Jordan Peele Knows How to Make Bible Verses Scary | Sojourners

Jordan Peele Knows How to Make Bible Verses Scary

“Anything with a spirit can get broke.” —OJ Haywood

Nope, writer/director Jordan Peele’s third theatrical release, opens with a Bible verse: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle” (Nahum 3:6). Cut to a blood-soaked sitcom set where a chimpanzee — arms and mouth also covered in blood — wanders around before settling down and looking at the audience.

Filth and spectacle, indeed.

When Peele opens a movie with a Bible verse, you start to wish your theater seat came with a seatbelt (his second outing, Us, featured a girl holding a sign that read “Jeremiah 11:11”). When that verse is from one of the minor prophets, you might wish the seats came with a shoulder harness.

The oracle of Nahum celebrates the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were one of the many empires — like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome — who conquered and colonized God’s people. They’re the villains of the book of Jonah, the big bads who destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel a century before Nahum's poetic prophecy. Assyria’s policy of colonization was “divide and conquer,” and they forcibly deported a segment of the conquered population, spreading them throughout the empire and replacing them with other similarly deported conquests. Their goal was to tame those conquered peoples, to break their spirits and render them governable.

No wonder Nahum celebrated Nineveh’s fall with poetic dirges like the one that opens Nope.

But what’s an oracle of divine judgment against an evil empire doing in a movie about UFOs and chimpanzees?

Peele, it seems, can’t quit meditating on the human obsession with control. Get Out focused narrowly on how white supremacy works to co-opt and control Black bodies. Us broadened the scope to investigate culture and class. In Nope, Peele takes us to Hollywood.

We meet the Haywood family, who are fictional descendants of the (Black) star of the very first motion picture — a man riding a horse. The Haywoods train horses for film, and during one of their training sessions, OJ (a restrained Daniel Kaluuya) witnesses the impossible: his father Otis (Keith David) struck down by debris raining down from an empty sky. We’re then thrust six months into the future to find OJ struggling to keep the family business afloat with the help, barely, of his little sister Emerald (a vibrant, frenetic Keke Palmer).

The Haywood Hollywood Horse farm is just down the road from a Western-themed amusement park called “Jupiter's Claim,” run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun). Jupe was a child star, playing Jupiter on a ‘90s tv show called Kid Sheriff before starring in a sitcom called Gordy's Home. The titular Gordy was that chimpanzee, who went berserk on set one day while young Jupe watched in horror.

What does any of this have to do with a UFO?

Peele weaves Western and science-fiction with his signature horror to invite us into a meditation on our very human impulse to control. Westerns exist in a liminal space — the frontier, the borderlands between civilization and wilderness. Hollywood — at the far edge of the frontier — has tamed the West(ern), offering the likes of Kid Sheriff, tailor-made for, well, kids.

Peele wants us to see this same impulse to tame, to control, and commodify. Every character in the film — except OJ — wants to control the lens. Emerald wants to be a star. Jupe sells every part of his Kid Sheriff and Gordy days, an impotent attempt to stave off the horror of his encounter with nature red in tooth and claw.

A latter-day Western with Black leads chasing a cowboy hat around a kid-friendly theme park? Simply by existing, Nope highlights the ugly legacy of colonialism — from the United States’ genocide of Indigenous peoples to the erasure of Black cowboys. Legislators are seeking to “tame” U.S. history, editing out our own colonizing behaviors and their ongoing legacy to create a spectacle of American greatness. We want a kid-friendly, theme-park version of U.S. history.

And then there’s that UFO. Something beyond the limits of science. A mystery. It’s no accident that the UFO looks more than a little bit like that singular symbol of the West: the cowboy hat. Of course everyone wants to capture it — and not just on film. The characters want to understand the UFO. To colonize it. To tame it — only then can it be remade into a revenue-generating spectacle. A kid-friendly UFO.

Our desire for control left unchecked always runs to empire-building. But Peele reminds us that we live in a world of mystery. Whether it’s horses, chimpanzees, U.S. history, or UFOs, these are not kid-friendly commodities to be consumed. All our attempts to tame them will end in the inverse of what we want. Rather than consuming the spectacle, we become the spectacle.

This is why Peele opens with the prophet Nahum. God is not unlike a UFO; despite the empire’s best efforts, God will not be captured or controlled. Quite the opposite: God is the one who lives in the wild, who calls the people to the wilderness. God will bring down every empire, exposing their attempts to control, tame, and colonize for the filth they are.

God cannot be tamed.

There’s a real horror in that. But Peele asks us to imagine that we might refuse the impulse to capture and control. The one character in the film who says, “Nope” to all of this is OJ. He’s also the only person who sees the animals in the film as more than commodities to be bought, sold, filmed, or replaced with CGI. He understands himself not as a master of the world around him, but as a part of a larger whole. One who, as such, has an obligation to the animals, to the land, to the others in his world. By saying, “Nope,” to empire, we put ourselves in a position to encounter the divine mystery.