Jordan Peele’s Nope is his biggest film yet, not only in terms of cinematic scope but also in narrative ambition. A large part of this is due to the growing complexity of his characters, especially Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ and especially Keke Palmer’s Emerald, a career peak for a woman who’s played many roles in her long career but has never gotten a chance to show all her skills in the same part. “Within my career, you do see me do a lot of different things,” Palmer told an interviewer recently, but Peele “found a way to access all the things that make me me in one role.”
If you were in a Black home in the mid-aughts, Palmer was a constant presence on your TV screen: movies like Barbershop 2, Madea’s Family Reunion, and Akeelah and the Bee—her breakout role—played in constant rotation on BET. Before the age of 14, she played opposite some of the most well-known and well-respected Black actors in Hollywood: Angela Bassett, Lawrence Fishburne, Cedric the Entertainer, Queen Latifah, and Tyler Perry.
I’ve been fortunate, at just three years younger than her, to be Palmer’s target demographic throughout her entire career. In her earliest acting days, she became a familiar and comforting face, a stand-in for the little Black girl we all knew. But from the beginning of her career, no matter how hard she tried or how many times she proved herself, it felt as though Hollywood was determined to confine her, first in the small screen of our TVs, then in side roles and secondary characters. Every time she reinvented herself, adding another dash to her multihyphenate career, it felt like she had clawed her way to get there, throwing an F-you to the industry that choose to sideline her.
As she moved into her teenage years, Palmer tried to go from familiar face to household name, hopping between shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. It was on the Nick show True Jackson, VP where she truly staked her claim as a leading star. As the 15-year-old vice president of a fashion company, Palmer was funny and relatable, the girly girl that we all wanted to be best friends with. But, in a bad stroke of luck that would continue throughout her career, the show was canceled after three seasons. Still, by 2015, Keke had been many things: a double dutcher in Jump In!, a coming-of-age church choir singer in Joyful Noise, Chilli of the groundbreaking girl group TLC in the made-for-TV biopic CrazySexyCool, a budding football player in Longshots, and, of course, everyone’s favorite spelling bee champion.*
Palmer started to pursue a music career as well, releasing a 2007 album called So Uncool and a string of singles and EPs. She held her own against musical theater darling Jeremy Jordan in Joyful Noise, and made her own Broadway debut making history as the first Black Cinderella on Broadway in the 2014 revival of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (Not to be confused with the time she played the gender-swapped role of Prince Charming in Nickelodeon’s modernized Cinderella TV film Rags, in which she also sang, may I say, some absolute bangers). My family took a trip up to New York to see it, and it was remarkable to see melanin and magic in such close proximity. As a theater nerd, Keke fan, and Black girl who at times had the courage to believe that impossible was just possible biding time, I cried. She was transcendent.
Palmer went on to land roles in a handful shows of varying quality, like Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens, which started as perfect and then fell into the genre rubbish bin. She starred in some foreign series (Berlin Station) and indie films, my favorite being 2015’s Brotherly Love, an enticing urbanized Romeo and Juliet love story set in modern-day Philadelphia. She came out as sexually fluid in 2015 via music video, and built an online presence, getting a jump on meme culture in 2016 by posting Snapchats using the phrase “the gag is….” That same year, she gave an absolutely stunning performance in Grease Live, still the best live-for-TV musical of that brief trend. Twitter gasped at her version of “Freddy My Love,” while many of her stalwart fans scoffed at their tardiness.
But … that was kind of it. Palmer received praise for many of her endeavors around this time, but no leading roles in a big blockbuster, critically acclaimed drama series, or indie film from a well-respected director or production studio. Keke’s career was consistent, but never moved into the upper echelon where our most highly regarded young actors like Timotheé Chalamet, Zendaya, or even her Nope co-star Daniel Kaluuya reside. Don’t get me wrong, her projects haven’t all been hits. But in the ones that weren’t (like the very bad 2009 film Shrink, or her recent indie Alice) she was the best part about them.
This is where I share one of my greatest disappointments with the entertainment industry. Here was a girl who was extremely talented; with a singing voice good enough to make history on Broadway and acting chops that have been keeping her in company with the big leagues for years. She’s Black, with a complexion darker than Hollywood was readily promoting at the time (or still), and she’s a part of the LGBT+ community. She’s good on mic while off set: put her in any interview to promote a new film or show and a meme will be instantly brought forth and be enshrined in the internet hall of fame. She is Hollywood’s white whale; the type of actor they swear they want to throw in every film but “can’t find”—and here she is! But she remained nonetheless severely underutilized and totally underrated by the industry.
It wasn’t until 2019 that things began to turn around slightly. By this point, she’s not just Keke Palmer, she’s Keke Keep-a-Job Palmer and Keke Keep-a-Check Palmer, our generation’s embodiment of “booked and busy.” She was a standout in the 2019 critically acclaimed stripper-revenge drama Hustlers, though her role was small. She had small roles in the final season of Insecure, the animated series Big Mouth, and its spin-off Human Resources. She endeavored to become the most likable person in Hollywood, landing a guest-hosting role on the daytime talk show Strahan and Sarah, aptly renamed Strahan, Sarah, and Keke until it was canceled due to the pandemic. She hosted MTV’s virtual VMAs in 2020, and even won a Primetime Emmy for starring in a comedy web series she created called Turnt Up With the Taylors. In 2021, she was a Vogue red carpet correspondent for the Met Gala, which caused a lot of people to wonder why they would ever give anyone else the job ever again. She was able to make even the most elusive stars read as relatable, because she makes them feel comfortable. She can do that because she’s not just your favorite celebrity: she’s your favorite celebrity’s favorite celebrity. And even in this laundry list of jobs, I’m still leaving a lot out.
She was popping off online as well. Even more memes surfaced around this time: a viral clip from her 2019 Vanity Fair interview in which, unable to recognize Dick Cheney, she says “Sorry to this man”; a musically enhanced clip of her interviewing Megan thee Stallion on the Met Gala red carpet. My favorite happens to be one that wasn’t of her origin at all, but rather a case of internet mistaken identity which caused many to say, “Baby, this is Keke Palmer.” Not surprisingly, the new wave of promotion for Nope has put her back on top of the internet’s meme mountain.
With each role in a more high-profile, critically acclaimed property, I had hoped that Keke’s star was on the rise. It seemed to be a matter of what she’s owed, frankly: that spotlight role, the Oscar or Emmy bait, the one that fully realizes everything she has built towards so far. The problem was multifold: she wasn’t getting the big roles, and any role she did get seemed so one-note for an actor we know is incredibly versatile, with impeccable off-the-cuff comedic timing and vast emotional depth.
Enter Jordan Peele, Hollywood’s most acclaimed contemporary auteur. With Nope, Peele has said himself that he focused on “spectacle,” and yes, it is spectacular in a big set-piece way that would be a spoiler for me to describe. But there’s also something deeply human about his films, even when the characters aren’t human themselves. No matter how elusive his films seem, we walk away feeling that we deeply know the character we just spent the past few hours with; this time is no different.
When we first meet Emerald, Keke Palmer’s Nope character, she’s the physical embodiment of jazz hands. Arriving late to a commercial set, she walks in with pizzazz written all over her body, and there’s a showman’s cadence to her voice as she sets up the thematic basis of the film, namely that Black people have been in movies since before they were even invented. “Ever since pictures could move, we’ve had skin in the game,” she says like she’s selling you a used car. While she’s giving a safety talk on the use of on-set animals, she’s also plugging her many side endeavors as an aspiring actor, singer, and all-around creative—all the things Keke Palmer is already good at but Emerald hasn’t yet managed to pull together.
As the film unfolds, we get to see Emerald evolve. She’s a showman, sure, but she feels and has felt deeply. She has trauma she hasn’t really begun to unravel, things she holds on to though she can’t fully explain why. And, of course, it’s a Jordan Peele movie so she gets to show some fear too. She’s all of these things at once: camera-ready and image-focused, troubled and flighty, comedic and ferocious in love and care. Keke Palmer sails through these different modes in the way we always knew she could: with enviable ease. To those who’ve been watching her for years, she’d already proven that she had every tool needed to carry a complex film like Nope. Now it’s everyone else’s turn to find out.
Correction, July 24, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Keke Palmer portrayed T-Boz in the film CrazySexyCool. She portrayed Chilli.