This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Keke Palmer’s first scene in Nope is spectacular. It’s the kind of “Oh wow, that’s a star…” commanding moment reserved for the likes of Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, lately Andrew Garfield or Florence Pugh, and the entire cast of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
As Emerald Haywood, she catapults onto the screen, running late for a safety presentation on a film set she’s supposed to give on behalf of the Hollywood horse-training business she runs with her brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) after their father died in a freak accident on their ranch.
In addition to delivering the safety protocol, she starts selling herself and all of her side hustles. Need her to act? Do stunts? Fix a grilled cheese over at crafty? She comes off as part-grifter, part-influencer, part-girl-just-doing-her-best. But she is spellbinding. It’s a one-take monologue with an energy that bounces off the screen.
She is gregarious and mischievous, and clearly performing. But you know this person. This is a person who has a zest for life, even if life isn’t reciprocating the same enthusiasm or generosity. She speaks with a passion, too, talking about her abilities and her willingness to work with the same ferocity as, say, I might describe the virtues of half-off appetizers at Applebee’s during happy hour. (If you have around 45 minutes to three hours free, I’ll be happy to demonstrate.)
You believe her. I would buy the TikTok “Pink Sauce” from her immediately and be so afraid of disappointing her that I would force myself into believing it tastes good. “So yummy…” I’d mumble from my hospital bed as my stomach was being pumped. “Thanks, Keke.”
That scene isn’t just a great character introduction and a perfect, jolting start to a fantastic movie. There’s a meta-ness to it as well. You are won over by Emerald completely. You trust she can do any of those things. Thus is the power—and the unparalleled gift—of Keke Palmer.
For years, “Keke Palmer is having a moment” has been building like a tidal wave. A star already from a young age, who earned accolades for her breakout performance in Akeelah and the Bee and endeared the Gen Z set who grew up alongside her while she starred in the Nickelodeon series True Jackson, VP, she’s been building a solid résumé of major, often surprising projects.
She’s frequently made history while doing so, which, when taken with some of her most impressive off-screen moments, speaks to her desire to have a legacy and to open doors—which she’s done with elegance and explosiveness, like the classiest grenade there is.
She’s done things that are undeniably fun, like playing Chilli in the TLC biopic that aired on VH1 or playing Marty in Grease Live! (Gay millennials have two formative pop-culture moments that confirm their identity: the first time they saw Ryan Phillippe’s butt in Cruel Intentions, and when they went wild raving about how good Keke Palmer’s “Freddy My Love” was in Grease Live!)
Her acting credits have been very “cool,” which is a silly descriptor, but an accurate connector between series like Scream Queens, Masters of Sex, Big Mouth, and Insecure, as well as the movie Hustlers.
When she launched her talk show Just Keke in 2014, she became the youngest talk show host in history. Then she became the first Black woman to star as Cinderella in the Broadway musical. That same year, she signed a record deal. In yet another “sure, why not, let’s do everything” move, she later co-hosted Good Morning America’s short-lived third hour alongside Michael Strahan and Sara Haines. Currently, she hosts the revival of the game show Password and was a judge on the recent season of Legendary. When she co-hosted the MTV Video Music Awards in the first summer of the pandemic (were we ever so young?), she oh-so-briefly gave the wallowing viewing public actual endorphins.
In other words, she’s a multi-hyphenate—but, like, an actual one who is legitimately good in each of the many hats she wears. As a bit of a multi-hyphenate myself—a person who can participate on a skilled, professional level in entertainment journalism, podcasting, and ordering too much takeout minutes after complaining about his weight—I recognize the challenge of excelling in multiple arenas.
Nope is Palmer’s biggest acting showcase after several years of routinely going viral for being unabashedly herself in interviews, which is to say being irresistibly charming and possibly the most appealing celebrity on the planet.
“Sorry to this man”—the clip that crowned Palmer as the Meme Queen in which, while taking a lie detector test for Vanity Fair, she failed to recognize Dick Cheney—was high art. The video was everywhere, the meme inescapable, and the phrase—“sorry to this man”—used by me at least twice in every conversation for six months, laughing until I wheezed each time, as I was just so clever.
But what Palmer has proven in the time since is that it wasn’t all a fluke. She is almost relentlessly magnetic and has one of the most natural comedic sensibilities in Hollywood. Her talk show appearances routinely go viral; this one in which she rants about Rose at the end of Titanic to a totally oblivious Steve Harvey is a personal favorite. A new Vanity Fair clip from the Nope press tour in which she reveals she hasn’t heard of The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully—“Now who the hell are they?”—is being billed as a “sorry to this man” sequel in headlines, as if such a perfect, off-the-cuff moment from Palmer could ever be so planned.
But then there’s the clip of her at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 exhorting a National Guard unit for kneeling instead of marching, and her ensuing op-ed on the topic. And there’s a clip of her interviewing Vice President Kamala Harris at the Essence Festival and earnestly asking how her generation can usefully mobilize and make a difference without feeling exhausted and hopeless by a system that routinely fails them. She has a head on her shoulders. She gets it. She’s remarkable.
Pop culture coverage so often trades in cynicism, a jaded exhaustion with the predictable orchestration and micromanaging of major celebrities’ careers and outward-facing personalities. And the minute a person becomes popular, the backlash inevitably ensues. So it’s kind of thrilling for Palmer to be on the crest of a moment like this, be so good in Nope, and have everyone genuinely, fervently root for her.
There’s constant talk from silly people who care about these things (me) about whether A-list movie stars and celebrities still exist the way they used to. Keke Palmer proves they do.