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Jordan Peele understands that the only thing scarier than engaging with America’s history and future is ignoring it

July 30, 2022, 12:13 AM UTC

Somewhere, a Sarah Lawrence admissions officer is gloating.

Jordan Peele, the writer, director, and producer responsible for three blockbuster feature films, has four Academy Award nods—and one win—and who has reinvented horror for the modern age, had a humbler vision for his career when he set off to college.

“I started out as a puppeteer,” the Sarah Lawrence graduate told an audibly surprised Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett on a recent episode of their Smartless podcast. “It was my cheeky, liberal arts answer to what my major is,” he said, describing the virtuous appeal of a thankless but beautiful artform. As he explained his teenage plan—study sculpture, theater, kill it on the puppet circuit—the three cohosts began to guffaw openly. Peele joined in on the joke. “Hey, I was a real Bohemian mo’fu’.”

All blessings to anyone who saw such potential in the puppetry and waved that young man in. While it didn’t stick, his preternatural ability to build all-consuming worlds has only grown.

Nope, his latest box office smash, is both a tribute to and commentary on spectacle, an extraordinary visual experience that takes a familiar fear, aliens, and turns it into a cautionary tale with a wholly modern message. In spoiler-free terms, to pull it off, Peele seems to have considered every possible narrative scenario and stretched them as far as they can go until they snapped. Then he kept on stretching, until it feels like you’re in his head watching him do it.

It seems to be how he works.

Peele honed his horror-writing discipline as part of the groundbreaking sketch comedy duo Key and Peele. “It’s all a rhythm. I find horror and [sketch] comedy are sort of baked into one another,” he says. “It’s about grounding and absurdity…taking a swing at something that’s kind of going to make you fucking terrified and making it real.”

But many of us walk through the world terrified of different things, don’t we?

Peele’s first film, Get Out, was written during the Obama administration. In the film’s commentary track, he explained it was designed to be his artistic answer to “this post-racial lie” that the election of the first Black president meant that racism was handled. To do it, he had to present white people as the monsters that history has proven they’re capable of being. But how? “Honestly, it’s just life,” he told Bateman. “This nugget of fear of being the Black guy in a white space, where you’re feeling the attention, and it’s not good.” And that’s the work: If the fear that’s captured his imagination isn’t something he’s seen in a film before, he starts stretching. “If I can capture that fear, then I can make a horror movie out of it.”

Get Out was the cinematic deep dive into the racist white id that everybody needed yet nobody knew they wanted. Except they did and made it one of the most financially successful films of 2017, earning $255.7 million worldwide on a budget of just $4.5 million. And while it put Peele on the map as a solo talent, it also launched the career of Daniel Kaluuya, whose character not only survived the horror, but was allowed to be fully human—tragic backstory, cute dog, and delightful best friend—and unapologetically Black.

Peele even rewrote the ending to match the times. In this original ending, Chris, played by Kaluuya, goes to jail for killing his white tormenters.

“By the time it was ready to produce, it was a new moment…people were woke, addressing racism,” says Peele. “And they needed a hero.” So, he gave them one. And by doing so, opened the door for other, equally authentic Black characters who were fighting the kinds of societal demons lots of dominant culture folks don’t really think much about.

By the time Us came out in 2019, Peele was prepared to let the film, which was about eerie dopplegängers who terrorize a family, do more of the talking. “This movie is about this country,” Peele said at the SXSW film festival. “We’re in a time where we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near, who voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil, it’s us.”

With Nope, expect Peele to say even less. (Here’s one clue: “nope” is an acronym. Look it up.) The film itself is the statement, he says. “It’s a big budget flying saucer movie with Black people in the lead,” he told the Smartless audience. “There’s no need to push the conversation further.”

Black people in the lead is also a clue.

Peele’s production company, Monkeypaw Productions—which is “committed to groundbreaking storytelling, visionary world-building, and the unpacking of contemporary social issues”—has cranked out a portfolio of film and television hits that bring much-needed depth to Black and underrepresented characters even though they always in danger, girl. (It even has a vice president of culture and impact, whose team creates social campaigns around the themes of the films.) Many of the projects Peele has helped produce—like the HBO series Lovecraft Country which was tangentially about Jim Crow, the 2021 remake of Candyman which was tangentially about gentrification, and the Spike Lee film, BlackkKlansman which was directly about the klan—include Black characters with imagination, quirks, agency, complex longings, and rich intellects who navigate situations which necessitate they fight for causes bigger than themselves. Just like Peele and the many professionals he collaborates with. They are also allowed to be more than their trauma. They are also allowed to be beautiful. They are often allowed to be funny. And we are required to respect them.

As Peele is now respected.

Peele’s next project is the Netflix animated stop-motion film Wendell & Wild, which he co-wrote, and finds him reunited with his comedy partner, Keegan-Michael Key. Anything after that? Wait and see, he said at the Nope premiere. I expect that in an age of erasure, where essential history is being destroyed by conservative gatekeepers, politicians, and book-burning school boards—acts capable of terrifying lots of people, including Peele—a new nugget of fear is sure to take root in his psyche. We could sure use an avenging, time-traveling, shape-shifting librarian right about now.

But whatever he decides, it will definitely come in his signature style of horror, comedy, and Peelean puppet-mastery. “I will stay within this realm that I love, which is, I think, the only way I know how to view the world and how to tell stories at this point.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On background: Art and history

The other man in the famous Woolworth counter sit-in photo The photo associated with the Greensboro, North Carolina protest on February 1, 1960, is now iconic: Four young Black men sitting a “whites-only” counter, looking unflinchingly into the camera. But there was another young Black man in the picture. His name is Charles Bess, and he was the busboy. In this wonderful dispatch from The Bitter Southerner, he talks about what it was like to work in the Jim Crow South. “Woolworth was kind of a hard place to work because sometimes the manager would get on you a lot, but she didn’t bother me too much because I did my job,” he says. But because he did his job so well, he was allowed out of the kitchen to be seen by white customers. And that’s the only reason he became a witness to history. Eventually, when the lunch counter was integrated, that same manager made sure that Black employees were the first people they served. “I love meatloaf,” Bess says. “I also had some green beans, maybe a potato salad with it.”
The Bitter Southerner

Maya Angelou turned the table on race “The only way you can be a mark, is if you want something for nothing.” So begins this marvelous interview from the Studs Terkel audio archive, now beautifully animated by the team at PBS’s Blank on Blank. Angelou’s stepfather owned pool halls and gambling houses and taught his young stepdaughter how to identify marked cards and such. He also introduced her to a lively array of professional con men who gave her the skinny on how the world really worked. You want to make a big score? Their tip: “Use the white man’s bigotry against him.”
PBS

Three images, three icons, three perspectives Harpers Bazaar asked Uzo Aduba, Katie Holmes, and Ieshia Evans to recreate three iconic photos that are emblematic of “defiant activism” captured by the act of a single woman–each one focused on either civil or women’s rights. In the accompanying commentary, Roxane Gay, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Tamika D. Mallory put the women’s movement into perspective. Some themes emerged. “The American feminist movement has historically ignored or excluded Black and brown women,” says Mallory. “Today, mainstream feminism is at a crossroads. At a time when women are being activated in record numbers, we have the opportunity to reframe the conversation about women’s rights so that it centers all of our concerns—not just those that apply to white women.”
Harpers Bazaar

Parting words

"Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted? I have, and The Help is on that list. But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor. I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny [played by Octavia Spencer, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar]. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie."

Viola Davis

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