Thoughts on Jordan Peele’s NOPE

Author’s Note: Dear friends, spoilers abound. Therefore, if you have not seen this film and still intend to, proceed with caution.

On my first watch of Jordan Peele’s Nope, I was in a state of confusion from beginning to end. On my second watch, I enjoyed the movie more, even laughing aloud a few times. And yet, certain issues I had on my first watch were never resolved. I had questions about the murderous chimpanzee, questions about at least half of the characters’ decisions and motivations, and I had trouble making sense of the story itself. I couldn’t make head or tail of the chapter titles beyond surmising that each was the name of a different horse. On that first watch, I felt myself go, “Ah?” every time the picture on the screen cut to black, including the final title card of “NOPE” at the end. I also felt, on first watch, that there was far too much talking at times, with very little action. The second time, because I already knew the plot, I was significantly less frustrated with the pacing.

Film poster for NOPE

But I should touch on the things about the film that I enjoyed the most, since the rest of this piece is going to be about… the opposite of those.

I was a big fan of Keke Palmer’s performance. Keke is a superstar, an incredibly vibrant personality, and the character of Em fit on her so well. Em herself was interesting and endearing. A charismatic Jill-of-all-trades, a talkative, queer (loved how subtly and naturally this was written into her character), reckless, adorably annoying and juvenile at times. Her expressiveness certainly compensated for her brother’s stark lack of it.

I appreciated the understated humor within the script. Like when the white woman at the studio did a double take when OJ introduced himself as “OJ”. We all know exactly which OJ she was thinking of. And then there was that meta joke was when we, as viewers of the film, had to witness Jupe saying to a fictional audience that they were being surveilled by a species called “the Viewers”. That’s the sort of corny thing I’d write into a slightly absurd comedy.

A few more: I enjoyed how naturally and often the film’s title was worked into the dialogue. The title felt so appropriate because of it. And the alien, in its full form, really was pretty, a spectacle mesmerizing enough to be worthy of attention.

And now we return to the issues. Starting with that chimpanzee.

The first visual that viewers of Nope encounter is a gory scene on a studio soundstage, most of the gore conveniently hidden from the screen, teased at by a pair of limp legs and a blood-spattered simian. Now, there’s a certain level of expectation a storyteller creates when they use something so dramatic and provocative as an introduction. One of the effects this scene had on me was that it made me expect that whatever had happened with the chimpanzee was deeply connected to the central event, if not itself being the central event of Nope’s storyline.

Alas.

I watched until the end, waiting for at least an explanation for just why the simian went rogue. I got nothing. I watched until the end, waiting for the moment when the chimpanzee’s massacre is shown to have been crucially tied to the film’s true antagonist monster: the alien in the sky. But, as far as I can tell, even after two watches, the chimpanzee and the alien have nothing to do with each other. The chimp seemed to be relevant solely as part of a secondary character’s backstory, nothing else.

I understand that not every element of every story has to be absolutely critical to the central event. But I believe that plot points of secondary importance shouldn’t be set up for the audience as points of primary importance. Otherwise, it feels like false expectations have been set, pertinent questions have gone unanswered, and now the audience—namely me—is left to deal with disappointment that could have been avoided. In my opinion, the intrigue and shock value of that intro scene was outweighed by the false expectations it set for me, when that scene could possibly have been more artfully placed somewhere else.

My next point is about death. I have to admit, I had some discomforts with the way the film and the main characters handled death. I didn’t understand why Otis Snr’s dying words were—presumably—horse names. On second watch, I paid close attention to his delirious ramblings, thinking I could figure out their relevance. But they didn’t seem linked to the film’s chapter titles or just about anything else, and I wondered why a dying man, even in a state of semi-consciousness, would be more concerned about his horses than, say, the children he’s leaving behind.

More importantly, however, I take issue with OJ and Emerald’s response to their father’s death—or, more accurately, their lack of response. For the greater part of the movie, his death hardly seems to have an emotional effect on either child. While I know that grief looks different on different people, it is still hard for me to come to terms with an attitude of, “Daddy just died, time to go bust out his liquor, haha!” or, “Some madness in the sky killed our daddy, let’s find a way to go viral and get rich off it, haha!”

I have read reviews and articles that interpret the Haywood siblings’ obsession with getting “the Oprah shot” as a desperate attempt to financially save their historic, Black-owned horse ranch. That is not the impression I got when I watched it. The film did not give me the sense that the maintenance of the ranch was truly a priority for either of the Haywood siblings, especially Emerald, whom, you might remember, is the one who brought up the “Oprah shot” idea in the first place. In Em’s own words, the horse ranch is her side gig. OJ, I could almost believe is concerned with keeping the ranch alive. Almost, but not quite. It doesn’t help me believe that OJ cares about anything at all, when he spends the entire movie hardly veering away from his deadpan facial expression and his low vocal monotone. I can believe, through some of his actions, that he cares personally for his horses. But I cannot be convinced that saving the ranch from financial doom was his motivator for capturing the alien on camera. Sure, he mentions to Em that he is broke, but OJ doesn’t come off as the type of person who would chase money for the hell of it. Frankly, I don’t know what his motivation was at all. I wonder if this was part of Jordan Peele’s point: that people chase spectacle, obsessively, often illogically, often at the expense of their own wellbeing, simply for the sake of the spectacle.

If that is indeed Peele’s point, I have to say that I don’t see the point of trying to make such a point. While I agree that, in our camera-filled society, individuals do chase spectacle obsessively and often illogically, I don’t think that there really is any sort of danger that humans are obsessed with capturing spectacle to the point of complete disregard for their own lives and safety. Interestingly enough, I feel like I’d have afforded more credibility to Nope if it didn’t feel like it was trying, with any gravity, to offer social commentary. I might have enjoyed the plot more if I felt the film didn’t take itself so seriously, and that it was intended to be an absurdist parody. As it exists now, the film feels generically confused, like a parody attempting to wear the garments of horror.

The way I understand it, one of the purposes of parody is to expose the ridiculousness of certain phenomena through techniques such as exaggeration. Nothing about Nope felt more parodical than that TMZ guy on his motorcycle. That character—and not any of the film’s speculative elements—felt to me like the single most unrealistic part of the entire film. More than parody, he was a downright caricature. Here’s why I felt like his character, as well as the character of Antlers, do not work well as serious social commentary: Humans are often stupid, and do naturally become mesmerized by the things we find fascinating, even if grimly so, but our senses of self-preservation can be incredibly strong. Fight-or-flight responses are innately wired into a great many of us. When we are faced with things we don’t understand, our response is often fear, and our fear often takes the form of either, “OMG, kill it!” or, “OMG, run away!” I find it very hard to suspend my disbelief for the response of “Attempt to capture this terrifying, mysterious thing on camera in a way that fully avails myself to be eaten by it!”

At this point, I want to talk about the parts of the story where I feel the author’s hand was not concealed well enough to prevent certain things from coming off as too artificial.

As a writer, I often face a certain challenge: as omniscient creator, I know how the plot is meant to go, and what I have intended for the characters to do, and so I just… make them do it, without bothering to adequately set the events up or justify the characters’ actions for the reader. This often happens unconsciously, and sometimes has to be pointed out to me by an editor or critique partner. Left unresolved, these are the sorts of issues that might make an audience go, “Ah?” at various points of a story. That said, I feel like there was no precedent, no adequate set-up, to justify why OJ and Em are so superstitious, or why they’re apparent experts on the alien they literally just met.

Why is it so automatic that OJ jumps to the conclusion that something supernatural/extraterrestrial killed his father, in the absence of concrete evidence? Why is Em so quick to ride on the UFO hypothesis without a challenge to her brother? In the current age, and especially in secular America, the more credible response from Em would have been to question OJ’s sanity, or otherwise dismiss the unexplainable, or suggest something more logical. There are certain groups of people—a particular brand of West African aunties, for instance—for whom it could make all the sense in the world to land first and firmly on the supernatural explanation for any weird event. I do not feel like OJ and Em fall into any such categories of people. The only reason I can come up with for why they can accept the fact of the UFO so easily is that the author wanted them to. All the time Peele spent in his prologue priming us for a level of gore which, face it, never visually delivers, he could have spent adequately setting up his actual main characters as superstitious, or at the very least, religious people. It wouldn’t even have to be dramatic. Say something relatively spooky happened to either OJ or Em, and they reflexively crossed themselves. Or maybe a throwaway detail, like, one of the characters has a visible crucifix tattoo, or wears a chain with an African mask pendant. Any sort of cue that tells us, “These characters have a propensity for superstition,” so that, when they conclude at once that aliens are responsible for their father’s death, it’s not too weird. Even Angel—very much a side character—was better justified than the main characters were. Angel’s character—technology geek, forum browser, conspiracy theory nerd—was set up such that his easy acceptance of the alien provoked no further questions. Not so for OJ and Em.

Additionally, every single supposition the Haywood kids made about the alien was extraordinarily accurate. Again, I feel like this was because the author knew exactly how the plot was supposed to go, and therefore had the characters just know everything they might need to know for the plot to go that way. It shouldn’t have been so easy for the Haywoods to figure out how the wavy, balloon-person things would affect the alien, or to figure out that a decoy horse would work exactly as they wanted it to, or to understand that the alien thrives on being given the attention of the eye, or that the alien would go exactly where they wanted it to go when they were drawing up the plan on how to capture it on camera. That lack of credibility, the author showing his hand too much, prevented me from being truly immersed in the story.

I’d also like to throw in the fact that, even though the story of the horse, Jean Jacket, was recounted in the drinking scene, I couldn’t find any logical connection or justification for why OJ later decided to name the alien after that horse. If Peele was trying to do something poetic there concerning Em’s childhood experience with the horse Jean Jacket, I have to admit that it didn’t clock for me at all.

And then there was the problem of how the alien gave the Haywood kids too much of a fighting chance. At the beginning of the film, the alien killed Otis Snr; no warning, no need for the attention of the eye, no mercy—dead. When the alien took out the Jupiter’s Claim theme park, all it needed was a few seconds of optical attention, and bang, everyone was getting sucked up. The alien sucked Antlers up with extraordinary swiftness once he gave it his attention. Even Angel didn’t even have to look at the alien for too long to get himself sucked up. And yet. In the final showdown between OJ, Em, and the alien, the alien was inexplicably able to hesitate long enough for the siblings to be screaming, “Come on!” at each other, giving each other touching, inside-knowledge hand gestures, manipulating the alien by trying to steal its attention away from the other. Even though the Haywoods looked at it repeatedly and with determination, it waited, it moved slowly, when every other time, it had been swift. But for the Haywood kids, it hesitated long enough to be manipulated into self-destruction? Hard for me not to believe the author’s hand was way overexposed here. Nope. I couldn’t buy it, I’m sorry.

My final point is on the theme of Black response to horror genre phenomena. Many are familiar with the popular discourse about how Black characters would never do the stupid things white characters do in typical horror movies. The idea is that Black characters wouldn’t think to themselves, “Hmm, let me go towards this creepy phenomenon and stupidly put myself in the position to become a victim.” It’s generally understood that a more authentic Black response would be, “Nope, I’m out.” So I can kind of understand why some Twitter users would laud the scene of OJ in the stables saying, “Nope,” and getting tense as the Blackest scene in any horror movie. After my first watch of Nope, however, my sentiments were that these Black protagonists actually had some very typical white character responses to spooky phenomena: they stayed in the haunted house instead of packing up and saying deuces. They chased the alien, pursuing what I consider to be a bit of an asinine goal, instead of running away from the murderous thing like sensible people should. Even in that stable scene, OJ didn’t bother to try to leave as things were getting tenser. On second watch, however, I was more lenient, at least towards Em. Because it was only on second watch that I truly registered that Em pushed, multiple times, to clear off and leave things the hell alone, and that she very nearly did, and probably would have, if Antlers hadn’t texted her back. I haven’t cut the protagonists slack completely, because I still don’t see any justification for OJ’s pigheaded determination to pursue the asinine goal at all, especially when it wasn’t even his idea. And I still think that, even in the face of Antlers’ text, and even in spite of their eventual victory, the most sensible thing to do would have been to leave the alien the hell alone—and if not, it should have been better justified why not.

-Akotowaa 🕸️

My Thoughts: The Burial of Kojo

A few days after I attended the première of Blitz Bazawule’s new film, “The Burial of Kojo” at Silverbird Cinemas, West Hills Mall, a couple of people who had also seen it brought it up in conversation with me. One called the movie “Okay; not amazing,” and I was astounded. Another remarked that although he’d recommend it, he wouldn’t see it a second time, and he later told me that many people seemed not to like the film very much. Now that I’d had a few minutes to sit with my initial shock at the first comment, I was able to respond less dramatically. I was, however, very disappointed, both with these people’s reactions and the new knowledge that several others shared their sentiments. As usual, I had been living in my mental bubble where the only opinions in existence were my own and my best friend’s—and this was one of the strange-but-delightful occasions where we were in complete unanimity that “The Burial of Kojo” was bloody excellent!

Blitz’ “The Burial of Kojo” is now my favorite African movie, and it has usurped Mambéty’s “Hyènes” from my mental throne. Although I hadn’t consciously realized it before “Hyènes” (1992) was overthrown, I’d been convicted that no African movie made after 2010 would ever be able to impress me like that one had. Shout-out to Blitz the Ambassador for proving me wrong! But the reason for my initial conviction, is, I think, the same reason that might explain the less-than-splendid reception among the Ghanaians around me. It’s more of a matter of the type and class of the movie than the quality itself that’s causing the contention. I’ll explain this better in subsequent paragraphs. First, let me talk about the movie itself and the things I liked most about it.

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Source: @TheBurialOfKojo on Twitter.

“The Burial of Kojo” is narrated entirely through the 1st-person perspective of a girl called Esi, who is a child during most of the movie’s depicted events. Esi is a smart little sweetheart who won my affection from the moment I saw her; relaxing on a canoe on still, calm and deserted waters with her father, Kojo, whom she clearly doted on. Esi, narrating the movie in a mature and retrospective tone, is clearly much older in the voice-overs than the version of her we see most often on the screen. Her narration (in English) is nearly omniscient. She’s able to tell us of things she was never physically present for, such as the courtship and marriage between her parents, and the squabbles between her father (Kojo) and his brother (Kwabena)—much of which took place prior to Esi’s own birth.

Although I am still not sure what “magical realism” really is, the term at least sounds like a fitting descriptor for the movie’s genre. “The Burial of Kojo” oscillates artfully between “magical” and “realistic” planes of storytelling, between what I hesitate to call two different worlds, simply because the worlds don’t seem separate enough from each other. On one hand, we’re watching Esi’s father, Kojo, struggle with important but difficult choices; on another hand we’re being made to engage with a folkloric plot of a little white bird being hunted down by an evil crow from an upside-down world, and Esi is the only heroine with the potential to save the white bird. But clasp your hands together, and it’s clear that these stories are one and the same.

I remember remarking to my best friend, perhaps quarter or halfway into the movie, that if “The Burial of Kojo” had been a novel, Nii Ayikwei Parkes would have written it. That’s because the movie, in terms of genre, reminded me a lot of Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird, and not just because of the common theme of birds. The stories are both seamless marriages between folklore and “real life.” This storytelling technique always impresses me because I am increasingly of the opinion that folklore always tells a truth, albeit presented in a deliberately in-credible manner. (Shameless plug: As someone who took a bunch of Kwaku Ananse characters and transformed them to “real life” characters in this series, after which I back-translated them all into folklore characters again in this podcast, I know what it means to have seemingly incongruous tales of the same events running side by side.)

This was, in fact, one of my favorite things about “The Burial of Kojo”: what seemed to be or should have been a single story was manifesting in several different ways at once. It was as if the filmmaker was forcing the audience’s minds wide open, making us uncomfortable by silently screaming at us to “See things this way! Now see things that way! Haha, joke’s on you, because both ways are inaccurate, and you should actually have been perceiving things like so!” But it was done in such an artful and engaging way that I was left in awe. Of course, there was the parallel between the birds and the humans, but there was also another, perhaps more minor plane brought in: At some point in the movie, Kojo, Esi and Ama (Kojo’s wife/Esi’s mother) attend a church service memorial whose sermon is on the Joseph of Genesis, whose brothers threw him in a well—something one might keep in mind as one witnesses Kojo chucked into a mine by “Kwabena,” his brother. This, my friends, is masterful storytelling. (In my opinion.) I don’t know how you can miss the brilliance. Besides, the plot felt like a simple quadratic equation that had me substituting letters for numbers and back again, and the answer was not what I expected in the end. That pleased me even more than it would have if I’d gotten the answer right!

There’s a lot more that made the film wholly enjoyable to me than the plot and its narration style; there were the visuals, the sound, and the emphasis on a small story.

First: visuals. The color grading as well as the choices for shooting venues produced a dreamlike effect that immersed me in the movie’s world. (Bear in mind, this essay is being written by a person who is used to metropolitan/urban African cities like Accra, Tema and Cape Town.) I have been to at least two of the non-Accra shooting venues of the film; namely, Shai Hills and Nzulezo. The calm waters and swaying forest trees, even the desert-like quality of the mine lands did something hypnotic and captivating to me—and that’s only one level on which the visuals impressed me.

The surreal beauty of some of the shots was absolutely breathtaking. Special mentions (because my best friend insists I add this) to the first, chilling shot we see of the “crow” in the upside-down world, riding on a horse like a huntsman straight out of Revelations. Behind this harbinger of death is a poignant purple dawn or dusk, and the humanoid crow’s presence is even more foreboding by virtue of the music that accompanies it: long, sustained notes in what I suspect (I may be wrong) was a minor chord progression. It was somewhat reminiscent of the suspenseful section of a Nollywood movie’s soundtrack. I got chills. Then there was the shot of Esi standing beneath an umbrella with sparks flying all around her—gorgeous! There was a nearly epiphanic scene where Esi found herself in a magical-looking fairyland, characterized by soft, purple hues—this was my favorite, although my bias for purple has a lot to do with that. And there were these shots of a yellowish house with stairs on either side of the main entrance. (There’s probably a single word for this but I’m not a videographer so I don’t know it:) The camera faced upwards from ground-level, such that the stairs looked like they were marking the edges of a funnel-like, 3-D “V” shape. It’s a more common camera technique than I realized at the time, but it was still cool. Oh, and of course, there was the drone shot of Esi running on a very long road to discover where her father had been buried.

Esi_BurialOfKojo
Source: @TheBurialOfKojo on Twitter.

The sound: impeccable. I could hardly believe Blitz when he told the crowd he’d only had about three days in France to compose and record all the music. The sound in “The Burial of Kojo” constituted at least 20% of my enjoyment of the experience. Such brilliance, crispness and appropriateness for every scene. It got my heart rate up every time the movie plot demanded I feel suspense; it had my skin crawling whenever the plot wanted me to be afraid; joyful in every happy scene. The score was perfect to me! (But how can I be surprised when the filmmaker and composer himself is a professional musician?)

The focus on a small story: one of the first things I remember reading/hearing about the movie, even before the crowdfunding was really underway, was that it was intentionally focused on a small, personal story. This was relevant in context because Kojo gets “buried” in a mine—and mines are significant social topics in Ghana, vis-à-vis galamsey (illegal mining) and the wave of colonization by Chinese people and their illegal affairs on our land. Given how serious a topic galamsey is, there is a dangerous expectation that, if a mine is a central element in a Ghanaian story, that story should critically engage and produce discourse on galamsey in its telling. Contrarily, while “The Burial of Kojo” makes references to Chinese people and the illegal practice, these are not the central foci of the movie. The small story of Kojo and his dilemma is allowed to breathe in its familial intimacy. In itself, it is enthralling, and it does not need the ruse of a national crisis topic to make it a story worth telling. (I’d like to throw in that I think the movie would not have had half the effect it did if Kojo had just fallen into some random hole or pit somewhere.) I appreciate this movie for all that it was and appreciate it just as much for not forcing itself to be something else.

Now, regarding my comment, several paragraphs above, about how the type of movie, rather than the quality of the movie, determined its reception among modern Ghanaian watchers: “The Burial of Kojo” was significantly different from most new Ghanaian movies I’ve seen roll out in the past few years, and especially in 2018, in terms of the artform, genre and story. Most Ghanaian cinema I’ve seen lately has one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Hyper-urban setting (where the urban city is Accra)
  • Great emphasis on Afrocentric wardrobe
  • “Street” narratives full of young, passionate characters and hip-hop culture
  • Modern, romantic drama
  • A cast featuring at least a few high-profile/veteran Ghanaian actors
  • Lack of concern with fantasy, folklore or anything outside of the “real” world
  • Often throwaway comedic relief characters and comedic subplots
  • Fast-paced and slightly dizzying

In contrast to this, “The Burial of Kojo” is quiet and profound, more focused on engrossing you in its world than providing a high-energy entertainment distraction, full of faces I have never seen before, sometimes with the barest minimum of character dialogue. (The funniest character was a police officer who, when tasked with searching for Kojo’s missing person, asks for something to “motivate the boys.” BTW, my best friend insists that I give special shout-out to him. So: shallouts to police guy!) To anyone who walked into the cinema with the fresh memory of recent releases on their minds, to anyone who has become very accustomed to modern mainstream-style Ghanaian movies, watching “The Burial of Kojo” was certain to be a deeply unsettling or, at the very least, mildly uncomfortable experience. Such discomfort can cause misplaced disappointment. (I acknowledge that I may be entirely wrong about the genre being a humungous factor, and maybe people didn’t like it just because they didn’t like it.) This movie doesn’t fall into the same categories as a Shirley Frimpong-Manso, Nicole Amarteifio, or Abstrakte productions, certainly not Ghallywood. (I’m speaking in terms of genre, not quality, so please don’t come and attack me for scales I didn’t create and things I didn’t say.) I’d categorize Blitz Bazawule within the leagues of the “classic” African cinema filmmakers; the likes of Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, perhaps Akosua Adoma Owusu? This kind of cinema, far from making it into popular-popular culture, tends to get locked in elite spaces such as film festivals and academic syllabi within the tiny, niche parts of rich Euro-American colleges’ Film and Media Studies departments. I blame colonialism, like I do for most things about the modern world which I hate.

My love for this movie doesn’t mean I have no critiques, but I will admit that my critiques are minor and probably inconsequential. There are two. Firstly, I was unsatisfied with the way all the main characters’ names were day names (Ama, Kojo, Esi, Kwabena). Even within the Fante filter, the names could have been much more creative. This creative choice is still very forgivable, even if paradoxical for a movie that otherwise expertly sidesteps the generic. Secondly, I kind of wish the characters hadn’t been and spoken Fante. I didn’t know this during the movie, but I was delighted to find out afterwards, during the Q&A session with the director, that Blitz Bazawule himself is from the Upper West region. I thought to myself how, especially for such an out-of-the-way cinematic endeavor, it would have been nice to have non-Akan ethnic prominence. But it is what it is, and perhaps, thematically, Fante was the best choice for this movie’s goals. Nothing really spoil.

Anyway, yeah. I absolutely loved “The Burial of Kojo” and would vouch for it all day any and err’day!

-Akotowaa 🙂