In 2019, actor Jordan Peele created controversy by saying he wasn’t interested in making films about white protagonists. The comedian-turned-horror-auteur has a clear purpose. In each of his three movies, Peele creates complex horror narratives that speak to the struggles of African American people.
“As with comedy, I feel like horror and the thriller genre is a way, one of the few ways, that we can address real-life horrors and social injustices in an entertaining way,” said Peele in a 2016 interview with Forbes. Peele has a talent for preying on the uncomfortable, which is apparent in almost all of his works, in both comedy and horror. In both, Peele often focuses on a simple dilemma and exploits it for all its work, until it’s stripped down and barely visible for its mockable stupidity or horrifying implications.
Peele has written and directed three original horror films, along with writing and producing a few others. Each has explored different aspects of the contemporary Black experience — from the struggle to obtain recognition for historic contributions in “Nope,” to the ways in which Black Americans can simultaneously be oppressed and still hold privilege in “Us.” His themes creep up on you — it’s nothing new to use monsters in horror to reveal something more unsettling about ourselves, but more often than not, Peele’s films don’t hold your hand in unraveling their meaning.
Each of Peele’s films is also filled with visual symbolism, making them continually rewarding on repeat viewings. Far from his two-to-five-minute segments on his sketch comedy show “Key and Peele,” his horror movies are dense packages of ideas. Allusions to slavery, Michael Jackson, and anything in between are fair game, and symbolism like eyes or rabbits tie into themes about the necessity to be seen or the purpose of religion.
The focus on Black stories is also groundbreaking. As Peele once pointed out, other than his works, there are very few movies which properly convey the Black experience. Not only this, but there are very few movies even centralized on Black characters and narratives. Even when his plots might not be explicitly about Black identity, like in “Nope,” they are different than the average horror flick. Peele pointed out, “You can’t have Black people in a flying saucer film and just have it be the same experience. It’s not. There’s a different relationship.”
Genre has never been an issue for Peele. When “Get Out” was criticized by some for being a fusion of his own comedy roots with outside horror influences, his sophomore “Us” became fully-fledged horror. With last year’s “Nope,” he swerved into Spielbergian blockbuster cinema. Versatility in both style and genre continues to be his strong suit. Though no one can be sure what his next film will look like, one thing is certain: no one is doing it like Jordan Peele.