic Horror in Jordan Peele’s Nope

“What’s a bad miracle? They got a name for that?” —OJ Haywood

If you haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, it’s now available to rent or buy on various platforms (and still available in some theaters, as well; no word on a streaming release yet)—and you’ll probably want to wait until you’ve watched it to continue reading. Spoilers follow…

Writer/Director Peele opens the film with a verse from the Hebrew prophet Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” The word spectacle shows up multiple times throughout the film—it’s as close to a three-syllable theme for the movie as you could ask for (though feel free to do better in the comments!).

This isn’t the first time Peele has deployed a verse from the Hebrew prophets as commentary within his films—two key scenes in Us feature a man holding a cardboard sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11.” But by opening this new film with not only the reference—Nahum 3:6—but the full quotation, Peele invites us to use the verse as a framing device, an interpretive lens for what follows.

There’s a literal level on which the verse works: not only is ‘spectacle’ the thematic watchword of the film, there’s a scene in the middle of the movie where a house has abominable filth cast upon it, and judging by the reactions of my theater crowd, we all found it pretty vile.

Indeed, when the UFO/UAP unfurls in the third act, we’re treated to quite the spectacle—a jellyfish-like aerial predator whose graceful movement only serves to underscore the terror it metes out to any who gaze upon it. Its eldritch beauty seems designed to captivate—it’s the act of looking upon the creature that renders us vulnerable to consumption.

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

Nope is a Western—sort of. The West (that’s capital ‘W’, not as a cardinal direction, but a mythic locale in the American imagination) is a liminal space. It’s the borderland between progress and wilderness, between the civilized and the savage, between colonizer and indigenous.

The actual American frontier—a term that belongs to the colonizer—was a brutal, bloody space where US colonizers raped and pillaged their way across the continent, even hunting fauna to extinction as part of their campaign of genocidal conquest. The West, however, is a product of empire where cowboys are heroes (and always White). It’s a commodified amusement park run by Jupe (Steven Yeun), a child star of a series called Kid Sheriff cashing in on his waning fame.

Jupe is a trauma survivor; after Kid Sheriff, he starred in the ill-fated sitcom Gordy’s Home, about a space-faring chimpanzee who lives with an astronaut, a rocket scientist, and their two kids, one of whom is Jupe. One day, in the midst of filming, one of the chimpanzees who played Gordy attacked and killed or maimed multiple cast members while Jupe hid under a table, witnessing the horror unfold.

In the present day, Jupe makes a living capitalizing on his Kid Sheriff fame and fan nostalgia, but it turns out he makes money from the Gordy tragedy, too. Behind a hidden door in his office, Jupe maintains a small museum of Gordy memorabilia, charging top dollar for admission to specialized clientele. When Jupe gives the Haywood siblings a free peek at his Gordy collection, they ask him about that day. While we (the viewer) see flashes of the actual day, Jupe can’t bring himself to remember his experience for the siblings. Rather, he recounts the Saturday Night Live parody of the event. The pop culture spectacle is safer for him to remember and talk about than the real horror of the day.

Beyond its neo-Western elements, Nope is also a horror film in the tradition of Jaws. Horror, too, is a liminal genre most comfortable in the shadows, the borderlands between light and dark. Horror lives in the closet, under beds and stairs. Horror reveals—intentionally or not—those excluded by majority culture. Monster-making is a cultural project.

In Nope, the monster is the spectacle, an all-consuming camera that seems to be cinema come to life. Consumption leads to being consumed. Participate in the spectacle, become the spectacle…

So what does this have to do with Nahum?

Nahum was a Hebrew prophet, writing in the late 7th century BCE just before the fall of the Assyrian empire. Over a century earlier, Assyria had conquered and destroyed the kingdom of Israel, making them a favorite Big Bad of several generations of Hebrew prophets (for example, Jonah, he of the ‘swallowed by a fish’ fame, announced he’d rather die than see the Assyrians spared God’s judgment).

Spectacle is part and parcel of how empires operate, and the collection of Jewish and Christian scriptures is largely anti-imperial. The prophets, in particular, routinely criticize their own nations for empire-building and for aligning themselves with empires (the empires in question were Assyria, Babylon, and Rome). Prophets imagine the most creative of destructions for these empires, using provocative images like winecups full of wrath and, uh, donkey genitalia (yes, really).

Again and again, the prophets warned that the violence of the empire would be revisited on the empires themselves. Allying with or placating empires seems wise in the short term because you can share in the wealth generated by their exploitation. But every empire falls, and when they do, so too do all those who’ve cast their lots with them. Those who live by the empire will die by (and with) the empire.

This line of thinking crystallized as early Christians attempted to make sense of Jesus’ death. It was quite a conundrum—how is it that God being executed as a political traitor somehow benefitted not just his ethnos (usually translated ‘nation,’ but the word from whence we derive ‘ethnicity’), but all humankind…including the very empire that executed him? The author of the letter to the Colossians, writing close to the end of the first century CE, offered a compelling turn of phrase. Speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, they claimed, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

Every empire has a propaganda department, and Rome may have perfected the concept. One of their favorite tactics was the Triumph, a military/religious parade at the head of which conquered kings and generals were marched to their executions. (Game of Thrones fans might think of Cersei’s infamous Walk of Atonement). The writer of Colossians inverts the Triumph, inviting his readers (living as they did in the Roman empire) to imagine Jesus’ execution march not as a triumph for Rome, but rather a Triumph for Jesus. How could this be?

Jesus’ Triumph consisted in revealing the Empire for what it is—a beast that thrives on the blood of the vulnerable. John the Revelator, in his proto-fantasy novella that closes the Christian canon, makes this explicit. In his final vision cycle, John imagines a parody of the Roman Triumph, depicting the Roman empire as a multi-headed beast ridden by a woman drunk “on the blood of the saints.” At the end of the parade, the beast turns on and consumes the woman (there’s that ‘live by the empire, die by the empire’ logic again). After she is consumed, John invites the reader to attend the woman’s funeral. Her mourners are the shipwrights and merchants—all who profited from the empire’s excesses.

John’s instruction to his readers? “Come out of her.” It’s the same instruction OJ gives his allies in Nope: Don’t look at it. Don’t participate in the spectacle. There’s a real sense in which it doesn’t matter whether they want to capture the creature (like the ill-fated TMZ reporter) or worship it (like cinematographer Antlers Holst). When you play the empire’s game, the house always wins.

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

The Haywoods exist in a liminal space. They’re a Hollywood legacy—their great-great-grandfather (I think there’s another great, maybe?) was the first person captured on film. They also run a Black-owned, film-adjacent business. It’s no accident that this business, horse-training, evokes a myth—the American West—that makes no room for the Black people who were always part and parcel of the reality upon which the myth was built.

The Haywoods are not unlike Peele himself, a Black director who owns his own production company (Monkeypaw) and has made a point of giving Black actors, directors, and storytellers space where they’ve been historically underrepresented—namely, Hollywood. But Nope can’t help but ask…is the entire endeavor rotten to the core? Does any attempt to carve out a space in Hollywood and participate in its mythmaking ultimately lead to being swallowed whole, caught up in the inexorable drive for content, for dollars, for spectacle?

Peele seems to believe that humans are not infinite, that we are bound by something—otherwise how could we transgress into those liminal spaces? One of those limits seems to be our relation to the natural world, what Christian theologians might call our creatureliness. So the Haywoods’ horses are being replaced by CGI horses—much more predictable, and less demanding of care and respect, than a real horse. Gordy turned from comedy to tragedy because a chimpanzee cannot be tamed. And the UAP, whatever it might be, cannot be captured, controlled, or contained.

The impulse to capture, control, and contain is the same impulse that builds empires, that colonizes and appropriates. There is a way to live in harmony—with the world, with one another, with the great mysteries of the universe. But empire-building is not that.

Such is the logic of the late James H. Cone, hailed as the father of Black Liberation Theology, a distinctly US American incarnation of the theological system pioneered by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez. Drawing on Biblical stories from the Exodus to the Exile to Jesus’ crucifixion, Gutiérrez insisted that the God of Christianity has a preferential orientation toward the oppressed and marginalized. In Cone’s remix, he stated, “God is black.” His most famous work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, mapped Jesus’ crucifixion at Roman hands to the suffering Black Americans endure under a White supremacist state—from Jim Crow to police brutality to lynching.

More recently, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom offers a Lovecraftian story from the perspective of a Black man who gets swept up into the arcane goings-on of a cult of an Elder God. Tom wonders if an Earth ruled by awakened Elder Gods could truly be that much worse, from his perspective, than one ruled by White supremacy. This is the sort of logic both Nahum and Nope employ: if monsters exist in the liminal spaces, then what might an empire find monstrous? Can a machine that relies on propaganda to control the narrative ever craft a story that is truly free of cracks? Won’t there always be shadows, closets, and wilderness? Isn’t it impossible for the empire to tame every animal, civilize every savage, cultivate every wild place? And won’t cosmic mysteries always be a threat to such people? Isn’t it possible that even God is a monster if we’re the ones playing god?

Such was certainly the case for the Assyrians when they became victims of the same violence they’d spent centuries meting out. For Nahum, who was born in Assyria’s monstrous shadow, this was good news. So why use Nahum’s celebratory poem to frame a film about spectacle? In this film, Peele seems to be meditating on his own relationship to spectacle, and therefore his relationship to us, the consumers of his films. No wonder the humor is so dark, bordering on pitch-black—from punching aliens to uttering the movie’s title as a repeated refrain (or, possibly, a ward). The film leaves much unexplained, and many fascinating images and mysteries to endlessly speculate and theorize upon…but above all else, it leaves us with one inescapable question: Are we all playing a game that can even be won, or should we say “Nope,” and bow out of the whole endeavor?

JR. Forasteros cut his teeth on Goosebumps books and Sword of Shannara. These days, he’s a pastor, author of Empathy for the Devil and scifi/fantasy junkie in Dallas, TX. Once he makes it through his to-read list, he plans to die historic on the Fury Road. Find him on Twitter or Instagram, or on the Fascinating Podcast where he is a co-host.

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