How Janicza Bravo's New Movie 'Lemon' Shatters A Major White Male Comedy Trope
As we all know, the world right now is a tricky place to navigate — and the same goes for the on-screen world in Lemon, the first feature film from writer/director Janicza Bravo. Lemon's protagonist, Isaac, is a rude, socially awkward actor relegated to adult diaper commercials while reeling from a break-up, but while the movie might seem reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Napoleon Dynamite with its "guy who can't win" attitude, Lemon is unlike anything else you've seen. And that's all thanks to Bravo, who takes a classic white male comedy trope and satirizes it with her unique, hilarious point of view.
Lemon, out now, plays with the all-too-common theme of the oddball, genial white man who makes some mistakes but ultimately triumphs. "A lot of the work my contemporaries or my peers were making were about these white guys in arrested development, these sort of flailing white guys, and I found that a lot of that work in some ways was kind of interchangeable," explains Bravo, speaking to Bustle over the phone. It may seem surprising, then, that the filmmaker, a black woman, wanted to make a movie about this trope — but it turns out she wanted to do it differently than anyone else ever has.
"The thing I also kept hearing when I heard about these films, was like, ‘there’s just something about him, there’s just something about him,’ and I’m like, ‘what? He sucks!’" Bravo explains. "For me as a viewer, I was like, there’s nothing about him." As such, she wanted Lemon to poke fun at the concept of struggling white guys always coming across as "likable" no matter how many problems they cause. In Bravo's movie, the guy whose life is falling apart doesn't find redemption, but has to deal with the consequences of his actions. "It's kind of like this exercise in conversation with whiteness, with privilege, with mediocrity," the director explains.
While Bravo herself is, in many ways, dissimilar from Isaac, the movie's themes of feeling lost and finding one's way still hit close to home. "Lemon is also about me, it’s about my feelings. Yes they are existing in a white body, but it is not through a white gaze, it’s very much my gaze," she says.
Lemon is already putting Bravo on the map — the movie was considered a breakout film at Sundance and was quickly picked up by Magnolia Pictures — but breaking in as a writer and director was not easy for her. It took "five years of feeling dismissed" for Bravo to make Lemon, she says.
"The work that I was gravitating towards seemed to exist under the banner of ‘white comedy’ and when trying to penetrate that space, there was no room for me," she recalls. But if you think that Bravo used a white heterosexual male as her main character as an attempt to fit in, however, you'd be wrong. The director actually featured her protagonist because she wanted to dismantle the trope of the flailing white male, and she wanted her audience, she says now, to laugh freely at the troubles in Isaac's life.
"I actually think it’s easier for people to see a white man in free-fall than it is to see a woman or a person of color in free-fall in this way," Bravo says. "In some ways white is being treated as invisible... and I think that it’s just easier to experience that kind of anxiety through what most of the audience views as invisible."
To some people, Bravo being a black woman might seem at odds with her ability to tell a story about a white male, but she thinks that's a major double standard. "White men have made work that stars black men and black women and they’ve been allowed to do that, there’s been a lot of room to do that," she says. However, even though Bravo didn't create Lemon with a black female protagonist, she made sure that the people behind the scenes were representative of the real world.
"It mattered to me to be able to look to the left and look to the right and see people that either look like me or felt like me," the director explains. "And it wasn’t just getting like, young brown and black kids to be our PAs, essentially the people that clean up the trash, I was like, 'we need to have these people in key positions, even if it’s their first time doing their jobs — I want to give them a chance.'"
Bravo's upcoming projects, she says, will feature female protagonists, but mostly, she's interested in conveying the emotions of "people who feel voiceless and unheard, and people who just feel dismissed" — regardless of the actor she chooses to feature. With that attitude, paired with Bravo's dark, deadpan humor, the filmmaker's mission to tell outcasts' stories will likely succeed in a major way.