Jordan Peele Explains His Attraction to Horror: "There Is an Evil Embedded Into Our DNA"

Jordan Peele speaks onstage during the Hammer Museum's 17th Annual Gala - Getty -H 2019
Presley Ann/Getty Images for Hammer Museum

For 17 years, the Hammer Museum has welcomed two artists from different disciplines — one from Hollywood, the other from the art world — to share the same stage as honorees at its annual fundraiser, the Gala in the Garden.

This year’s invite boasted freshly minted A-list filmmaker Jordan Peele opposite groundbreaking feminist artist Judy Chicago as the night's big winners along with a bunch of other A-list pairs. There were tributes by author Roxane Gay (for Peele) and icon Gloria Steinem (for Chicago); two couples as gala co-chairs in J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, and Tom Ford and Richard Buckley; and a night-ending musical performance by Beck who even brought a buddy in surprise guest Chris Martin to harmonize on tracks like "Loser" and "Nobody’s Fault but My Own" in front of boldfaced names Rita Wilson, Catherine O’Hara, Elizabeth Chambers, Jane Lynch and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

The other star in the room was time.

It received the most call-outs from the stage and led both honorees to examine their résumés to find the distance between the work and the reward. (Speaking of rewards, the Hammer revealed Sunday that this year’s Gala in the Garden raised a record $2.7 million for museum’s programs.) First up was Gay, who also had present time on the mind. "I must confess," she said in opening her tribute to Peele, whom she had not met, only admired, prior to the event. "I’m not much into horror. The world as it is is horrifying enough and each day under this presidency, it becomes even more terrifying. But Get Out captivated me."

That’s Peele’s directorial debut, the one released in 2017 that went on to become one of the most wildly successful films of that year because it grossed north of $255 million off a $4.5 million budget. And while Gay did make mention of the impressive financials of the film, what she examined more closely was what the film says. "Get Out represents one of the most elusive feats in storytelling — telling a familiar story in a new and unexpected way," she explained. "It’s a film that dissects the insidious beast of racism, slowly, carefully, and splays its bloody carcass open for us. This is a film that forces us to look at the horror of racism and we dare not look away."

He challenged audiences again, she said, with his follow-up Us, which was released earlier this year and also grossed north of $255 million worldwide. "So much of Jordan’s work is concerned with how things seem and how they are. He has a knack for making us — his enraptured audience — sit with uncomfortable truths for an uncomfortable amount of time. He knows how to scare us and leaving us wanting more with his unique brand of horror," Gay noted.

She brought up money one more time in mentioning Peele’s recently inked five-year, nine-figure deal signed with Universal Pictures. But then she explained why such a deal is so important — because it belongs to someone who has found a way to tell black stories that are not the black stories audiences are accustomed to seeing on their screens. "I’m a writer, so I have a hard time wrapping my mind around such numbers but also feeling elation for this richly deserved support of his work. With each new project, Jordan shares with us, he demonstrates his elegant and incisive humor, a razor-sharp dry wit, a staggering intellect and an uncanny understanding of the human condition," said Gay. "He is provocative. He is sincere. He is, at times, terrifying. He is an icon rising. What Jordan Peele represents for a lot of black creators, myself included, is possibility."

She continued: "He has carved a path for different kinds of black storytelling that go beyond the tropes to which we have all too often been relegated. How do you tell a black story if it is not explicitly grounded in suffering, enslaved bodies, broken spirit. how do you convince a movie studio to support that different kind of storytelling? How do you tell black stories that make the audience laugh and cry and gasp and think? Whether he is making us laugh or cringe or stare in wide-eyed terror, Jordan Peele answers these questions for himself and for all of us."

Gay then welcomed Peele to the stage as he was greeted by a standing ovation from the audience of nearly 500 guests. At 40, Peele may be a few years from the improv beginnings of his career, he quickly reminded the crowd that he still has the comedy chops. "I have to be honest, I was expecting a physical award," he said, pretending to hoist an imaginary trophy. "Something that had, like a base…or, you know like a piece of art on top? But that’s fine. It’s not about that. Just to prove to people that I was honored by the Hammer Museum. It could look like a hammer. Just some thoughts — top of the dome for next year."

The laughs kept coming but so did the mentions of time.

"I feel particularly humbled to receive such an honor so early in my film career. I know this is an institution that’s honored artists whose incredible work elevates the discourse of our time. Artists whose work is brilliant, beautiful, eternal, nuanced," he said. Then came the punchline. "I made a movie about brain transplantations. A family that performs brain transplantations in their basement. I followed that up with a little flick about some clones that live underground and eat rabbits so, uh, you can see how this is an unexpected turn of events to be here. Sometimes the Hammer don’t give a fuck and that’s cool. I love that and I’ll take it."

He also dished out some of his early inspirations from the silver screen — with a nod to Martin Scorsese’s recent controversial statements about what qualifies as "cinema."

"I can buy the premise for a second that this is a deserved thing, after all I spent so many hours growing up watching great cinema and absorbing art house classics of the 20th century like Ghostbusters 2, Gremlins 2 and Chud 2, all the twos," he joked. "That’s my pathway of this great thing that Martin Scorsese calls cinema."

He then got serious by expanding on his creative motivations.

"My passion is to entertain. I dream less about making a commentary about society than I do about getting a laugh or getting a scream or scaring anybody. Any audible noise that an audience can make, that’s my passion," he explained. "Apparently to either get at something important or to just simply make people laugh, it involves a search of the same thing and that’s truth."

Peele said that as he grew up, his perspective on life became "a little cynical," and he found new truth in the exploration of what he refers to as "the human demon."

"This is the idea that no matter what there is, whatever you do, there is an evil embedded into our DNA. It crystallizes when we get together. It’s in our tribalism, our nationalism and our capitalism, our mob mentality, our obsession with categorization. We’re so good at masking our own evil from ourselves and so my obsession evolved to pulling down this mask," he continued. "I figured why not try to reveal the truth in my language. Do it as entertaining as I could. I found early on that this would require a certain amount of vulnerability. if I was going to tap into fears that would resonate with others, I would need to explore and understand my own fears and my own faults."

As he’s done that with his two major releases — and the other content he’s creating through his Monkeypaw Prods. — Peele has opened up to the idea that the process doesn’t end when the movie or TV show comes up. The collaboration continues with his audience.

"That’s special to me. We’re connected. Where there is that fundamental sameness that brings us all together, makes us scream in a theater, there’s a hope that as long as we continue to strive for truth, we can combat our barbarism," he concluded. "It is a fight that we can never stop. I’d like to think this honor, this award, is a testament to that."

He then fist-pumped the imaginary trophy up into the air as he exited the stage. With the first "award" handed out, the program paused for a dinner break courtesy of chef Suzanne Goin and her Lucques restaurant. Guests dined on Scottish salmon with Richard Olney’s white purée, hazelnuts, red wine and wild mushrooms followed by brown butter apple tart or chocolate torta for dessert. 

With coffee and post-dinner champagne making the rounds, Steinem took the stage for the night's other awards presentation for Chicago. But first, she had politics on the brain. "I’m really enjoying this pre-election rally. I would say while we were eating we decided that we were going to work like hell for any single candidate no matter who it is and dis-elect this horse’s ass," she quipped, in referencing President Donald Trump. "If we could just keep this right now, we would have the energy to do whatever we have to do with our lives."

The rest of her speech focused on what Chicago has done with her life as the groundbreaking feminist artist who is, perhaps, best known for her work titled "The Dinner Party," hailed as the first epic feminist artwork. It features 39 place settings — all vaginal iconography — placed on triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women. "I have noticed that actually you can pretty much divide the world, the art world, and certainly I can divide my life into before-and-after Judy Chicago," said Steinem. "I saw 'The Dinner Party' and realized that Judy was not only reclaiming our lives in the present, she was also reclaiming our history."

Steinem continued: "We need Judy Chicago now more than ever. her work is visionary and hopeful because she remembers when it was worse. It's one of the great allusions of age. It gives us hope and we need everyone younger because they are mad as hell and that’s why we need each other. We shouldn’t be divided by age anymore."

In accepting the honor, Chicago, 80, reclaimed a bit of her personal history as well by explaining how time had not been kind to her career accomplishments. Though she spent years studying at UCLA and creating artwork at various studios across Los Angeles, Chicago recounted how challenging the L.A. scene was for her. "After I graduated, I decided to make a place for myself in the L.A. art scene, which was singularly inhospitable to women and, as a result, I had a pretty tough time. No artist can survive without support. Mine came entirely from individuals who often had to buck the art world resistance to my work."

She clarified resistance by saying that what actually has happened to her during her career in the art world been more extreme. "In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the art world tried to kill me and my art. For many many decades it seemed like my work did not exist and my influence had not happened," said Chicago. "It was very confusing for a lot of years because I was building a pretty big audience outside of the art world but it’s really important to stress that an artist cannot survive without support." 

One of her supporters now is Elizabeth Sackler of the controversial Sackler family that has benefited from the opioid epidemic through its pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma. Chicago's "Dinner Party" is permanently housed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and Chicago did not avoid the connection. "I  realize that its problematic to mention her name now because some members of her family acted in scurrilous ways but Elizabeth is entitled to credit for what she did that is, to permanently house 'The Dinner Party' at her Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the only such center in the world. My honor tonight is her honor."

But Chicago wasn't about to accept the honor, thank her supports and leave. She also called the art world to the carpet for its handling of inclusivity. "ArtNet News recently published statistics that demonstrated for the last 10 years, the art world has made us all think that everything has changed because there have been a huge number of exhibitions by women artists; however, the truth is that history is not determined by exhibitions. Art history is determined by collections, monographs and major exhibitions and in the last 10 years, only 11 percent of the acquisitions at major museums have been women and only 3 percent have been women artists of color. Shameful! Shameful!"

Chicago then softened her stance in closing her nearly 18-minute speech. "That I stand here tonight bathed in the light in this somewhat unfamiliar recognition, what is important in my story is that it tells us that one person can make a difference. It's something really important to remember in these difficult times."

Though those were the only two honorees listed on the official program, the night contained yet another surprise when artist Lari Pittman — whose work Declaration of Independence was on view upstairs — jumped up on stage to honor Hammer Museum director Annie Philbin's two decades of leading the institution. "Her tone and delivery are always ambitious and aspirational," he said during his impassioned remarks. "Artists want to be here, show here, participate here and gather here."

After Pittman was finished, five musicians gathered on the stage by sitting in a semicircle behind a variety of instruments. Then Grammy-winner Beck came out — after being welcomed by Ford — to mention time just one more time. "We just put this together yesterday," he admitted of the performance that included five songs. "This is a bit of an experiment so we will see what happens."