You might not technically appear onscreen in Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s film, Keanu, but your presence looms large nonetheless. And it’s more than just the fact that your music provides much of the soundtrack for this fish-out-of-water-mistaken-identity-bumbling-buddy-action-comedy movie. It’s what you represent that informs the tone of this film, which, between bong hits, bullets, and kitten stunts, attempts to answer the question: what makes a man in the 21st century?
The comedy duo Key & Peele have spent the last half-decade becoming America’s leading satirists. Their titular show on Comedy Central took aim at social, racial, and sexual politics with characters like Mr. Garvey, the substitute teacher from the inner city, Rafi, the ass-slapping baseball player, and Luther, President Obama’s anger translator. Part of their success, beyond being incredibly funny, is their talent for code-switching, the process of moving between different language/cultural styles in different contexts. The products of mixed-race parents, both Key & Peele explore the clichés of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” effortlessly and hilariously.
It’s this ability to code-switch that is the cause of – and solution to – Rell and Clarence’s problems when they accidentally get caught up in a gangland drug war. As suburban Los Angelites, they couldn’t be more average: Clarence is an uptight but well-intentioned husband and father whose wife implores him to let loose while she and their daughter are away for the weekend; Rell is a heartbroken, pot-smoking photographer who is obsessed with his new kitten, Keanu. When Keanu is stolen by Cheddar, the leader of the Seventeenth Street Blips, Rell and Clarence must create thug personas in order to infiltrate Cheddar’s gang and rescue the cat.
No doubt you have more than a passing familiarity with this concept, George. In fact, you are part of a musical category called “blue-eyed soul,” a term specific to white artists who sing in the style of blues, soul, and R&B. In the 80s, your boyish good looks and bubblegum sound landed Wham! on the walls of shrieking schoolgirls across the world. But when you went solo, your music had heavier sexual overtones, and you took on a bad-boy persona with your cop-shades, cowboy boots, and leather jacket. Then you were arrested for indecent exposure at a public park in California and the world found out you were gay. Code switching, for you – and many people who straddle two worlds – is a matter of survival.
In a scene where Clarence is in his mini-van with three gang members, he has to defend his love for your music by painting you as a gangster; he describes your song Father Figure as a metaphor for young men who grew up without a dad, and how you used to be in a duo with a guy named Ridgely, who, after you went solo, was never heard from again, implying that you killed him. This last one could very well be true. The reason this all works is because the characters are broad enough to be funny, and human enough to be interesting. When Clarence belts the lyrics from “Freedom 90” – “all we have to do now, is take these lies and make them true somehow” – he really means it.
Rell and Clarence are self-aware enough to recognize the absurdity of their situation. Upon entering the strip club where they suspect Keanu is being held, Rell accuses Clarence of sounding like Richard Pryor doing an impersonation of a white guy, and Clarence accuses Rell of sounding like John Ritter. Very quickly they have to adopt new personas, which of course includes the hilarious over-use of the N-word. As they struggle with their newfound alter-egos, Key and Peele are infinitely watchable, even if the script doesn’t quite match the caliber of their talents. For their first foray as a duo on the big screen, Keanu isn’t as epic as I had hoped, but it is a promising start to what I suspect will be the first of many K&P movies. As you know, true fans are willing to overlook even the most egregious transgressions.
Keep the faith,