The True Story Behind the First Ever Black Movie Star From 'Nope'

Nope is in cinemas now, meaning viewers are finally getting to meet OJ and Emerald Haywood—and discover the family history director Jordan Peele has given them.

Early in the film, Emerald (played by Keke Palmer) tells the story of her great-great-great-grandfather, who she claims is the star of the first motion picture ever created—a two-second shot of a Black man on a horse, seen at the start of Nope's trailer.

As we might expect from a director as cine-literate as Peele, this is a reference to a real piece of cinema history—though he has taken a few artistic liberties with the true story.

As well as being a piece of pop culture history, the reference to this Black man on a horse also illuminates one of the biggest themes of Nope.

The First 'Movie Star' Was a Man on a Horse—but not the One Shown in Nope

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Still from "Nope." The movie comes to theaters this July. Universal

The question of what the first movie ever made was depends on your definition of what a film is.

The Guinness Book of Records, for example, lists the oldest surviving film in existence as Louis Le Prince's 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene. This was the first (or perhaps one of the first) motion pictures to be shot by a single camera, taking multiple photos of an event to give the illusion of movement.

Before this, however, there was 1878's ​​Sallie Gardner at a Gallop by Eadweard Muybridge. The English photographer set up 24 cameras to take photos one after the other while a horse galloped in front of them. In 1880, he projected these images during a presentation as a motion picture, creating an event that many believe is the earliest known motion picture exhibition.

The man riding Sallie Gardner the horse is identified as a G. Domm on the cabinet card version of the images. Little concrete is known about this man, though a researcher posting on The Floating-Point Divide website offers some compelling evidence that the rider is Gilbert Domm, an employee at the stables where the photos were shot.

However, the video footage that is used in Nope is not from ​​​​Sallie Gardner at a Gallop. In some of the Sallie Gardner photos Domm's race is ambiguous, as the photographs have been altered to leave his face in silhouette, so as to better show the movements of man and horse:

In others, such as the one that formerly appeared on Stanford University webpage (which has been saved on Archive.org moved to YouTube below), he appears to be white:

Though the first ever person in a motion picture might not actually be black, the footage Peele uses of a Black jockey is real. It is an animated version of a later set of images that made up plate 626 of Muybridge's 1887 book Animal Locomotion. London's Royal Academy labels this set of photos as Horses. Gallop; thoroughbred bay mare (Annie G) with male rider, 1872-1875. Though this is often incorrectly listed as Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, this Royal Academy caption proves that it is of a different horse with a different rider.

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"Horses. Gallop; thoroughbred bay mare (Annie G) with male rider, 1872-1875" by Eadweard Muybridge. A motion picture version of the photogaphs can be seen in the trailer to "Nope." Public Domain

Who Is the Black Jockey?

We know even less about the identity of this man than we do about G. Domm. In fact, we do not even know his name. We know that the horse is called Annie G., but her rider's name is lost to time.

This may have been why Peele decided to include him in his film. After all, Nope is a film all about the people (and people of color specifically) forgotten by Hollywood. How thematically rich to link this to the first Black movie star—and the first person of color whose name is lost to film history.

Nope is in theaters now.