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As America Reels from Charlottesville, ‘Lemon’ Finds Comedy in Unmasking Racism

Janicza Bravo's unsettling comedy is a window into America's troubling racial divide.

brett gelman lemon

“Lemon”

The footage of white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville is horrific, although there’s comic value in the absurdity of racist lunatics trooping to home improvement centers so they could wield tiki torches. Still, for late-night talk show hosts and other comedians, the prospects of mining humor from this peacock display of American bigotry was a strict no-fly zone.

Enter “Lemon.” When it premiered at Sundance in January, writer-director Janicza Bravo’s unnerving first feature was a fascinating deconstruction of white male privilege and racist ideology; in the shadow of Charlottesville, her satire echoes the headlines as it arrives in theaters and VOD on August 18.

In the movie, Bravo (a black woman born in Panama and raised in the U.S.) directs her husband, comedian Brett Gelman, who’s white. Gelman plays Isaac, a disgruntled and alienated playwright. The disheveled, self-absorbed man mistreats his girlfriend, can’t stand his neurotic Jewish family, and seems all alone — until he meets a Jamaican-American woman Cleo (Nia Long) and becomes obsessed with her. That leads him toward further humiliation as he attempts to make nice with her family, only to insult them with a string of racist assumptions.

As the country searches for answers to the roots of its racist subcultures, “Lemon” offers a keen dissection of the infuriating paradoxes behind much of these tensions. As with Bravo’s acclaimed early shorts like “Eat” and “Gregory Go Boom,” the movie constantly shifts between cringe-comedy and more unsettling windows into the psychology of a disturbed, solipsistic man. Isaac’s behavior veers from inane to terrifying and cruel; when he makes a modicum of progress with Cleo’s family, he ultimately flees in a state of profound confusion, grousing in misery and hating the world.

“Lemon” serves to frame much of confusion and stupidity now in the national spotlight with a mixture of revulsion and pity. It’s a concept that Bravo and Gelman intended to embed at the core of the story. “This is a guy who can’t function in this world of cold whiteness invaded by the warmth of black people,” Gelman said in an interview earlier this summer. “We wanted to this sort of familiar story about a white dude whose girlfriend leaves him, whose job isn’t going well, whose family doesn’t respect him, and put real consequences to that.”

Much of the movie stems from the biracial couple’s own experiences. “I would certainly say that Janicza was a major, positive influence in my life, but a lot of the anxiety and stress in the movie is the fabric of our everyday lives together,” Gelman said. “This movie is about the ignorance of somebody floundering in a culture he’s not used to. That’s something I do everyday, even though we’ve been together for eight and a half years. I’m conditioned to be a certain way.”

This is familiar terrain for Gelman, a character actor whose most distinctive credits include three “dinner party” specials on Adult Swim. He produced, wrote and starred in these surreal chamber pieces, in which he played a twisted variation of himself. The third of these, “Dinner in America with Brett Gelman,” may be one of the most radical satires of racial politics in TV history, and it’s certainly Adult Swim’s most incendiary statement on modern times.

The half-hour special opens as a tribute to Sidney Poitier hosted by Lance Reddick, but he’s quickly replaced by Gelman, who emerges from a Confederate flag and sets it aflame. He explains to his baffled guests — including Loretta Devine, Joe Morton and Shareeka Epps — that he wants to moderate an honest conversation about race, even as he makes crass attempts to find common ground: “I stand with you guys more than I stand with my guys!”

It doesn’t take long for the room to turn on him. As Gelman grows frustrated when the conversation hits a snag, one guest tells him, “You can’t handle it when shit gets real. You’re just as racist as the people whose flag you burned.” Morton becomes the ultimate truth-teller in the surreal showdown, saying to Gelman, “You’re not a racist. You’re a virus.” The scenario takes a sharp turn when a white police officer enters the set, accusing the guests of a crime, which leads to a grisly, cartoonish murder followed by a final confrontation that’s equally absurd and tragic. The episode unfolds like a delirious editorial cartoon stuffed into 24 minutes, with every potential laugh counteracted by a reality check. “You were raised ignorant,” one guest tells Gelman. “The system thrives on it.”

If that doesn’t hilarious, that’s exactly how Gelman intended it to turn out. “It’s not a comedy,” he said. “It’s a tragedy pranking the audience into thinking it’s a comedy. You can delight in this white guy’s flaws, and then he destroys these people. I don’t want people laughing by the end. I want them horrified and sad that this is the situation in our country.”

This has become an increasing centerpiece to Gelman’s intentions, both through his work with Bravo and outside it. “Our work is very much about the flaws of white liberals and how we needed to put ourselves in check, to see how were possibly racist in ways we didn’t realize,” he said. “We really have to start looking for that in our behaviors and choices. It’s kind of been in the zeitgeist for the last 400 years. People of color have had to deal with this since the founding of our country.”

Now, “Lemon” continues the searing portrait of white male fallacies. In retrospect, it anticipated the horrific extremes of Trump’s America, and has only increased its critical depth. Isaac winds up alone, angry and driven mad by his solipsism, but he still can’t access the concept of prosecution facing people of color. “Our film is very much about privilege and mediocrity,” Gelman said. “Isaac is the type of person who will not ultimately be destroyed for what he lacks. However, there are many people who, if they possessed the same flaws as Isaac, would be annihilated.” 

Jon Daly, Shiri Appleby, director Janicza Bravo, Judy Greer and Brett Gelman

Jon Daly, Shiri Appleby, director Janicza Bravo, Judy Greer, and Brett Gelman

Daniel Bergeron

Reached for further comment after the Charlottesville events, Gelman emphasized the need to call out racism in the fabric of American culture, rather than fixating on its more overt expressions.

“The fact that many people want to pretend this is not obvious is one of the fundamental problems of this country every day,” he said. “Not just at white supremacist rallies, but every little aspect of our society. We live in a country whose government and many of its people support white supremacy and disintegration of basic human rights. Even if these supporters are not at rallies in places like Charlottesville, they’re supporting it with their silence and perpetuating a broken system founded on slavery and genocide.”

Funneling some of those sentiments into its plot, “Lemon” dares viewers to deal with its contemptible protagonist — and in the process, come closer to understanding the origins of his failings. “There is a childlike quality to these people,” Gelman said. “They aren’t ready to fully grow up. They’re incapable of dealing with their flaws.”

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