You’ve seen the type of indie-flick protagonist that Janicza Bravo’s brilliant first feature Lemon is centered on: The bearded and 40-year-old Isaac is prone to non sequiturs and chaos. His life seems to be in tatters, but Lemon has the smell of one of those movies where it’s all going to work out in the end for its central character (by virtue of the fact that we’re following him, for one thing).
Except it turns out that Lemon’s notes are way more complex than that. Of the many extraordinary things Bravo does as a writer/director in Lemon, one is turning typical indie quirk on its ear when she contrasts the disconnected communication of her white/Jewish characters with the warmth and clarity of her black characters. So rarely do movies interrogate their white characters on race, but Lemon does so repeatedly in surprising ways throughout its runtime. Lemon is a daring movie that feels the most right when it’s being “so wrong” by status quo standards.
With Dada/cubist/futurist influences and featuring strong performances from the likes of Nia Long, Michael Cera, Judy Greer, Rhea Perlman, and Fred Melamed, Lemon works straightforwardly as a comedy, albeit an “absurd dark comedy that sometimes makes you feel good and sometimes makes you feel bad,” as Bravo, 36, puts it. An intersection of her experience in comedy and observing race relations as a black woman in America who grew up in Panama, there has simply never been a movie like Lemon. Bravo wrote it with her husband Brett Gelman, who also stars in the movie as Isaac. Lemon played this year’s BAM Cinemafest, and will open for the general public August 25. I talked to Bravo and Gelman last week about Lemon, and a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: How did Lemon come to be conceptually?
JANICZA BRAVO: When we started talking about what we wanted to work on, it was like, “What are the things we need to exorcise?” And I feel at that moment for both of us, we were feeling like everyone was passing us by. There was this feeling of: friends were having children, buying homes, getting married, and I can’t really see that, that doesn’t feel near. I’d had this aching feeling that one day I was going to wake up and be later into my thirties, early into my 40s and kind of not have a sense of how I got there and that maybe I wasn’t going to be a person that would get to arrive at the life that I saw for myself.
So that was one genesis. The other was, I went to theater school, I worked in drama, and I wanted to move into film and comedy and I saw the work that was being made seemed to be about a certain kind of person and I felt like that was a space that was hard for me to penetrate. I was also fascinated by what seemed to be this genre of the late 30s/early 40s white guy who is not good at things, but things seem to work out for. So, the amalgamation of all of the anxiety of failure and my anthropological interest in this space of white-guy comedy, but wanting there to be consequence and wanting there to be failure, was what made Lemon.
Why did you find that space to be impenetrable? Is it because we’re talking about white people and you’re a black filmmaker?
JANICZA: (Laughs) Let’s just go really clear! Yeah, I think there’s more to it than that, but yes, I was wanting to work in a space that there weren’t really people that looked like me and my humor or my sensibility did not fit into, I guess, what the other space of comedy is, which is black comedy. My face is black, but my comedy, I guess, was “white.” I don’t think of my comedy as being white. If I had to label it I would say it’s absurd and dark and I think there’s just more permission for filmmakers that are not of color to make work like that or sort of explore in that space. There just weren’t people that looked like me of any sex hanging out in this kind of soup. There’s some tone-shifting in our movie, like it’s funny and it’s kind of dangerous and there’s some energy of impending violence also. There’s lots of tones to explain and prove that you can do when you look like myself. That is to say I did eight short films before I did Lemon, and I’ve had contemporaries who had not done that much work and got to make their features [anyway] and they just had proof of self. My proof of self wasn’t profound enough, I guess.
There are so many things in Lemon that are remarkable to me, but the foremost is that in movies centered on white people, you so rarely see them interrogated about race, excepting something like Ghost World. They’re allowed to go about without ever acknowledging this, where as Lemon does this regularly, whether it’s juxtaposing white characters and black characters or just having the white characters talk about race. And that to me seems very pointed.
JANICZA: I don’t know when this realization happened for me, but it was some film I saw years ago and it took place in the future and there were no people of color in it. We were walking out of the theater and we were with some people who really liked it and I was kind of confused by it. All I said was, “Oh, there’s no black people in the future.” The people that we were with were like, “Oh… yeah,” but that’s not what they had noticed. And then Brett told me this great Richard Pryor joke…
BRETT GELMAN: …about Logan’s Run. He’s like, “Has anyone seen this movie, Logan’s Run? Apparently, they’re not expecting us to be around by then.”
The Jetsons, too.
JANICZA: They didn’t make it. I guess that group just didn’t arrive. That stayed with me and I was thinking that I didn’t get to live in this way where I could walk outside my house and not engage with whiteness. And that actually Brett, even though he’s my partner, he could actually walk out of our home and not engage with blackness. And so, Isaac is someone who doesn’t really get that. It’s there, it’s outside when he walks outside, but he doesn’t even know really how to have a conversation with it, but he’s aware that it’s there and he thinks he has access to it without asking permission.
BRETT: In her execution of the film and our writing of the film, I found there was an executional dogma to it of being a very composed piece that was on script and very, very planned in how it was shot, how it was edited, as opposed to being very loose and improvisational, which is the greater trend in comedy. Not to say that some of that is not amazing, but there is a huge influx of that especially in the last 10 years.
Brett, how much did you think about race before you were with Janicza?
BRETT: I did think about it. It was something that was always prevalent in my mind to some extent in terms that I was, like any good suburban Jew, really influenced by a lot of aspects of black culture. Really moved by the stories of civil rights, really interested in that.
JANICZA: And you loved hip hop.
BRETT: Yes. But until you’re really made aware of the true systemic problem that this country has, that the world has, but it’s very special in the United States, I missed a lot. When you see that all the way from housing projects to microagressions, I was made significantly more aware of it. I wanted to understand in a deeper way what the most important person to me was going through. And then I just also witnessed it firsthand of how it would happen to her. Something that was really innocuous in the past, potentially, I saw as insidious now. I really got the full sense of how I had acted in certain cluelessly racist ways throughout growing up. I did these three Adult Swim specials, for instance, that were dinner specials. The third one was on race and for that I was like, “We need an inclusive crew.” And then I realized, well why didn’t I say that for the other two specials?
Being with her, I see around every corner and every nook and cranny of our subconscious lurks this systemic problem. Sometimes I slip up even now because I am a white man. So the answer is: [now] way more, but I did have an empathy towards that to some extent.
Stuff that’s been written about this movie suggests there’s parallels to your own lives in some ways. Is there anything about the Isaac and Cleo [Isaac’s love interest played by Nia Long] that mirrors what you guys have been through?
JANICZA: The two family dinners, the Seder and the barbecue with the Caribbean family, you could put them together and that’s Brett’s family versus my family. Both groups talk a lot about themselves and don’t ask any questions, but my family’s more saturated. They’re just like really good reds and yellows and oranges and greens, and his are like beige.
BRETT: And gray.
JANICZA: And how Isaac and Cleo meet. We met on a commercial nine years ago. Brett was the face of the New York State Lotto, which becomes the hepatitis campaign in our film. I was the stylist for it and he was the actor. And then some of the theater class stuff. It’s super hyperbolic, but we both went to theater school and we were abused by teachers who should not have been teaching children. Like, a lot of irresponsible teachers. We had great teachers too, but some irresponsible ones who were abusive.
Emotionally or physically too?
JANICZA: Emotionally, but that stuff stays with you.
It seems like part of the idea of this movie is to have the white people talk in a disconnected way, where nobody really listens to each other, whereas there’s a fluidity amongst the black people. Was that a concept that was overarching at the outset, or did it come out as a consequence of writing this?
JANICZA: Like I said, I made eight other short films and most of the eight, six of them, are explorations in this space tonally and emotionally. They’re white protagonists who have a kind of violence about them and their engagement is pretty staccato. And then when there are people of color in the world, the people of color are very fluid and warm and stable. I’d been writing work like this and did not exactly know that’s what I was doing and a friend of ours who is this young black playwright was like, “Yeah, you’re really into white exploration.” I was like, “Oh yeah.” When I go back and look at that, that is what was going on unconsciously. Lemon had already been in that style already and when we revisited it, it just became more pointed. I didn’t simply mean to say that white people are bad and black people are good.
I don’t think it says that. I think it’s more about the way people relate to each other.
JANICZA: It’s how I felt I was being related to, too. It’s changed, but it did feel like a kind of not fluid engagement who were the opposite, and people who are like me I found to be really enveloped and welcoming and inviting. And of course these are gross generalizations, but that was what I had felt and been experiencing and I think for both of us, that seemed to like make a lot of sense at least in the world of the piece.
I think there’s nothing more provocative in the movie than when Isaac’s sister’s son is being questioned by his brothers’ kids. The punchline of this scene, per the way it’s cut, is that the black boy’s parents were killed. That line elicits a reflexive laugh. You really fucked me up with that.
JANICZA: That scene is probably the only scene that I would say from when we first wrote the script to now that had not changed. That has been in the movie since the first draft. It was almost ripped out from my childhood, this feeling of not belonging and constantly being asked why I was in certain spaces. [For] Shiri Appleby, who plays Brett’s sister with the adopted black son, we loved this idea of having a Latin woman who worked for her. She had an adopted black son, she had a lot of sensitivity for blackness, but no sensitivity for Latin-ness. That brown didn’t make sense to her, but this brown did. And that she was inviting this little black boy into her family and her family was not necessarily welcoming of him. I mean, for the most part they were, but these little girls had been by their parents told that this kid did not belong. So they were reiterating what they heard, which is language from the parents like: “Well, you’re not really their kid. You’re not really part of this family, obviously because you look like you.” He handles it very beautifully, it’s a beautiful interrogation on his end. And I would say maybe that scene is the distillation of the racial discourse of the film.
I have a question for you. We were talking last night with this programmer from BAM. She had said, “I went back and read some of your reviews, and it was interesting to me that most people had not engaged with race or asked about that at all.” I would say 90 percent of them. She was like, “Why do you think that is?” I was like, “I don’t know.” It seemed obvious to both of us. So I’m curious: How do some people see it really clearly and other people don’t see it at all?
Maybe people don’t engage with the race aspect because you made a very subtle movie of contrasts. You have to be able to see what you’re looking at, basically, and it’s uncommon for a movie to engage with race like that. Before I even realized where the movie was going, my thought was, “Wow, how interesting that a black woman made a movie about white people like this.” Then I realized there was the Nia Long character and a more explicit depiction of black culture. Ultimately, I thought the movie bespoke a certain amount of hope that people could absorb what is an everyday conversation among certain, but by no means all, members of the elite.
JANICZA: I did feel like people could get it, so I was kind of surprised when they didn’t. And then I thought maybe it was too subtle. It read so clear to me. Also, we spent a lot of time with it. It’s also a conversational place where we spend a lot of time, as well. And then, like you said, there’s this thought of elitism: Am I operating in this very small circle where I think everybody speaks the same way and feels the same way? Or whether or not they feel the same way, at least they have a sense of what the feelings are that I’m talking about. It’s possible that maybe that’s just it when it comes to engaging with outside of my circle that maybe the film is more subtle than I think that is.
BRETT: I think there’s more than one way to engage with race and it should be dealt with in a subtle way, both to open up how filmmakers of color, the type of work they’re “allowed” to make, and to maybe show white filmmakers that they can engage with it in a subtle way, too, that might not be so daunting and that forces them to be more inclusive.