Peele’s Early Life
The strive for representation for marginalised communities (ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community etc.) in film and TV has been growing dramatically, now more than ever before. It is fundamental that this idea begins with inclusion in the director’s chair.
Jordan Peele is an American actor, filmmaker and comedian who has created many highly acclaimed productions. He grew up in Manhattan, where he joined a comedy troupe at college before dropping out two years later to pursue comedy as a full-time career.
In 2002, Peele met Keegan-Michael Key, who both went on to become performers on comedy sketch shows. From 2012 to 2015 Comedy Central produced a series called Key & Peele which ended up being wildly successful and earned some high-profile awards, an Emmy included. Key and Peele’s comedy was heavily influenced by the “absurdity of race.”
As in the sketch when they spoil a re-enactment of the American Civil War by showing up dressed as stereotypical slaves. “Our ability to be chameleons starts from having an unclear starting point when it comes to identity”, he says. “We were liberated by the fact that we could choose who we wanted to be.”
Peele mentioned that his relationship with his racial identity has always been complicated. He is classified as ‘black’ by convention, but he is actually mixed race as his father was black and his mother was white.
Realizing his identity was a manifestation of the ridiculousness of the notion of race was something he learned as a child. In white social circles, his ‘black’ appearance set him out; in black ones, his ‘white’ accent set him out. “I think that gave me a perspective that, in its best and worst sense, had me feeling like an outsider.”
Peele debuted as a film director in 2017, creating films that were released to critical acclaim such as Get Out. Taking into account his biracial background, Peele touches upon complex racial issues within his pieces of work to rebel against social and cultural norms. In turn, this has led to the creation of many accredited productions and has thrust him into mainstream popularity, with viewers even expressing how excited they are for Peele’s upcoming movie, Nope, to be released in 2022.
Journey to Success
A few of Peele’s award-winning films include Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), both of which are of the horror genre. Although the production budget accounted for $4.5 million, Universal released both of those films, which then went on to gross over $250 million worldwide.
Peele became the first African American to win an Academy Award for best original screenplay for Get Out. “I stopped writing this movie about 20 times because I thought it was impossible,” Peele mentioned in his acceptance speech. “But I kept coming back to it because I knew if someone let me make this movie, people would hear it and people would see it.”
Peele went on to talk about how proud he is, backstage, “to be a part of a time at the beginning of a movement where I feel like the best films in every genre are being brought to me by my fellow black directors.” He was also nominated for his direction, while the movie also received a nod for best picture. One of the reasons for the success of his work is due to how Peele’s authorship establishes a canon of well-made Black horrors, placing Black characters at its centre.
For example, Jordan Peele’s Get Out depicted various connotations relating to issues such as the commodification and exploitation of an individual’s “blackness” in today’s society. The 2017 film highlights how Peele “offers a unique, yet equally powerful, approach to communicating the concept” of staying informed and raising awareness of issues regarding racial and social injustices.
Peele focuses our attention on the lack of healing that exists in contemporary society, directing our focus to fractures within our minds and between ourselves, our history and our environment that maintain the trauma. This helps to show how Peele challenges social norms through his art, taking on an eccentric vision and reflecting that within his productions-a truly captivating skill.
Peele’s work has not always been as successful as his latest releases. In the past, Peele’s artistic techniques and “racially tinged” humour struggled on national stages as many didn’t understand it.
His projects demonstrate the importance of creative techniques in social justice endeavours, as well as how this drive for improved representation involves tackling inequality within artistic media. Even with Get Out, recognition was denied from award academies, institutionalised racism may have been the root cause of this, whether it was internalized or not.
By being in a position of authority throughout the production of this film, Peele not only blurred the lines of how race should be depicted in the media, but he also uncovered flaws in the media platform that prevent accurate depictions of social injustice.
Rather than calling attention to the problematic individuals who have cultivated specific works of art, the focus is shifted onto the structural level of the artworks and the power relations that are embedded within them.
Racial Inequality within the Film Industry
On-screen representation has become more significant in contemporary society. Ever since the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to trend, many people have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Academy’s lack of acknowledgement of the accomplishments made by people of colour. The hashtag came about in 2015, due to the fact that the academy awarded all 20 acting nominations to white actors for the first of two consecutive years and that no person of colour was even nominated.
This momentum then grew until greater gender and racial equality were seen within the Arts. April Reign, the creator of this hashtag, mentioned how the pushback has always been, “Well, there just weren’t enough diverse films to nominate.”
However, that was not the case, as evidenced by films like Peele’s Us. She stated that when there is such a plethora of talent in front of and behind the camera, they need to be acknowledged by the industry’s pinnacle, we need to look more closely at who the Academy membership is, what the voting process is, and where systemic change can be achieved to allow this to happen.
There’s also the matter of how much creative freedom black people have when storytelling, standards are still based on certain aspects of the black struggle. According to some, black actors are only considered for Academy Awards if they play stock characters like maids and butlers.
This still resonates today, as seen by Oscar-nominated films depicting black life such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, and Get Out. This offers a definition of black struggle, and implies that whether historical or contemporary, it governs the modern industry’s perspective on what constitutes real experience.
If this approach becomes the dominant aesthetic of industry gatekeepers, it endangers the development of black cinematic craftsmanship. People of colour within the industry frequently reject the terms “black filmmaker” and “black actor/actress” as they do not want to be labelled as a minority, but rather highlight the significance of their talent and storytelling, above their skin colour and ethnicity.
Nevertheless, 2018 was a great year for black directors, with 16 black directors working on the top 100 grossing films, compared to eight in 2007 and six in 2017. However, these figures hardly showcase equitable representation, improvement is very gradual when the starting point is so low.
Last year’s Bafta nominations did not include a single person of colour in any of the key acting categories which as you can imagine infuriated ethnic minorities all over the world, and no women were nominated for best director. In order to attain equality in the film industry, these persistent barriers must be properly addressed.
In accordance with this, Jordan Peele tries to call attention to many current affairs in order to place emphasis on how much the film industry conceals regarding inequalities. Where Peele’s work grapples with racism, in Get Out, it is done so intelligently: attempting to reveal incisive but less visible truths about middle-class liberal racism. By doing this, Peele attempts to inexplicitly portray societal concerns through the use of film and action.
Peele understands that the message his productions give off might not be one that audiences want to take home. After all, Get Out was a comparable effort in saying the unsayable. Peele began producing it in response to hopeful Obama-era conversations about a “post-racial” America, which he felt was a mirage.
The rest of the world had recognized it too when Trump shocked the world by becoming President. Peele, on the other hand, denies the notion that he was foreshadowing the future, stating, “That movie was a reaction to that period in the same way that the Trump movement was a reaction to that time, and therefore absolutely not a coincidence.”
The central protagonists in Us are African American, although their skin colour has little bearing on the narrative. Peele mentioned that a large number of people will go into this film expecting racial criticism, and when it doesn’t arrive in the manner they expect, they’ll be forced to question themselves, ‘Why did I believe a film featuring black characters had to be about blackness?’.
Directors and actors/actresses of colour have always been associated with the expectation that their work fundamentally includes polemic debates. Rather than focussing on the art of their work, the same way their colleagues are called upon, people have narrow anticipations. Ultimately, there is a massive disparity between what is considered a good film and what is considered culturally valuable, and this is where we need to begin focusing our discussions.