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The Abyss of Revelation: Jordan Peele’s Vision of the End of the World

By Eve Reid

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Matthew 24:29

According to art historians Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson, the concept of the ‘afrotrope’ refers to the use of visual and cultural motifs in art and media that engage with Black experiences and histories. It encompasses the ways in which Blackness is represented, interpreted, and reimagined through various artistic practices. Afrotropes can include visual symbols, narratives, and themes that specifically address the complexities of Black identity, history, and culture. This concept allows for a critical examination of how Blackness is portrayed and understood within different cultural contexts. The afrotrope I am going to be examining here is that of the ‘void,’ ‘abyss’ or ‘hole.’ This can appear in many forms: imagery of mouths, of oceanic voids, and of the abyss of the night sky. This trope, I will argue, appears as inherently apocalyptic in the works of Jordan Peele. The void appears firstly in Get Out (2017) as the hypnosis state experienced by Chris; secondly, in the hall of mirrors in Us (2019); and thirdly, as the alien mouth/camera lens in NOPE (2022). 

This notion of the apocalyptic void is paradoxically both Afro-pessimistic and operates within what Fred Moten calls ‘Black Op’ or Black optimism. According to Afro-pessimism, the condition of being Black is inherently tied to the experience of slavery, regardless of the time period. As a trope and a symbol, the notion of the abyss is fundamentally linked to the image of the slave ship as articulated by writers like Édouard Glissant who wrote in 1997 that ‘this boat is a womb, a womb abyss.’ The void is apocalyptic as it recalls the horror experienced by those forced into migration through the transatlantic slave trade, there is a notion of an end. However, if we assess this from a Black Op perspective, this apocalypse allows abolition and reconstruction to become ‘ongoing projects.’ Surviving the total darkness of the abyss, an abyss fundamentally linked to the present moment set in the United States of right now, can be seen to represent what Moten calls an ‘escape act.’ The constant act of escaping is fundamental to the fabric of Black life, according to Moten. The escape is optimistic in that it is in search of something better, but still maintains ties to the conditions of being constrained.

In his 2023 article, ‘Peele’s Black, Extraterrestrial, Naturalistic Critique of Religion,’ Johnathan D. Lyonhart analyses the depiction of religion and the apocalypse in the films of Jordan Peele. In the satirical social thriller film Get Out, religious imagery plays a significant role in the plot, which revolves around the Armitage family—a white liberal family who attempt to sacrifice Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and other Black characters according to their sinister desires. The Armitages lure their unsuspecting victims to their rural mansion with the intention of transplanting their brains into the elderly white bodies of their friends and relatives, believing that this will grant the white receiver divine powers. In a climactic moment, the main antagonist and patriarch, Dean Armitage, proclaims, "Even the sun will die someday. But we are divine. We are the gods trapped in cocoons." Lyonhart observes that their cult-like practices evoke similarities to the historical rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, akin to the Knights Templar. The survival of the Black characters, amidst the forces of evil disguised as white wealth and liberal values, can be seen as symbolic of apocalyptic liberation. This imagery is epitomised in the ‘sunken place,’ a surreal black hole that Chris finds himself falling into as a result of the effects of hypnosis. By putting Chris into the sunken place, which occurs when he hears the stirring of a spoon in a teacup, he is made to enter a void. As the section from the Gospel of Matthew states above, the apocalypse brings this total darkness. To survive the apocalypse orchestrated by white society, Chris must resist the total apocalyptic darkness it forces upon him.

Perhaps in Get Out, this link is tenuous. However, Peele’s Us shows a quite literal day of reckoning. The Wilson family travel to their summer vacation home in Santa Cruz. It unfolds that Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), unbeknownst to her husband and children, is scarred by an unpleasant incident as a child in the hall of mirrors at the Santa Cruz boardwalk. This comes back to haunt her in the form of an identical ‘mirror-image’ family that have been living underground who track her down and try to take the original family’s place. It transpires that every person in America has been tethered to a doppelgänger who has been living underground, waiting for the day when they can find a way out and kill their terrestrial double. Religious symbolism permeates Us. In flashbacks from Adelaide’s childhood, we see the first biblical premonition of the end in the form of a man holding a sign which reads ‘Jeremiah 11:11’. In the King James Bible, the passage reads: ‘Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.’ The evil here is the darkness, the void, of the hall of mirrors that allowed Adelaide to open the door between the tethered and the terrestrial world. The tethered people come out of the ground seeking to replace their double with themselves, concluding in a final apocalyptic sequence where every tethered join hands to create a line of linked bodies stretching over California. Further imagery that foreshadows this comes in the form of the white rabbit. Peele litters the underground tethered world with these animals to reflect both how the tethered have been living in this underground burrow and that they will be rebirthed above ground. Of course, this can also be associated with Easter and the resurrection of Christ. Salvation and the end times come in the film when the person above ground must reckon with this dark doppelgänger, both representative of themselves and the ‘Other.’ As in Jeremiah, no God hearkens unto them—they must save themselves by confronting, in essence, themselves. It would be remiss to not mention here the condition of ‘double-consciousness’ here articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois in the late nineteenth century. Du Bois wrote that African American life was marked by ‘shadows’ or a ‘vast veil’ in the form of white Western racism. This veil (which could also be seen as another reference to the abyss) produces a ‘second-sight,’ one seeing themselves through a white perspective as well as their own. One is forced to reckon with the nature of this double-consciousness through the mirror motif in Us. In killing their doubles, one could interpret that the Wilson family are liberated from the abyss of the veil (here being the mirror self). 

Finally, in Peele's Sci-fi Western NOPE, Armageddon arrives in the form of extra-terrestrial monsters that resemble cameras, exposing the monstrosity of the media spectacles. The plot revolves around OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), the owner of a horse ranch in California providing equine actors for Hollywood movies. When metal objects start falling from the sky, OJ's father dies under mysterious circumstances. Local celebrity personality, child star, and theme park owner Jupe discovers that an alien creature in the sky is causing these unusual occurrences. Jupe tries to profit from it by attempting to train the alien to perform in his theme park attractions. Meanwhile, OJ also tries to capture the alien on camera. To do so, he must lure it through the Agua Dulce canyon on horseback while avoiding disturbances from the media, who are trying to expose the alien creature first. The mouth of the alien here is representative of the abyss, swallowing up all that looks at it, including inanimate items that reflect its eye back to it. The alien is both the perpetrator of the spectacle in its camera-eye mouth and the spectacular subject of surveillance by cameras. These ideas of being seen/not seen relate back to the ‘second-sight’ articulated by Du Bois; we are presented with conflicting ideas about subjugation engendered by visual ‘looking’. DuBois and his contemporaries in Europe like psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, noted that optical practices were affected by colonial notions of ‘looking.’ They argued that the Black colonial subject was both hyper-visible, a target of racism due to visible difference, and invisible, in how this racism was internalised leading to a negation of the self. This makes the Black subject a paradoxical spectacle. If the coming of the alien is representative of the apocalypse through the abyss of its mouth, this is metaphorical for the end of times initiated by the culture of the spectacular. The alien is made a spectacle, just as the Black person is made a spectacle in the movie industry and the media. This is hinted towards in the movie when OJ claims his family business was started by his distant relative, the man supposedly depicted in Eadweard Muybridge’s first moving picture, Alistair E. Haywood. Haywood never got any credit, despite being the inaugurating moving image subject. This is metaphorical for Black subjectivity as it pertains to being under scrutiny as a media spectacle, being misrepresented and underrepresented on screen. The apocalypse comes as a reckoning between OJ and the void of the camera lens. The power and majesty of the celestial unknown has an inherent theistic power within the film, and this becomes representative of the uncontrollability of the image-making industry.

To conclude, Jordan Peele's films showcase the afrotrope of the ‘void’ or ‘abyss’ as an inherently apocalyptic symbol. This trope is both Afro-pessimistic and operates within the realm of Black optimism, representing the struggles and liberation of Black identity. In Get Out, the ‘sunken place’ serves as a surreal black hole that symbolizes the total darkness forced upon Black individuals by white society. In Us, the hall of mirrors and the tethered underground world represent the end times and the confrontation of an inner darkness. Finally, in NOPE, the extraterrestrial monster resembling the camera embodies the monstrosity of the media spectacle and the power dynamics of representation. Through these films, Peele explores the complexities of Black experiences and histories, challenging cultural contexts and inviting a critical examination of Black ontology.

Suggested Reading

Copeland, Huey, and Krista Thompson. ‘Afrotropes: A User’s Guide.’ Art journal (New York. 1960) 76, no. 3–4 (2017): 7–9.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Hart, William David. ‘Constellations: Capitalism, Antiblackness, Afro-Pessimism, and Black Optimism.’ American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 39, no. 1 (2018): 5–33.

Lyonhart, Jonathan D. (2023) ‘Peele’s Black, Extraterrestrial, Naturalistic Critique of Religion,’ Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 27: Iss. 2, Article 1.

Moten, Fred. ‘Black Op.’ PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123, no. 5 (2008): 1743–1747.

Poll, Ryan. ‘Can One ‘Get Out?’ The Aesthetics of Afro-Pessimism.’ The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 51, no. 2 (2018): 69–102.

Warren, Calvin L. ‘Introduction: The Free Black Is Nothing.’ In Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation, 1–25. Duke University Press, 2018.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.


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