Jordan Peele’s Thirties Were Insane-and He’s Just Getting Started
Illustration: Jacob Rochester

Jordan Peele’s Thirties Were Insane-and He’s Just Getting Started

The writer/director turned sketch…

By the time Get Out hit theaters in the early months of 2017, I was beyond ready to escape Connecticut. I had lived there for more than two years at that point, initially brought there by a partner’s job. I’d had a hard time adjusting, in part because it was difficult for me to process the very particular type of racial tension and discomfort that would often arise in New Haven, where I lived and worked. Racism wears many masks, as do the microaggressions it spawns. In the Midwest—where I came from—the racism was familiar to me. It was easy to point out and easy to avoid — or at least easy to brace myself for if I couldn’t move out of its way.

The racism I encountered in Connecticut was often harder to decipher. The people who performed a type of well-meaning interest in racial justice and liberation were the same people who seemed to be unaware of the Black folks and people of color in their neighborhoods or leading the protests they were taking photos at. The marginalized were almost a mirage: Worth vaguely fighting for, but invisible when in line at the supermarket, or walking on the street, or traversing the maze of an airport.

I saw Get Out at a Connecticut mall on a weekend afternoon. I was alone in the theater, a serendipity that allowed me to be unashamed of my loud laughter at the parts that didn’t warrant loud laughter, wealthy white people fawning over Black figures in a way that was both chilling and, by that point, all too familiar to me. I loved the movie for how I knew what the ending would be long before it arrived — something I resented in other films, but here felt satisfying given its proximity to the life I had been living. As if someone was telling me that my understanding of the world I had come to know was not unique.

The grand trick of racism, even still, is that it can make a person feel as though they are on an island, experiencing something unheard of for the first time. Like no one else could possibly relate. Like if they explained it out loud, they would sound like they were losing their mind. I have a handful of stories like this, as do many of my friends. When we tell them to each other, there is sometimes an urgency lurking under the voice — a sincerity that says the speaker needs to be believed here, if nowhere else.

Jordan Peele began the decade on the doorstep of 30, and ends it with his 41st birthday around the corner. In between, he honed his comic abilities to turn a lens towards horror. In both realms, his vision was to offer political commentary steeped in ideas around race and his identity moving through the world as a biracial person. Peele was raised by his single white mother, and along with his comedic collaborator Keegan-Michael Key — also biracial — they set out to make a sketch comedy show that fully embraced the duality of their identities and what that duality did and didn’t afford them.

Through the 54 episodes of Key & Peele, the two created a library of nuance, pieces that maneuvered thoughtfully around topics like racial insecurity and code-switching. Most memorable, at least to the nation at large, was their take on former President Barack Obama’s ability to charm white people and convince Black people of his genuine roots. The duo cashed in on a very specific moment and a very specific type of humor surrounding Obama: The intersection of white people who wanted to view him as a savior, and Black people who wanted to view him as the type of Black person who spoke as some of us spoke. Who played spades the way some of us played spades, and whose playlist included rap some of us listened to. In retrospect, it was a foolish moment — one that, to this day, leads people across many identities to romanticize Obama as someone greater than what he was: The former leader of a powerful empire who, like all former leaders, used his time in office to further the goals of that empire. Still, there was something that Peele understood about being held to two standards, depending on who is doing the looking.

Jordan Peele has given us a decade of looking through the anxieties of belonging and not belonging. Of duality and shapeshifting. There was no logical way for this to end but with his horror obsession.

The distance between comedy and horror is startlingly short, depending on the comedian and depending on the horror they are trying to depict. There have been many points in the long and exhausting series of global political upheavals in my life where nothing has seemed particularly funny — or, at least, the jokes required too much work for me to want to see through the other side. The horrors of 2016 didn’t begin with the presidential election, though the outcome may have strengthened their signal; the year itself felt like a slow-burning and especially violent nightmare. Even though it wasn’t unique to the nation, and even though the nightmare had begun before and still goes on now.

There are limits to what a joke can do. Comedians find themselves running up against the wall of this issue repeatedly now, with many of them seeing the times have changed and fighting back against those changes. Comedians who have aged through a similar trajectory as Peele or share his generation. There are limits, too, to the commentary that even the exaggerated nature of sketch comedy can provide. Saturday Night Live mocking the president is more exhausting than it is cause for adulation. To point at the evil, and then take on the affectations of that same evil, feels too plain.

Where the bridge between comedy and horror finds its true power is not merely embodying evil, but in repackaging and readdressing that evil. Reshaping the conversation around what evil is and looks like. It’s easy to point towards the White House; the jokes and the horrors of this particular administration write themselves. It is far more difficult to write horror that puts at its center a comfortable brand of suburban whiteness — to write horror that implicates some of its audience, and the places they’re from, and the people they’ve maybe made feel small.

I find that I have no use for horror in the traditional sense, in the way many mainstream horror films continue to clog the market: ominous silences and jarring sounds meant to shock the system into brief, bright bouts of fear. Peele’s interest in horror seems to be by sustaining tension or heightening the awareness of a viewer. During Get Out, it felt, to me, like the attempt was to replicate the feeling of existing in a world that sometimes required me to be on alert to the point of exhaustion.

At the start of a new decade, Jordan Peele is aiming to warp the world into something even messier than it already is.

Being 40 years old does not put one in the twilight of their career. But Peele has been in front of audiences since 2003 when he joined the cast of Mad TV. His real age and his age within the machinery of popular culture feel like two different things, which means that he eventually had to hit a point where he either dug in his heels and stuck to what he was most widely known for or follow some newer curiosity. In the era of dreamlike Obama nostalgia, Key & Peele could still be on television translating the old president’s anger, over-performing his handshakes. Peele himself is thoughtful enough and talented enough to deliver jokes that would still make people laugh. But, if you are lucky to have a long enough career, and a successful enough career, you might be granted the space to take it in a different direction. The work of an artist who is eagerly curious about the world is to find as many angles as possible to address your central concerns. Peele has given us a decade of looking through the anxieties of belonging and not belonging. Of duality and shapeshifting. There was no logical way for this to end but with his horror obsession. With a desire to remake the messages he’s been offering to the world.

There’s an aesthetic shift that seems to happen when an actor or writer who is known for comedy finds themselves wanting to be taken more seriously. The gray winds itself around Peele’s beard these days. He wears glasses more often, speaks in interviews in more measured tones. For those who had long followed his career, the transformation may have seemed jarring. But this is his second act — one that is attempting to restructure the American relationship with what horror is, and what horror isn’t. The central question he seems to be kicking around is: Who should be afraid, and of what? It’s a vital question to ask in a time where very real-life fear has redefined itself and the ways it can become palpable. Peele has embraced the closing in of the walls and accelerated that process, writing and producing films that feel claustrophobic and unwilling to move.

On the horizon is a remake of the film Candyman, due out in 2020. Also an adaptation of the Matt Ruff novel Lovecraft Country, which will be made into an HBO series. Peele’s shift this decade into the new central voice of American horror presents a new set of challenges not unlike the challenges he stared down when writing and performing in a weekly sketch show. Just as the goal was to get people to see past the punch line to examine what they might or might not be laughing at, the goal now is the dig into the minds of people and see what moves them toward fear and what good that fear can be. If it can be a gateway to something more interesting than a bad dream or a slight chill when faced with a memory. At the start of a new decade, Peele is aiming to warp the world into something even messier than it already is.