‘Lemon’ Director Janicza Bravo On Navigating The Industry As Woman of Color [Interview]
Originally published by Okayplayer August 2017
Filmmaker Janicza Bravo offers more than what meets the eye in her sit-down chat about Lemon with Okayplayer.
Lemon, an absurd, blue-black comedy by theater director turned film director Janicza Bravo, is more than what meets the eye. The movie centers around Isaac (Brett Gelman, Bravo’s husband and co-screenplay writer), a theater teacher and failing commercial actor who stumbles and fumbles his way through Los Angeles after his girlfriend of 10 years (the incomparable Judy Greer) dumps him. You’d be forgiven for thinking this movie belongs in the so-called “mumblecore” genre of dramedy, which largely centers around schlubby, self-obsessed white guys who we are supposed to find charming, even while they give us few reasons to do so.
Instead Lemon is a tart and well-observed analysis of how whiteness operates, a rarity in a field where whiteness is so often treated as neutral and therefore not worthy of closer examination. Any person of color who has found themselves in a room that is predominately white will find a sort of dark humor in the obnoxious questions and observations Isaac blurts out to his new love interest, a stylist named Cleo (played with warmth and charm by Nia Long, who almost wasn’t in the film) who he meets on the set of a commercial.
Lemon is one of those rare gems of a film that is truly, and wholly original, and makes me eager to see what Bravo will release next. Bravo was kind enough to grant an interview to @Okayplayer, where she reveals the motivations behind Lemon and what it has been like to navigate the film industry as a woman of color.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Okayplayer: I recently saw Lemon and what I thought was so interesting about it was, I’ve never really seen movies that analyze how white people interact with each other, because usually it’s treated like the default. And so, could you talk a little bit about, I guess, where those experiences came from and why you decided to take that kind of approach to the movie?
Janicza Bravo: For sure. So, I’ve been working and filming as a filmmaker for the last five and a half, six years and you’ve probably noticed, and I by accident kind of ended up in comedy. I come from theater, all of my work is theater, I mostly direct classics. Was very dramatic, or at least like dramatic on paper, with like some humorous undertones. And so, when I was trying to make transition to film and start writing for myself, I found that I was always writing comedies, but like not on purpose. I didn’t mean to, I set out to write drama and then it would end up being funny.
And I also tended to be working in this like, kind of this conversation of race but race through white people. I don’t think it was like, not on purpose, it was like that’s just the thing I ended up writing, I ended up always, like, when I worked with actors of color, people of color in my films were always incredibly innocent and gentle and then the white people were incredibly violent and aggressive and it wasn’t conscience.
It was like that was the thing that I kept gravitating towards and it was probably three or four films later that I was like, ‘Oh my god, my work seems to be like this.’ It was actually a friend who pointed it out—he’s a playwright—he was like, ‘Your work is like this dissection on whiteness,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, it is! Oh my god!’
And then I was like, what am I doing? I started to ask myself about that because I was writing the thing I needed to be working on or the thing that needed to come out of me, this is what I’m feeling, this is where I’m at. I don’t know really why I was doing that. I mean, I guess it had to be with my own sort of processing of whiteness. I tend to be a lone black person in a lot of white space. I am constantly navigating white space and feeling like a bit of a foreigner, an alien, or I’m always in the minority and I guess what I wanted to be engaging with or in a conversation with was how I saw whiteness. How I saw white people together.
I mean, white for me is not invisible and white for me is not the norm. Right? Like, I live in a black body, so, I can’t explain exactly why I arrived at that, but, it was definitely the thing I wanted to be working on.
What’s funny is, my work after this is not about that, so I think I had my chapter…I mean, not that I fully understood it or explained whiteness but I think I’ve spent my time in that place… All of the work leading up to that has been this kind of conversation of, I guess how I see the other half, the other side. It’s weird for me to ask this, but are you of color?
OKP: I am. Yeah…
JB: I ask that only because people of color, what you just asked me, the first question you asked me, all people of color, or I should say most people that I’ve engaged with who have color be they audiences or be they writers, see the film in the way that I see it. And I have found myself having to explain the racial aspect of it to white people where they’re like, “There’s something about race that feels bad, but I don’t understand.”
I am grossly generalizing. There’s plenty of people who have got the movie and don’t feel attacked by it, but for the most part, it’s curious to me that people of color seem to get it right away and I’m like, is that just like because we get it? Maybe it’s because if you’re trying to have this conversation, if you’re explaining whiteness, or I as a black woman is saying this is how I see whiteness, male whiteness, this sort of like, male, violent aggression, this kind of like male muscular-ness that says I deserve what I want and if I’m not getting it, then that just feels unfair. Maybe it’s hard to like that without feeling attacked, I don’t know. Anyways, sorry, I went on a tangent…
OKP: No, no. Not at all. It was just so fascinating to me, kind of watching it unfold because, you know, like I was saying, I’ve never really seen that before. I’m sure, I don’t have to tell you this, you know the indie film world is extremely white and so…
JB: [Feigning shock] Wait, what?
OKP: I know, right? Like, breaking news. But, yeah, whiteness is always seen as neutral, it’s always seen as the default even when it’s not and so when I was watching this movie, you see the comparisons on how Isaac’s family interacts with each other versus how Cleo’s family interacts with each other and it was such a stark contrast because there’s the hostility and the passive aggressiveness so you see where he gets it from.
Whereas Cleo’s family, even the way that both of those scenes were blocked, you know, Cleo’s family, everyone is more at ease with each other, they’re outside, there’s lots of gold colors and they’re actually talking to each other, whereas Issac’s family, they’re in this confined space and everyone is just so brittle. That was really a fascinating comparison. And also, it was just funny to me just to see the off-the- wall things that he says to Cleo, because it’s just like, have you beenaround black people? What are you talking about?
JB: The people that do stuff like that, to me, people say things like that to me all the time and generally, I think that the asker is coming from what they believe is an innocent place and I guess to just sort of go back to the first question of, how do you get here? Like, I didn’t know what a macro or micro aggression was until a few years ago. I feel like I have only really come into a proper understanding of racism in the last five or six years.
Where it was like, I feel these things but I don’t have the language for it. I know that these things are happening but I don’t know how to say it, I don’t know how to present it. The last few years of coming into my own and coming into myself and liking myself and being okay with myself, all of that is in the process of like, I feel comfortable presenting this because this is a truth for me, actually.
OKP: Right. I think that’s what made me laugh was just because, it all sounded very familiar. Just being a black woman in the industry that I’m in—I’m a photographer as well—and being a part of that hilarity.
JB: I mean, I’m sure you get told all kinds of stupid shit. Oh yeah. People probably ask you if you even understand what the camera is that you’re using that’s in your hand [laughs].
OKP: People will try to mansplain photography to me and I’m like, I have a Masters in this. Like, fall back, chill out.
JB: Man, of course they do. I worked on this TV show last year called Atlanta which was my first episode with Donald Glover…
OKP: Yes! I know! You directed the Juneteenth episode!
JB: Yes, I did. It was such a treat to get to do that. And it had taken a long time for me to get an episode on television and finally, Donald [Glover] took a huge risk on me and after I get that, I’m like, now it’s going to be so easy to get TV, right? Because I just worked on this TV show, it’s a hit. And after getting it, it was, but you’ve only done one episode of television and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I did a damn good episode of television.’ And I would sit in these rooms and people would be like, ‘Do you know the difference between an AD or a gaffer?’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s say that I don’t know what the difference is. Obviously, it’s worked out in my favor because I’ve managed to still be able to tell a story, right?’
JB: You don’t ask these questions of the other people that sit across from you, so why are you asking me that? If it happened a decade ago, I didn’t totally understand, like I didn’t know how to talk about that. It felt bad, but I don’t, you know, it kind of, sometimes even within that picture, I would like, is it even really happening or am I making it up? Am I aggrandizing something that isn’t real?
OKP: That’s real too, because, you know, you want to believe in meritocracy to some degree, so you don’t always immediately jump to, “Oh, you’re treating me this way because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman of color.” Your immediate thought is, “Oh, well, maybe I didn’t explain that enough or maybe I’m trippin’…”
JB: I totally went back to how I presented myself like maybe if I had done it like this or maybe if I [done that]. It was always about how I saw myself when really it was like, once there were really articulated other women out there writing, once I read Roxanne Gay, read Hilton Als I was like, ‘Oh! Okay. Yeah!’
That’s the thing, I needed to see it explained or flushed out in this way where it then, also because I think how you were raised, how I was raised, I needed someone else to sort of validate my experience, right? It’s less like that now, but definitely for those first thirty years I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know, I mean, do you think that’s how it was for me?’ I was checking in with someone else to make sure that the thing that I experienced was real.
The other thing is I moved to America when I was a teenager and when I moved here, I moved to New York and I went to this science high school in Brooklyn and then I went to New York University, and my first time having friends who were of color was when I was in high school. And then when I went to NYU that went away, like all my friends were white again and I mostly have always only ever had white friends and again, in the last five for six years, I came into having a group of black girlfriends and what a difference it is to suddenly be like, ‘Oh, it is really nice to see yourself and it’s really nice to say very little to another person that understands what happened to you.’ You really need that.
OKP: Getting back to Lemon, it’s like a who’s who roster of people in the comedy world. I got so excited when Marla Gibbs was there too! Can you talk about what it was like working with all these people who are renowned and who are veterans in the comedy world?
JB: I knew a lot of the people in Lemon. Nia [Long], Rhea [Perlman], and Marla [Gibbs] were the three people that I didn’t know. I would say of the Lemon cast, I knew, obviously Brett is my partner. I’ve worked with Michael Cera before. Judy Greeris a friend. Shiri Appleby, although I didn’t know her, we kind of had someone in common. Megan Mullally, I had worked with before. Jeff Garlin and Gillian [Jacobs] I knew. Martin Starr I knew, and when I say knew, I worked as a stylist so I’ve just seen them around. Nia, Rhea, and Marla were the three people that were very much like foreigners to me.
Nia, it took awhile to get the script to her and it’s sort of a funny story, but our producer was like, ‘Look, her managers or her agents don’t want to send this to her. She doesn’t need this.’ I said, ‘Call him back and tell him that I am a black woman.’ He was like, what? I was like, just do it. Just do it. I promise you, it’s gonna work. Make sure that it gets to her and so, he did, and she read the script that night and then we had a meeting two days later and she was like, ‘How did you know that was gonna work?’ I said, ‘Because I went back and I looked, you had not worked on a film like this and you had not worked with black women—we were both Caribbean—so we have a lot of things in common and they overlap.’
If she gets that excerpt in the movie I think she’ll really get it and so it worked. And then with Marla, she came in to audition and I was like why is Marla Gibbs auditioning for this? She can have it. She doesn’t need to come in, she can just have it. Then, our captain director was like, ‘Well, she just wants to meet you anyways, so she came in, she said hello, and I was like, ‘Great, you’re hired!’ I don’t even care if she can’t even speak—she just has it.
OKP: Are you a photographer as well?
JB: Yes, but amateur. I’m an amateur photographer. I love photography and I think you can tell by the way the film is put together that Nan Goldin had been like a major sort of reference throughout. At least for the last third of the film, the sort of Caribbean part, I’ve been referencing these photographs by Beth Lesser and Diana Lofter. There’s also this one Carrie Mae Weems photograph called “Woman Playing Solitaire” [that inspired the scene] where Isaac tells his girlfriend her birds are dead.
OKP: Was there something in particular that made you decide to move from directing theater to directing short films and then eventually, this feature film?
JB: I’ve always wanted to do this. Well, I’ve always wanted to be directing. I made a joke a few times while working on the film that the film was just an elaborate audition for me to just be able to do The Seagull, which is the play that they’re working on in the acting class. I ultimately would like to go back to the theater. I’m sort of deep in film and television now, so, my road to theater feels a little bit longer, but—directing, making, writing—it’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I was very young and my first proper invitation to working in film was through costume and graphic design. While those are not exactly what I wanted to be doing, they were a great way to be on set and to be in the space of the thing that I wanted to ultimately arrive at.