Spoilers for Lemon and Bravo’s short film Gregory Go Boom ahead.
Picture an old tube TV alight in a Los Angeles living room. On it, an African woman speaks of a mysterious “they” who came at night to kill her family and burn her village. “They didn’t take me,” she says. “I don’t know why.” Cue the music: orchestral and choral, urgent and dramatic. It stops and starts and stops and starts. The camera pans slowly around the room, until there, on a couch, it finds a white man in pajamas, either passed out or dead. He lifts his head. Not dead! He touches his crotch. Horror crosses his face. He brings his fingers to his nose. Yup, that’s pee.
What the fuck is this?
That’s the appropriate response — hopefully along with bursts of laughter — to those opening few minutes, and the 79 that follow, of Lemon, the first feature film from the brilliant, twisted mind of Janicza Bravo. Even more twisted: The guy pissing himself is her husband, comedian Brett Gelman (The Other Guys, Twin Peaks), who co-wrote Lemon and stars as Isaac, a 40-something failed actor and horrible human whose peak career achievement seems to be the hepatitis-C commercial he just landed. Along for the ride are Judy Greer as Isaac’s blind girlfriend who dumps him (after, among many things, accidentally sitting in that puddle of pee); Michael Cera as Isaac’s trust-fund acting student who’s fast surpassing him; and Nia Long as the new woman who gives him a chance, until he has a mini psychotic break at her family barbecue and runs down the street pushing her wheelchair-bound grandmother (Marla Gibbs of The Jeffersons). Oh, and it gets much, much darker.
“A lot of Lemon is about fear of failure and fear of being left behind,” says Bravo, cheerily, over a delicious spread of Panamanian food at Kelso, a restaurant her sister owns in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. When she and Gelman began writing it six years ago, they were both feeling very much like, “Am I going to wake up in ten years at bottom, at this plateau, not knowing how I got to this position that I’m in?” says Bravo. “I mean, in Isaac’s case, it’s soaked in urine.” (And at the end of the movie, he’s hilariously, perversely come full circle and found himself covered in shit.)
Still, it’s not the worst that could happen to a person — which seems to be the point of Lemon’s opening, juxtaposing an African woman’s suffering with this whining schlub in his own pee. What other director in comedy is making that kind of commentary on the privilege to be an asshole that comes with being white and male?
Bravo is already a cult favorite among comedy cognoscenti for her short-film work, and her profile skyrocketed after directing 2016’s acclaimed “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta. (Alison Pill, Megan Mullally, and Gaby Hoffmann have all starred in her shorts, and a reliable witness tells me that James and Dave Franco were fan-boying her on a sidewalk at SXSW this year.) She likes to call whatever she’s doing “stressful comedy” — the kind that makes you squirm, and in which you take pleasure in watching other people squirm. “I think my work unintentionally ends up being about how much you can put people through. Like, your performer, your world, your characters, and maybe even the audience,” she says. A theater director and a stylist before she got her breaks, her tone is absurdist, her dialogue highly scripted, her visuals avant-garde. (Cera’s gigantic side-parted perm in Lemon would make Tim Burton proud; it’s in homage to Gene Wilder’s hair in Young Frankenstein. Also there’s a running joke where Bravo and her Oscar-nominated editor, Joi McMillon of Moonlight fame, cut off Gillian Jacobs’s annoying actress character mid-sentence almost every time she speaks.)
Curb Your Enthusiasm would be the closest corollary, though there’s really no voice like Bravo’s out there. Hers is a worldview that comes from being raised by a non-practicing Jewish mom on an Army base in Panama. (Her parents, who are now together again, are both tailors and both served in the military.) “I feel comfortable saying that I might be the only black, Panamanian, Jewish woman working in comedy,” Bravo says, laughing. “I grew up in the jungle, literally. Like, monkeys on my doorstep.” At Kelso, her sister’s restaurant where her stepmother makes the bacalao and Scotch bonnet hot sauce we’re devouring, she orders for us in Spanish; growing up, the only culture she consumed was super-physical American sitcoms from the ’70s and ’80s that made sense whether or not they were in English. “I watched so much TV I thought was current but was really a decade behind because we were in Panama,” says Bravo. “I feel like ten years ago I found out that Gilligan’s Island had only been on for three seasons and I had watched that for seven years and I don’t think I knew that I had watched it on repeat.”
The first time I saw Bravo’s work was when she won the short-film prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for her brutally bleak comedy, Gregory Go Boom. I’d actually hung out with her a few times the year before, and I can say from experience that it is shocking, the contrast between the delight she is to hang out with and the demented worlds she puts onscreen. Gregory follows a virginal paraplegic who happens to be racist, also played by Cera, through a series of disastrous online dates. He rejects one woman because her skin tone doesn’t match her pictures. “You smell like goat!” he blurts out. Another woman brings him home, only to shove him, and his wheelchair, out a window when her ex shows up. After a screening, Bravo recalled to me then, a man in the audience (yes, older, yes, white) told her that she had a very dark mind and ought to be making documentaries.
“I’m just sort of fascinated by whiteness,” says Bravo, who didn’t realize until recently that most of her work stars white actors. (It’s something she’s changing in her next two films.) Despite appearances, though, she says, “There’s racial stuff that’s woven into a lot of my work, and it comes from this feeling of, ‘Well, if I was white, things would just be easier.’”
She’s been particularly fascinated with the tendency of comedies to make heroes of unworthy white guys. “There’s this unspoken genre of white dude comedy,” she says, “of late-30s, early-40s flailing white guy, who when you meet him, nothing is working out for him, and nothing should be working out for him. He’s not great! But he has a great partner, a strong family, decent group of friends, and at the end of the movie, things work out for him. And I would hear how these movies would be talked about, from the makers, from the reviewers, and they’re like, ‘There’s just something about him.’ I was like, ‘What? What is there about him?’ That something about him is that he’s white. There’s a privilege and a space that male whiteness gets to forge in that I, Janicza, I will never have that.”
To inhabit a body that makes one seemingly immune from consequences, and often unaware of them, is so unfathomable to Bravo that she can only process it in her work as surrealism. “When I walk out of the house, I don’t get to exist without processing whiteness,” she explains. “It’s a part of my every day, in a way that I know it’s not a part of Brett’s. He just is and it’s fine. I find myself watching my manners because I’m so concerned with how I’m presenting myself. And it’s exhausting. It’s a lot of work to have to know all the right language and also wear the right outfit and also not put my hands in my pocket when I’m shopping in a store because I don’t want it to seem like I’m stealing.”
That’s why she found Sofia Coppola’s decision to remove a black slave character from her version of The Beguiled so disturbing. Coppola has said she’d made the decision out of “respect” for not perpetuating stereotypes, or appropriating a story that wasn’t hers to tell. “So we erase a black character because we can’t handle a black character’s narrative?” Bravo says. “The idea is that white is invisible, so it becomes easy to [digest] for everyone. But white has never been invisible to me.”
She sees it when a filmmaker she admires makes a movie about the future, or New York City, and none of the characters are people of color. And she sees it in the way Hollywood seems to divide funny movies along the lines of black comedy (Girls Trip, The Best Man Holiday) and white comedy (anything involving Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow, the Duplass Bros., Joe Swanberg, etc.) — otherwise known as “most of comedy.” Lemon is her way of adding her voice to a space where she hasn’t been invited. A space known to industry types as “Sundance comedies,” where the protagonist is often a guy who is failing at life and has to move home with his parents, but winds up triumphing. “I also wanted to call out that these guys are not good,” Bravo says. “They’re aggressive, they’re violent, they’re privileged, and they’re mediocre. Lemon is about a plateau. I mean, I care about Isaac. I feel sympathy for him. But I also see him for what he is, which is someone who doesn’t deserve what he isn’t working for. A lot of these dudes don’t.”
(There’s also a separate discussion that could happen around class, and how many of the stories in comedy are about “people feeling bad that their parents aren’t giving them money,” says Bravo. “It’s just not relatable to me. If I’m living at home at 35, things are really bleak for me.”)
It’s a space that’s so rare for a black woman to inhabit that when Bravo sent the Lemon script to actress Nia Long, she, says, “I said to our producer, ‘Tell her agent I’m black.’ And he was like, ‘Uh, I just don’t think that’s the best move for me.’ And I was like, ‘Do it. It’s going to work.’ Because I looked through her IMDb page and she’d never been directed by a black woman.” Bravo got the meeting, and a “yes” from Long: “The thing Nia said to me was, ‘I don’t get invited to play in this space. I try out for movies like this, but there’s not really roles for me in whatever the space of work is’ — and she kept calling it ‘a white comedy,’ and I was like, ‘Thanks!’”
Long’s character, Cleo, meets Isaac while doing hair and makeup on his hep-C commercial (much like Bravo met Gelman while styling him on the worst job of his career — more on that later). Over the course of their 2.5 dates Isaac tries to bond with Cleo over the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair (which Long was in) and manages to tell her family at a barbecue that he once got mugged by a gang, “a Latino gang, not a black gang — a lot of people still think ‘black’ when you say gang. Not you guys and not me, but people.”
Gelman likens Isaac, with his barely suppressed well of rage and entitlement, to “a tornado put together with Scotch tape” who would be destroyed by the system if his skin were a different color. But he also acknowledges, “If you’re white [interacting with people of color], you’re going to fuck up. I still make mistakes all the time! Our job is to notice that, and, like, if you touch somebody’s hair, immediately apologize!”
Other nods to whiteness include Cera’s character, Alex, who goes on and on about that time he hung out with this circus couple in Barcelona. “He’s not really aware that all his references are related to how bourgeois he is,” says Bravo. And Isaac’s family’s Seder, which ends in a wonderful sing-along to a children’s song called “A Million Matzo Balls” that happens in a room decorated with African masks. (“I’m really attracted to people who’ve collected things on their travels that are slightly inappropriate and then present them. I really like that in white culture,” says Bravo.) At some point, a couple of Isaac’s nieces start grilling Shiri Appleby’s character’s adopted black son (Blake Anthony Crawford) about why he’s there. He has to explain it’s because his parents were murdered. That’s a direct callback to Bravo’s memory of a little white girl in Panama asking her if she tasted like chocolate, and then licking her. “That was probably the first time I really knew I was not a white person,” she says. “I wish I tasted like chocolate! Brett would love it. It would be good for all of us.”
The most controversial and memorable confrontation of race, though, is the moment when Isaac, in a fit of rage against Alex, spray paints the words “White Nigger” on his car. That was in the first draft of the film and, Bravo says, “whenever we’d get notes for the movie, people would be like, ‘Um, this section right here …” And of course no one could talk about it either, because they were just like, ‘I can’t say these words to your face.’” Her cinematographer was so uncomfortable, he asked if she’d maybe change it to a swastika or a dick drawing, and Bravo refused. “I was like, ‘A car that’s got a dick on it, that’s goofy. It doesn’t hurt. It should feel like a knife for the audience, like Isaac has done this to you.’ It’s a very particular kind of white male violence. Isaac can use that word because the world has told him he’s allowed to do whatever he wants.” Actually filming the scene, though, was a surreal sight to behold. “To watch Michael Cera do five takes of getting in a car that says that on it and drive away with it,” says Bravo, “I was like, ‘What is this movie? This is so insane.’”
Being a black woman working in white comedy has sometimes felt like its own version of Waiting for Godot, too. Bravo had to make eight short films before producers would take the risk of financing Lemon. “When I was at one short, [I was told] I didn’t have enough. If I was at two, four, five, it wasn’t enough work. And by the time I was finishing my eighth, it was like, ‘Okay, now I have the work. What’s the block?’” This was after her second short film, Gregory, won Sundance.
“I’ve always felt that it was about me being of color more than me being a woman in situations where people may be condescending,” she says. “My comedy or my sense of humor is in a space that’s predominantly white dudes, but I feel like if I was a black dude that I could dude-to-dude with them. I think our penises would have some, like, bonding. It would just be a daisy chain of dicks. That would be really sweet.”
Meanwhile, she was watching her peers, “men and women filmmakers I went to school with who had either made no short films and were automatically making features, or people who had made a short film and then were going on to make a feature that had triple, quadruple the money I was asking for on Lemon.” This was coupled with the fact that she had a degree in theater directing from NYU, but for ten years had to work as an on-set stylist to pay rent. (Her college buddy Jon Watts, who recently directed Spider-Man: Homecoming, gave her her first job, on his senior thesis.) She only got to quit to be a full-time director four years ago.
She actually met Gelman while styling him for his first big job, as the face of the New York State Lottery’s Take 5. “Those ads are really not cool,” says Bravo, laughing. “He’s shrunken down and his head is made very large and he’s playing this moving, shaking Jewish minstrel guy.” She wasn’t sure about Gelman for the first three months. (He had a lot of actory feelings, plus hypochondria; on their first date he told her about “his childhood therapist who’d died of cerebral meningitis,” she says.) Gelman was sold on Bravo immediately: “First of all, she’s gorgeous. But I’d also never met somebody who was just so incredibly honest and so engaged in life.” Plus, he adds, “Janicza doesn’t remember this but she was saying crazy shit on that first date, too.”
In between styling gigs, Bravo wrote, shot, and self-financed her first short, the black-and-white Eat, starring Gelman as a neighbor who creeps on Bravo’s NYU friend Katherine Waterston. It got into South by Southwest, which should’ve been a triumphant moment, but all she felt was sad and shitty, surrounded by friends who were there with features. So when some nice women she’d met asked her what she was up to next, she lied and said she was working on a feature, too. They turned out to be from the Sundance Labs, a prestigious mentoring program, and said they’d take a look at the script if she could get it to them in five days. She ran back to her Airbnb and spent the rest of the festival pounding out Lemon with Gelman.
They didn’t make it into the Labs, but Bravo did start her collaboration with Cera that SXSW, after he saw and loved Eat. He signed on to Lemon five years ago, and when financing fell through, helped to produce Gregory. And it was through Gregory, years later, that Bravo got her Atlanta gig. That show’s creative duo Donald Glover and Hiro Murai had not only hired Bravo’s longtime cinematographer, Christian Sprenger, to shoot all of Atlanta, but they’d also referenced the short as the kind of discomfiting vibe they wanted for “Juneteenth,” an episode in which a rich white guy who is obsessed with black people is throwing a party in honor of the day slavery ended. Bravo says she was going for a vibe of “a Spike Lee–directed production of Eyes Wide Shut.” She’s the only person other than Glover and Murai to direct an episode of the show’s first season.
Atlanta was Bravo’s first TV-directing gig, but the highlight of this remarkable year may have been directing HBO’s Divorce. It turns out that Bravo’s first job out of college was spending a year as Sarah Jessica Parker’s second assistant, and it was an appropriately teary reunion. SJP was so proud-aunt that every time Bravo looked over at her while she was directing, she’d be grinning and flashing a thumbs up. “I was like, I need to be a cool director lady. I can’t have you giving me the thumbs up, Sarah Jessica Parker!”
Bravo is now working on two films, one she can’t talk about and another that’s a comedy of errors she wrote about American nurses who don’t speak Spanish going to Central America to make a difference. “It’s like when you do Habitat for Humanity and all you do is update your Facebook profile with a picture of you and some poor children,” she says.
Still, the condescension persists. While going around to film festivals, more often than not, people would just assume that Gelman had directed Lemon. Most recently, Bravo says, “I just did an episode of Judd Apatow’s show Love, and I had people asking me where the bathroom was. I’m like, ‘I’m directing this episode of this TV show!’” But she also realizes how Hollywood works. “How often are people on sets where someone who looks like me is the person we’re all looking to?” she says. “It’s a rarity, and I want to be a part of that dialogue changing.”
And until it changes, she’s going to occupy this space where she wasn’t invited, so the next woman of color will have an easier time making a movie about a white guy who pees himself.