When I was coming of age, it felt like all Black folks carpooled to go watch “Spike Lee Joints.” We voraciously consumed Lee’s movies because they told our stories from our perspective. The “Blaxploitation” of the 1970s featured our bodies but often lacked our heart. Many of those ‘70s flicks had Black people fight racism with guns; Lee’s movies had us do so with brains. Today, we flock to Jordan Peele’s movies for much the same reason. Peele comforts us with cultural familiarity even as he confronts us with the obstinacy of racism.
Unlike Lee, Peele was already well-known when he started writing, directing and producing movies, of which he now has three. Along with Keegan-Michael Key, he created the hilarious sketch comedy show “Key & Peele.” That show, along with other projects, made Peele famous and ultimately aided him in making “Get Out.” While we initially didn’t know exactly what his debut film was about, his imprimatur fostered great expectations. Obviously, he exceeded them.
To be sure, there are at least two other key differences between Peele and Lee. First, Lee is primarily a dramatist. By contrast, Peele’s films are a salsa of horror and science fiction. This difference isn’t a matter of ability. Lee could scare us out of our wits if he so chose, whereas Peele could glue us to our seats with searing drama (of which we get a glimpse in all his cinematic bows).
The other difference is how each auteur approaches race. “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” and “BlacKkKlansman” all make a frontal assault on racism. (Notably, Peele was a producer on “BlackkKlansman.”) Lee rivets race squarely onto our laps and says, “Deal with it.” Conversely, Peele centers race but lobs it into our heads. (It’s not an accident that Daniel Kaluuya’s character is named “OJ” in Peele’s latest movie.) As I state above, he makes us feel. He also provokes us to think.
I’ve watched “Get Out” multiple times because it’s nearly flawless. I’ve watched “Us” a few times because it’s very compelling — and because I knew that I had missed several “Easter eggs” the first time. (And the second.) I’ve seen “Nope” just once so far, but I know that I’ll do so again because so much is going on in that film. It will take time (and more than one screening) to digest it all.
The way in which movies from major studios approach race has changed from when, say, Eddie Murphy was the screen’s biggest star. Blacks felt a deep sense of pride watching him do his thing, even though race was usually relegated to a subtext. Then came Denzel Washington. Whereas Murphy made us laugh uncontrollably, Washington (who has made several movies with Lee) made Black men stand taller. He made us feel like men in a world that tried to deny us that right. (And we all know how he made women feel.) It was almost as if we had an obligation to support Lee, Murphy and Washington.
That torch has been passed to Jordan Peele. When Murphy started making movies, there was a dearth of major roles for African Americans (though he increasingly hired Blacks behind the camera). When we did appear in big-budget movies, we often were relegated to the traditional “buddy” or “sidekick” spot — or we were seen and not heard (much). While Hollywood has a long way to go in terms of racial equity, representation of African Americans has obviously improved during the last three decades. (Sadly, Latinos, Asian Americans and American Indians still lag far behind.)
As a result, just being Black on screen (or even behind the camera) is no longer enough to get us excited. Even commercial success isn’t enough to do so. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart can both buy a few small countries. We applaud their commercial success, but we don’t love them like we love Jordan Peele. Peele gives figurative and literal voice to our collective experience. Whereas Lee yells homilies, Peele whispers poems. Both are necessary.
Is there pressure on him to continue to raise the bar for his race and his genre? There has to be. But, as an artist, he remains true first and foremost to himself. Channeling his inner Toni Morrison, he says that he “makes the movies that (he) would want to see.” Thankfully, he makes movies that we want to see, too.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.