The Birds, the Shark and the Clouds…and a Horse! – Jordan Peele & the Universal Archive

Curator's Note

Jordan Peele’s first three feature films can be read as singular or collective entities via narrative style, mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound design, etc. The films are often mistakenly read in popular dialogue as a collective commentary on contemporary race relations in America. However, race issues are only at the forefront of his first film, Get Out (2017)—Us (2019) and Nope (2022) deal with classism and tokenism, respectively. The commonly held assumption that race relations are the theme of Peele's films is conflated with the fact that all of his films center on a leading black cast. The focus of a leading black cast recalibrates the classic Hollywood construction of the historically white leading man and woman. In addition to Peele’s bold stance for representation in his films, he features black actors and actresses in the horror genre, which has had a troubled history with race and representation. How does the Jordan Peele brand of black psychological horror fit within the lineage of auteurs that Universal Pictures has historically produced and distributed? How does the film archive of Universal Pictures accent Jordan Peele's narrative devices?


Peele’s latest film, Nope, stars onscreen brother and sister duo, Keke Palmer, as Emerald “Em” Haywood and Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood. After their father's sudden and untimely death, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), Em, and OJ set out on a mission to investigate the cause. To their surprise, they discover a monster hidden in plain sight. Although Peele’s horror, science fiction film Nope feels fresh, the narrative follows a formula straight from the Universal Pictures archive.


Universal Pictures distributed the horror mystery The Birds (1963) by Alfred Hitchcock. They produced and distributed Steven Spielberg's adventure thriller Jaws (1975). The Birds and Jaws develop stories based on ordinary people fighting extraordinary creatures in a small town. In The Birds, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) fights against a flock of menacing birds relentlessly attacking her. Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) fights off the attacks of a killer shark in Jaws. In Nope, Peele situates Em and OJ on an isolated family-owned ranch in Agua Dulce, California. After a “close encounter of the third kind” (wink), Em and OJ discover a sophisticated alien lifeform. To save the day, Em and OJ wrangle a team of filmmakers to capture evidence of some thing not of planet Earth (wink). Albeit a “bird and shark formula,” there is something in the clouds.


The psychological horror films of Jordan Peele are apropos within the Hollywood studio system because he utilizes proven narrative strategies from the Universal Pictures archive to capitalize on the success of the studio's past films. However, Peele's strategy doesn't end there. He strategically uses the bird and shark formula as a Trojan horse—using archival footage of a horse via the Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878) clip—to usher in motifs, mise-en-scène, cinematography, and sound design that are specific to the Jordan Peele brand.


Works Cited

Hitchcock, Alfred et al. Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds. Universal Studios 1963.

Peele, Jordan et al. Get Out. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment 2017.

Peele, Jordan, et al. Nope. Universal 2022.

Peele, Jordan, et al. Us. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment 2019.

“Sallie Gardner at a Gallop.” IMDb,, 15 June 1878,

Spielberg, Steven et al. Jaws. Universal 1975.



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