There truly has never been a weirder time for movies. While it seems that certain movie genres are becoming enveloped and defined by a single franchise (think Marvel with action or Star Wars with Sci-fi), there are just as many movies that skate by simply sticking to the book. Of all movie genres, there is little debate over horror being one of the least risky when it comes to adherence to the formula. Modern horror films are generally slasher, monster-based, or paranormal, or any combination of the two.
Any horror film that deviates from reliance on cheap jump scares is seen as a success, because that’s just how low the bar really is. This is not to say that there aren’t numerous recent horror films worthy of praise. The Conjuring, The Black Phone, and even films that outright mock the horror formula like The Cabin in the Woods are worth watching despite little introduction of any entirely new ideas. This was until 2017, however, when a director solely known for his immense success in comedy decided to branch out into a genre desperately in need of a refresh.
Jordan Peele, formerly and often still best known for Key and Peele, left even this writer skeptical when it was announced he would direct the year’s big attempt at a horror film. To say Peele was anything but respected for his work on the small screen would be wrong, but to say there was immediate confidence in his ability behind the camera, on the big screen, in an almost completely opposite category from his own would be wrong as well. Needless to say, he did it, and more successfully and creatively than anyone could have ever imagined. To many, Peele’s release of Get Out, a horror/thriller based on a white family that recruits black men and women to their beautiful home for morbid and sinister reasons, was more than the introduction of a franchise. It was the introduction of an entirely new genre. No film before, especially in horror, had such overt undertones of social criticism.
Even at its most surface level, the film delivered a thriller experience and plot that was entirely new to fans. The social critiques added depth that horror simply wasn’t used to. Viewers were forced to face the reality of black Americans being the subject of a very objective eye; the idea of white people finding value in black physical traits and seeing commodity in the features unique to black people, rather than personhood. Beyond the message of the film alone, interviews with Peele have shown his films have no intention to take any side in any debate, and don’t necessarily align with a particular party of ideals. The meaning behind the story is meant to be as objective as the story itself, as if Peele is simply saying “This is my story, and these are my thoughts-you can take them or leave them.” While that mentality is simple, it is just as powerful, and is what has so quickly allowed Peele to evolve from a funny sketch artist to one of the most renowned film directors of our time.
As of the time of this writing, Peele has released three films. While his films are often seen as and referred to as a franchise, the only technical connections are their genre and director. However, Peele has been purposeful about numerous commonalities between the three stories themselves, with the simplest yet most important being his casting for a lead role. In all three films, the lead role is a black man or woman, with actor Daniel Kaluuya leading Get Out and his third and most recent film, Nope. Lupita Nyong’o leads Us, Peele’s second film. These moves serve obvious influence, as a movie with a black director starring a black lead is new to any film genre.
In horror, black actors have been in the mix for a while now but have served as side characters or comic relief. In fact, Peele’s third installment, Nope, criticizes tokenism, or the action of including people of color in film simply for shallow diversity, as one of its major themes. While lead Daniel Kaluuya and supporting actress Keke Palmer play characters that suffer from tokenism on the set of a film within the movie in real time, the movie also reveals flashbacks of Asian-american actor Steven Yeun’s character as a child on the set of a television show, where it is apparent that he served as the “token” Asian character among a white family. While modern sitcoms like Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat have dealt with this topic in a more comical sense, Peele criticizes it through an eerie lens that is much better seen than described.
Peele’s influence on film is one that fans, nor critics alike could have ever expected. While some of his films are received better than others, and casual fans are certainly subject to getting lost in translation with many of his ideas, few deny that he is one of modern day’s most prolific directors. While Peele has been intentionally vague about his directing future, it is more than likely that he has many twisted yet beautiful stories ahead. After all, a director as talented as to refresh an industry, reinvent a genre, and bring to light some of the most important social ideas of our lifetime certainly doesn’t come around often.