The Gag Is: Keke Palmer Is a Movie Star

The roads of Universal Studios’ backlots are named for exemplars of the company’s old star system: Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Nat King Cole, Gregory Peck. One road is called Louise Beavers Avenue, after the character actor best known for her role in 1934’s racial-passing melodrama “Imitation of Life.” Her first onscreen performance was in the 1927 Universal production “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which she made an uncredited appearance as an enslaved person at a wedding. When Beavers died in 1962 in her early 60s (her birth year is in question), she had played more than 150 roles, most of them maids, servants, slaves and mammies. At some point, as a show of appreciation, Universal Studios named one of its streets after her.

At the corner of Canopy Street and Louise Beavers, Keke Palmer relinquished her head to the hair and makeup artists who rotated around her. Her hairstylist, Ann Jones, tweaked the curls in her short Afro. Assistants and publicists darted in and out of the room. Palmer was enthusiastic yet ambivalent about the hoopla surrounding “Nope,” the writer-director Jordan Peele’s latest film. She was at Universal Studios for the film’s “content day,” doing interviews and filming a behind-the-scenes featurette. “This is probably one of the craziest next-evolution points of my career, doing this movie,” she told me. “And all I want to do is submerge into the wind. You know?” she chuckled. “Because, I don’t even know what could or couldn’t happen after this — what the vibe would be. I ain’t never had that many people look at my work at once.”

She spoke with rhythmic razzle-dazzle, emphasizing certain words and rendering them magical. To her makeup artist, Jordana David, Palmer said, “I want bold brows, a big lash and a soft lip,” in a stage whisper. She’s like a millennial vaudevillian, right down to her speaking cadence. When she’s excited, she sounds like someone in an old tale about Hollywood who just got off a bus in the big city.

But Palmer, 28, is a consummate entertainment veteran. This year marks her 20th year in show business. She was recruited for the 2003 “American Idol” spinoff “American Juniors” — Palmer, cast as an alternate, never made it to air. She went on to a career as a child actor on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, starring in three seasons of “True Jackson, VP,” a show about a kid boss, and “Jump In!” a beloved TV movie about hopefuls in a jump-rope tournament. Since then she has done every kind of entertainment job you can imagine: appearing in “Hustlers” (2019) and Ryan Murphy’s camp horror series “Scream Queens”; a stint as a co-host on ABC’s “Good Morning America”; starring on Broadway in “Cinderella”; and recording her own pop/R.&B. albums. Despite her success in adulthood, to some viewers, she is frozen as a child star. Palmer’s leading role in “Nope,” with its auteur director, ambitious narrative and blockbuster projections, seems poised to shift her story.

“Nope” is a mystery-thriller starring Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya as sibling horse trainers who are the fictional descendants of the real Black jockey who appears in Eadweard Muybridge’s late-19th-century photos of horses in motion. These photographs, once traced by hand onto glass discs, could be viewed in a device called a “zoopraxiscope” that gave the quickly spinning frames the illusion of motion. The resulting sequences were an early form of moving pictures. The real-life jockey in the photos has never been identified; he and the horse go on galloping, anonymously, forever. His anonymity inaugurates a lasting tension between Black people and the movies: To be in front of the camera means to risk, at worst, cruel caricature and anonymity. “Nope” feels like a refusal of that fate and an elaborate tribute to an enigmatic man Emerald describes as “the very first stuntman, animal wrangler and movie star all rolled into one.”

In “Nope,” he’s given a name, Alasdair Haywood. His descendants, including Emerald, her older brother, O.J., and their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), run a horse-wrangling operation and train horses for Hollywood productions on the desert outskirts of Los Angeles. From their ranch, they want to reclaim their family’s centrality to the history of the movies. After Otis dies in a mysterious incident, the siblings discover what they believe is a U.F.O. and decide to film it with a makeshift crew that includes the tech wiz Angel (Brandon Perea). As they try to capture the spectacle on camera — they’re looking for what Emerald calls “the Oprah Shot” that will make them famous — they start to wonder: What is the value of attention?

Amid all this, Palmer’s brash Emerald swaggers through the film. In a scene in which Em and O.J. are wrangling on the set of a commercial and she’s giving a safety talk, she digresses and begins advertising her own skills, playing up the fact that she “directs, acts, produces, sings and does craft services on the side.” Palmer improvised that line, showcasing her effortless creativity and indefatigable hustle. “Emerald is a lot like Keke if Keke had never broken through and found so much success when she was younger,” Peele told me. That difference highlights the tightrope so many Black performers — like Muybridge’s Black jockey, like Beavers — walk between renown and oblivion, work and exploitation.

“We like to say since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game,” Emerald says on the set of the commercial. Both meanings of Emerald’s phrase could apply to Palmer; her 20-year investment in showbiz means she has lots of skin in the game, even if people haven’t always noticed the sly virtuosity she has been developing. “I’ve been acting all the years leading up, you know, whether someone watched or not. So it’s interesting, which is also what this movie is about as well — how people are so attracted to a spectacle.”

Palmer was born in Harvey, Ill., and raised in nearby Robbins, a small community 30 minutes south of Chicago that was one of the earliest all-Black enclaves incorporated in the state; a 1918 article in The Denver Star heralded Robbins as “the first and only village which will be controlled entirely by Negroes.”

Her parents, Sharon and Lawrence Palmer, were actors who met in a drama class at Chicago’s Kennedy-King College in the summer of 1986. Sharon worked on the Kennedy-King drama school’s lighting crew and acted in “The Wiz.” Lawrence appeared in a production of Joseph A. Walker’s “The River Niger,” a play that was first performed by the legendary Negro Ensemble Company. Later, when the Palmers were newly married, the couple worked as professional actors. Eventually, though, they had a small family to raise and put their dreams aside. Sharon Palmer taught drama in high schools and after-school programs. Her husband worked at a polyurethane company.

Naturally, Palmer grew up loving show business. At 3, her parents took her to see the musical “The Jackie Wilson Story” at the Black Ensemble Theater, and that show mesmerized her. She would watch her mom sing in church and remix what she’d heard into performances in kindergarten plays. In her book for young adults, “I Don’t Belong to You,” she describes her family watching and studying movies at home (“Claudine,” from 1974, with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, and “Let’s Do It Again,” from 1975, with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, for example), essentially providing their own DVD commentary by tracing the trajectory of different actors and directors. Soon Palmer was singing and acting in school productions and auditioning for “The Lion King.” “When we noticed she had talent, then we both were able to help her to learn lines and to understand scripts,” Sharon Palmer told me. “When I would get tired, he would do it, and vice versa. That was a huge advantage for her, that both of her parents were actors.”

Palmer’s steadfastness — she would rehearse lines by herself for hours — signaled to her parents that her dream was worth investing in. Then came the “American Juniors” audition and a role in the 2004 movie “Barbershop 2.” Later that year, Palmer appeared as a neglected child in a television movie, “The Wool Cap,” with William H. Macy. At 10, she was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for that performance, losing out to Glenn Close. To support Palmer’s career, her parents sold their new house, took leave from their jobs and moved the family to Pasadena, Calif. Her breakout role was in “Akeelah and the Bee” in 2006, alongside Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, in which Palmer played the titular character, an 11-year-old from South Los Angeles who hopes to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Akeelah’s intelligence and moxie amid limited circumstances sealed Palmer’s popularity.

Palmer told me that ever since she was a child working in the ecosystems of Nickelodeon and Disney, she observed how those networks took the “MGM standard” in finding talent they could use across the board, from sitcoms to movies to music to touring shows. Palmer cultivated her singing and dancing alongside her acting, co-writing and singing the “True Jackson, VP” theme song for Nickelodeon and making singles and music videos for Disney’s “Jump In!” soundtrack. “And so for me, also working in those spaces, that taught me to keep things very business and to just show up, do the job, do the thing, you know, be professional, and go home and then have a life,” she said.

Historically, Black Hollywood pioneers found it difficult to leave a set and then have a life. The light of fame also generated the shadow of racial clichés that stalked them. They were given roles that turned their talents into mere content: stereotypical images, like Beavers’s beatific and smiling maids, that circulated outside the theater, long after the projectors went quiet.

In “Nope,” Palmer plays up her unabashed joviality but avoids the specter of minstrel imagery. She plays Emerald as a woman searching for something: In her name, there’s a hint of the colorful capital city in “The Wizard of Oz,” a home for seeking souls; and in the flavor of her portrayal, a glint of “The Wiz.” If Kaluuya is Peele’s Robert De Niro, as the director has said in a recent interview that likened their partnership to that between Martin Scorsese and De Niro, then Palmer, in this first collaboration, might be his Joe Pesci. She brings to her part an emotional maximalism that distills the too-muchness of mundane feelings.

Palmer admires multitalented performers like Carol Burnett, Eddie Murphy and Elaine May, whose acts call back to American vaudeville. At their worst, vaudevillians and minstrel performers reinforced anti-Black iconography. At their best, they manipulated stereotypes — the straight man, the fool, the punchline artist — reinhabiting stock characters in order to make us see them anew. You can trace their influence in Palmer’s acting. A scene in which Emerald dances at the Haywood homestead epitomizes her onscreen charm. She cranks up the music on the family’s record player and quite literally tunes out despair, pop-locking with goofiness and fluidity. Emerald’s dancing is juxtaposed with shots of a sinister force skulking outside the house: Emerald is oblivious, and Palmer grounds the moment by performing the opposite of gravitas, endowing her body with a blithe buoyancy.

Pop-locking is the perfect move for an actor like Palmer: It simulates a human body’s attempt to function within restraints, and the restraint is what produces the dance’s elegance. If Emerald dancing amid disaster is not a snapshot of the function of Black art in America, I don’t know what is. Close-ups on Palmer’s face show her mix of Kabuki theatricality and understated grace. This is her trademark. “She’s able to capture joy in a really natural way,” Kaluuya told me.

Her effervescence is straightforward and contagious: You smile when she does. That’s not to say that she lacks subtlety; Palmer, who likens dialogue to music, infuses her lines with rhythm and verve and the delicacy required of a great jazz scatter riffing on — and stylistically ripping up — the American songbook. “Keke is a brilliant improviser,” Peele said. Kaluuya concurred: “She’s amazing off-top.” In “Nope,” she swings and swerves.

Back on Beavers Avenue, it was lunch time in Palmer’s dressing room. We sat on the floor and took our high heels off, getting comfortable for the first time all day. Before we started the interview, Palmer turned to me and apologized, because she needed to send an email before we began our chat. As we sat in silence, the din of the lot sometimes filtered in, and then, distracted by a production assistant’s or publicist’s voice, I chanced a glance Palmer’s way. Her face was illuminated by the glow of her laptop screen, and I saw her adjust her expressions subtly, from sweet mien to the mean mug of deep concentration, as she typed. She had the elegance, flip-book flamboyance and heightened physicality of a silent-film star. Then, Palmer finished her email, turned to me with GIFy ebullience and began the performance of being famous again. She told me: “I’m usually, more often than not, around energy that needs me to sustain it. Like, not needs me, but expects it. That’s maybe the better word.”

With some of the characters she has been given — including a hackneyed character in Peele’s “Key and Peele” sketch show known as Malia Obama’s “Anger Translator” — it’s possible to think of Palmer as a version of vaudeville-era performers like Nina Mae McKinney or Ethel Waters, upgrading thin material. I have a feeling that Palmer’s pop-lock will be turned into a GIF, like many bits from Palmer’s public performances. In a viral one, she is a guest on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” Palmer turns to the audience, contorts her mouth stagily and says her famous tagline, “But the gag is …” She states a premise and then comically refutes it with a haughty-voiced explanation: “I just sent my ex-boyfriend 100 text messages and he didn’t reply,” she said, “but the gag is he still loves me.”

In a way, Palmer’s appearances in popular memes and funny GIFs makes her a kind of descendant of the unnamed jockey in the Muybridge photos or of Beavers. GIFs encapsulate emotional reactions, broadening and flattening real feelings and impulses so that others can make use of them. Pluck a GIF of the “Real Housewife” NeNe Leakes and you are momentarily manipulating her image, along with all the racist assumptions (sassiness, bullying, sexual availability) that accrue to a Black woman’s body. Some critics have asserted that they allow Black women’s likenesses to become too easily appropriated and used as shorthand — even calling it “digital blackface.” But Palmer embeds her caricature with awareness of how it will be used. She injects some knowingness into the image, winking at those who would pass it around in God-knows-what fashion. She pushes up against the limits of images from the inside, resisting exploitation, digital and otherwise.

Palmer has written about choosing her roles carefully, not taking everything offered to her despite her ambition. I wonder if this factored into her decision to appear in “Nope,” which is a movie partly about refusal. It will not let the Black jockey become a footnote, a trivial presence in photographic history, without commenting on the loss and attempting to reclaim him. The film puts her in a lineage of Black actors and filmmakers who have done their own version of this kind of work. Think of Oscar Micheaux’s melodramas featuring middle-class strivers, which were meant to counteract minstrel characters; the Blaxpoitation films that turned stereotypes of violent, oversexualized Blackness on their heads; or the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion who made poetic departures from traditional depictions of Black people.

Palmer’s performance in “Nope” is its own act of resistance, casting a different light on how her likeness and expressivity might circulate in our culture. She enlivens the screen, exuding a deep sensitivity. Playing against Kaluuya’s stoic, quietly grieving O.J., Palmer evokes other ways to register grief. She bargains with her brooding brother and herself, joking and glad-handing through scenes. She grooves and puffs a vape pen to get through her depression. She moves on, and on, and you get whipped up in the tornado of her personality just as storm clouds drift on the ranch’s horizon. Like an outstanding improviser, Palmer says both “yes, and” (the improv credo) by bustling with a trouper’s brio, and “no,” resisting the blotting of Black subtlety and subjectivity. In this movie, when her character says, “Yeah, nah,” and runs away, that negative response works on multiple levels. Her role in “Nope” allows her to be what Louise Beavers couldn’t be: a Black woman in Hollywood whose skin is not mere spectacle.

At the end of her work day, on another stage, Palmer recorded ads for Universal Studios theme-park rides, networks like E! and foreign markets. The sound bell rang one final time, and black-clad crew members dispersed. “All right, that is a cut, and that is a wrap on Keke Palmer,” the stage manager said, and everyone cheered. Palmer shimmied in place, doing air guns with her hands, eventually blowing one out and finally breaking character.

Niela Orr is a story producer for Pop-Up Magazine and a contributing editor at The Paris Review. She will be a story editor for the magazine starting in August. Djeneba Aduayom is a photographer whose work is informed by her various cultural backgrounds and her past work as a performer. She is based in Southern California.