Towards the Afropastoral: What Nope Says About the Black Western

Nope (2022) | photo: Universal Pictures

The family legacy at the center of Jordan Peele’s third film, Nope, dates to the very start of motion pictures. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood, inheritors of a horse-wrangling business founded by their recently deceased father, Otis Sr. (Keith David). Peele fictionalizes the backstory of the unknown jockey in “Plate 626” of Eadweard Muybridge’s iconic Animal Locomotion print, identifying Bahamian Jockey as Alistair E. Haywood, great-great-great grandfather of OJ and Emerald.

Though Muybridge remains celebrated for his role in inventing film, Alistair has been forgotten by everyone except OJ and Emerald, who have grown up with Alistair’s story and are determined not to repeat it. Neither Alistair nor Otis Sr. ever faced something quite like the all-consuming extraterrestrial invader that hunts near the Haywood ranch. The alien, which OJ and Emerald dub “Jean Jacket,” disrupts what little stability OJ and Emerald have left following the traumatic death of their father. After recruiting Fry’s Electronics employee Angel (Brandon Perea), the Haywoods devise a plan: capture a photograph of Jean Jacket before the paparazzi can show up and steal their lucrative “Oprah shot.” Like Peele’s other work, Nope defies genre: a horror-tinged sci-fi western that evokes Hollywood’s complicated relationship to spectatorship and spectacle. It’s a defining film in a long-existing yet uncategorized genre I’ve started thinking of as the Afropastoral. 

Afrofuturism, which juxtaposes the culture of the African diaspora with science, fantasy, and historical revisionism, explores the radical idea that Black people will not only exist into the future, but will also lead liberated, consequential lives. In tandem, the Afropastoral envisions Black people finding freedom, peace, and meaning in the natural world. 

Black movement in the United States has been feared and restricted since our arrival. We never got those forty acres. The punitive carceral system that forced free Blacks to carry proof of their freedom and forbade enslaved Blacks from traveling without the permission of their master did not disappear after the Thirteenth Amendment. The epidemic of white people calling the police on Black people in public is just the most recent manifestation of an American tradition of extralegal policing. The Afropastoral is a revolutionary concept that encapsulates the themes visible in Nope’s core narrative: a Black family fighting to keep their land and traverse it safely in the face of destructive, opportunistic forces.


One of the first times I witnessed the Afropastoral on screen was in Barry Jenkins’s Academy Award-winning Moonlight (2016), the story of Chiron, a queer Black boy who comes of age in Miami’s Liberty City. Like Nope, Moonlight evokes specific, vicious histories of restricted Black movement. The poverty and drug abuse rampant in Liberty City is a direct result not just of Floridian redlining and segregation, but of systemically racist urban planning across America. Miami is just one of many cities where the state destroyed a thriving Black neighborhood with a highway, another strategy in the unending project of American colonization. 

In one of Moonlight’s most enduring scenes, Chiron learns to swim from Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Black Cuban man who serves as his mentor. The camera follows the pair into the ocean as Juan cradles Chiron’s head, the water lapping against them, licking against the frame. “There are Black people everywhere,” Juan says. “No place you can go in the world ain’t got no Black people. We’s the first on this planet.” 

Later, on the shore, Juan says, “In moonlight, Black boys look blue.” It’s a keen expression of the Afropastoral, a gesture towards the transformative and liberatory qualities that accompany self-reflection in the outdoors. Nature is more than just a backdrop for Chiron, it’s a key site of the most potent memories that will inform his identity: an ecstatic sexual experience on a dark beach, a reunion with his sober mother outside of her recovery center, a lingering final image of young Chiron in front of the waves. As an Afropastoral, Moonlight creates a world in which the landscape offers bliss and freedom to Black people, even when that freedom is threatened by the surrounding world.

In Savannah Leaf’s debut feature Earth Mama (2023), Gia (Tia Nomore), a pregnant single mother with two children in foster care, works at a photo portrait studio in a Bay Area mall, arranging families in front of gauzy nature screen prints. She shuffles through mundane, ugly spaces: a sterile playroom where she has supervised visits with her children, the passenger seat of a friend’s car where they eat styrofoam-packed leftovers. In between these moments of urban drabness, we see dreams of Gia in a forest, aglow in green light filtered through tree canopies. These scenes are both eerie and gorgeous, a reminder of the animal realities of childbirth without indulging in airless granola-mom, earth-goddess aesthetics.  


Watching Nope for the first time, I thought of Charles Burnett’s gorgeous 1973 film The Horse, in which a young Black boy tends to a white family’s horse as his father prepares to euthanize it. The tender, fourteen-minute short could easily be a story from Otis Sr.’s childhood. There is as much romance between the two young lovers in the 1982 rediscovered classic Cane River as there is between them and the lush landscape of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Thomasine and Bushrod, Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1974 western about a Bonnie and Clyde-esque pair who share their loot with people of color and poor white Southerners, ends with a scene from an early extended sequence of the two joyously splashing in a stream. Free from the intense scrutiny and paranoia of an urban social structure, the rural environments of these films are the only locations where deep intimacy and self-knowledge can occur. Even as these movies acknowledge the historic racism and violence of these settings, they recognize their transformative power.

Though these movies share thematic similarities, Nope bears more resemblance to the Black Westerns that it explicitly references. The Black Western has become a trendy aesthetic in the last five years, part of the “Yeehaw Agenda” made viral by rapper Lil Nas X and his towering hit, “Old Town Road.” But the genre has existed on screen for decades, a small but memorable subgenre of 1970s Western and Blaxploitation films. Many of these films revised classic Western archetypes: Black actors played cowboys, Union soldiers, and former slaves who fought against the forces of white supremacy exemplified by slaveholders and corrupt sheriffs. Nope pays homage to one of the most notable Black Westerns with a prominently displayed poster of Sidney Poitier’s 1972 directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher.

In the film, Buck, a former soldier (played by Poitier), leads wagon trains of “Exodusters,” formerly enslaved Blacks who left the Deep South, to the “unsettled” midwest. Buck is the only person who can negotiate safe passage with the Indigenous population and protect the Exodusters from the gangs of white men who try to terrorize them into returning to Louisiana as sharecroppers. Blaxploitation Westerns like Boss N*gger (1974) and The Legend of N*gger Charley (1972) show their Black heroes living on the outskirts of civilization. Though they can find glimpses of companionship and comfort along their travels, these heroes can never linger in one spot for long for fear of violent white settlers on the frontier. 

In this context, the permanence and safety promised by the Haywood ranch would be unimaginably utopic to the characters in Black Westerns. When Emerald asks her brother about selling the farm to neighbor Jupe, the star-spangled amusement park owner who has been buying the Haywoods’ horses, OJ responds, “Pops did something when he made this place. He changed the industry. That’s real. I can’t just let that go.” 

Like most classic Western heroes, OJ faces existential threats to his livelihood. Most of these are common: mounting grief after the sudden loss of his father, economic hardships that many Black businesses and small farms encounter, a pushy neighboring rancher eager to buy up his land. In keeping with the tradition of the Western, there’s no mention of a government authority that might be able to deal with the alien Jean Jacket. By foregrounding Nope in ancestor Alistair Haywood’s erasure, Peele ties the modern challenges faced by the Haywoods to Afropastoral themes of the historic Black struggle for land ownership, self-preservation, and freedom of movement.

What would have become of the Haywood ranch, had Jean Jacket been successful in its rampage? 

It might have become a place like Shinbone, the little-town-that-could at the center of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of Nope’s inspirations. In the final scene, Hallie, a former resident of Shinbone when it was still a tiny frontier settlement, looks over the blossoming town and proudly proclaims, “It was once a wilderness; now it’s a garden,” conveniently ignoring that there was once a people who lived and tended to that land before they were violently displaced. Indigenous people do not appear in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the sole speaking Black character (the great Woody Strode) is an uncomfortably gentle and subservient handyman. Jean Jacket might be motivated by hunger, not manifest destiny, but its violent appetite achieves similar results to Westward expansion: indiscriminate destruction and displacement. 


Afropastoralism is about more than just Black people having a good time at the beach. It’s a genre tradition that acknowledges that access to the natural world is hard-fought, with systemic barriers that can only be overcome through radical action. Key to Nope’s Afropastoralism is its story of collective action. Peele discards the Hollywood cowboy myth of rugged individualism—a white man who storms in, shoots, and rides into the sunset. When individualism appears, it goes remarkably poorly. OJ and Emerald hire their own gunslinger of a sort, asking cinematographer Antlers Holst for his help shooting footage of Jean Jacket, only for Holst to go rogue and cause more chaos. In an attempt to make Jean Jacket the latest theme park attraction, Jupe gets himself, a group of park-goers, and his entire family eaten. It’s the eventually equal partnership between Emerald, OJ, and Angel that allows the trio to share the dangers, responsibilities, and rewards, one of the most clear-eyed arguments for collectivism I’ve seen in an action movie since Attack the Block (2011). 

Depictions of true collective action are still a rarity in mainstream Hollywood. A vigilante cop, a chosen one, a solitary superhero: when partnerships do arise, it’s often a sidekick-hero dynamic, where one person takes the majority of the risk and the majority of the credit. While I’ve defined the Afropastoral within the Black diaspora in the United States, the concept is hardly exclusive to Black America—and you’re more likely to see stories of anti-colonial collectivism outside of Hollywood film. Take Bacurau (2019), the story of a rural village in the Brazilian backcountry that must defend themselves against white foreigners who hunt (brown) people for sport. Inspired by Spaghetti westerns and Brazilian Cinema Novo, the film dramatizes the continuous struggle to keep one’s territory in the face of invasive forces.

Nope refashions the Western as a genre that tells a story of American erasure by its survivors. Peele pays tribute to the forgotten subject of Muybridge’s iconic print by reimagining a bespoke legacy: the rider receives not only a name and a backstory—he also gets a future. A triumphant future, where his descendents not only survive the threats levied against them, but invert his erasure from Hollywood, reestablishing their heritage and their land. Few heroes of the Black West have been so lucky. 

  1. Hello. I enjoyed reading your review/commentary on Nope. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. In fact, last weekend I binged on all three of Peele’s latest films- Nope, Us and Get Out and Ive become an even bigger fan of Peele than I was before.

    As a 38 yr old white male, I recognize my inability to relate to black folk’s specific experiences, yet I found all three films to be incredibly enjoyable regardless. Peele has a brilliant mind and I particularly LOVED the cinematography and the story telling of the three films, Nope being my favorite.

    With regard to your article on Nope, it was interesting reading your comparisons to older films and concepts. You made me think. Peele has obviously channeled many of these older concepts from the past in subtle ways. Something however struck me and I just wanted to comment on your thoughts relating to individualism vs collectivism. I am curious why you think that individualism disregards collectivism? If anything, the lack of individualism in American history has meant that for far too long terrible things were permitted to continue(slavery namely). Individualism demands that value be placed on the rights of the individual first and foremost, and then the collective. This was obviously not the case for a long time in America. Even the most ardent supporters of individualism place high value on working together with others of like mind, but the ultimate key is that it be voluntary. Collectivism is a great thing, but terrible atrocities have been committed in the name of the collective good. I would say slave owners in early America acted on THEIR collective good, and placed little value on individualism. Obviously humans can achieve far more when we work together, so we should value that. However, we should value individualism above all, and preach VOLUNTARY collectivism. After all, forced collectivism is only another form of slavery.

    I think collectivism has actually been pushed FAR more in Hollywood than you suggest. Likely as much as individualism. Truth is they go hand in hand. Top Gun Maverick for example- initially you think this is all about Maverick being an egotist and self centered show off, but he actually teaches you to NOT leave your wingman, to work together, and he literally sacrifices himself for Rooster.

    You can consider all the war movies, super hero movies like Avengers and Justice League, sports films… all teams working together to achieve a common goal.

    All that to say, I don’t disagree with you outright. I enjoyed your article and it made me think. If you read this far I appreciate it. Best wishes.

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