‘Karen’ Director Defends His Controversial Movie: ‘It’s a Feel-Good Film’
You’ve surely seen the viral trailer. Now, filmmaker Coke Daniels talks to Marlow Stern about his upcoming ‘Karen’ film—and why he feels people have got it all wrong.
This past week, a two-minute clip of an unhinged white woman menacing Black folks set the internet ablaze. It was a trailer for Karen, an upcoming suspense-thriller starring Taryn Manning as a racist white lady who sets her sights on Malik and Imani (played by Cory Hardrict and Jasmine Burke), a young Black couple that moves into the same Atlanta suburb, and makes their lives a living hell.
It is, of course, a play on “Karen”—defined as “a pejorative slang term for an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way or police other people's behaviors.” It’s a term that’s risen in popularity following a number of viral incidents of white women caught on camera calling the police on innocent Black people, from “Permit Patty” to “BBQ Becky” to Amy Cooper, or flying into anti-mask rages in public places during the pandemic.
“In America, white women are often believed and protected at all costs, even at the expense of Black lives,” wrote The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah. “In 1955, it was a white woman who falsely accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her in Mississippi, which led to him being brutally beaten and killed. Fast-forward to recent years and we still learn about black people being arrested or assaulted because a white woman called the police unnecessarily. Becky and Karen memes and jokes should be understood in this context, part of a long tradition to use humor to try to cope with the realities of white privilege and anti-Blackness.”
When the Karen trailer dropped, it provoked a great deal of backlash from Black Twitter—the term, after all, has fallen out of cultural favor, deemed too “cutesy” given the very real dangers involved. Writer Roxane Gay wondered if it was “an SNL thing,” while NPR’s Aisha Harris wrote, “So we’re just taking rejected premises for INSECURE’S show-within-a-show parodies and turning them into actual bad movies now?”
“I need people to understand my motivations,” Karen’s writer/director Coke Daniels tells me. “This is my ninth film. I’ve been in the business for twenty years. I’ve worked with some of the best and brightest in this business. I’m not some novice filmmaker who got thrown a budget by Hollywood and thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to poke fun at Karens?”
The first of those films was My Baby’s Daddy, a 2004 comedy he wrote and co-produced that was distributed by Miramax, and that he maintains was “homogenized and turned it into something horrible, and that’s why I’ve been an independent filmmaker ever since.” Daniels says he specializes in comedy, like his N.W.A-spoofing Gangsta Rap: The Glockumentary, and views Karen as a satire on modern-day race relations in America. The film will air on BET in the fall and also receive a limited theatrical release, as well as hit Prime and iTunes.
Critics of Karen have quite loudly branded it a lame rip-off of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning social thriller. We talked about all that and more with Coke Daniels, L.A. rapper turned filmmaker.
How do you feel about the reaction to the Karen trailer? It’s certainly been… passionate.
I mean, I’m gonna be honest with you: I loved it. I fully expected this when I wrote that ominous word on the title page. What’s amazing about it is, the point of us making this film was to spark dialogue and continue conversations about social injustice and racism in this country, and with all the hype, hysteria, love, hate, everything, it just creates the perfect platform for us to really set the stage for that discussion. I knew this was coming. It’s a delicate subject matter and these are very trying times, so I respect everyone’s opinion—even if I don’t necessarily agree with them—because I want to have dialogue. We need to talk about some ugly truths, and if it takes my movie to be the Trojan horse to get us into those conversations, then I’m all for it.
And nobody’s seen it yet—including myself. [They would not provide me with a screener.]
Nobody’s seen the film. I’ve never seen this much hype or hysteria behind an independent film. This is an independently produced and developed film by a Black independent filmmaker. This is not Hollywood. This is not Hollywood’s version of social injustice. This is by somebody who’s part of the culture. The film is amazing. The film is everything—and more—than people think it is. I come from a comedy background, so obviously there’s a bit of satire to the film. I hear the audience when they’re saying, Is this funny? Is this serious? It’s all of that, because these are the times we live in and art should reflect the times. We laugh at Karen videos—we laugh at some of these racist confrontations that happen online every day—but deep down inside it’s not funny, and then when they turn left—and turn violent—it’s not funny anymore. That’s the tone of the film: you’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna cry, you’re gonna get angry.
There was a viral tweet about the Karen trailer that said, “Jordan Peele only has two films under his belt as a director and he already has people trying to copy his formula. Talk about impact.”
I think a lot of the narrative going on with the whole Jordan Peele rip-off thing is an attempt to dilute the actual message of the film—because for one, these are two totally different films. They’re in a similar genre, but to say that I totally ripped off Jordan Peele is insane, because the storyline and characters are nothing alike. Jordan Peele is a dope filmmaker and Get Out is a dope film—I want to get that out there—but I think there’s enough room for a Jordan Peele and a Coke Daniels. I want to make sure people understand that this isn’t somebody outside of the culture capitalizing on Black pain. That’s not it. This is somebody who’s part of the culture, who felt the pain, and who wanted to find a positive outlet and platform to start talking about this stuff. This came after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery—that’s what inspired me to write this script.
There are obviously far worse people to be compared to than Jordan Peele, but I’m curious why you think people made that comparison and accused you of biting his style?
I think that this film and this subject matter is so shocking and jarring that people fear what they don’t understand. Chuck D, one of my idols in hip-hop culture, put on his Instagram page: Is this real? It’s just so crazy how so many different people have had so many different reactions. The comparison is legitimate in that they’re similar in tone and they’re both suspense-thrillers, but I think why Karen is more offensive and polarizing than Get Out was is because we’re dealing with the reality of things going on today. Jordan Peele’s film was brilliantly executed, written, and directed, and I’m not knocking his film—it’s brilliant, and I love that film—but it was more psychological and a science-fiction-type thing. This is real. The tone of the films is the same, and I think that’s what’s drawing the comparison, and from an audience standpoint, they don’t know how to differentiate between a similar tone and plagiarism.
It is just a trailer and nobody’s seen the film yet. But I’m curious why you think it provoked such a negative reaction?
Even the people that hate it are going to watch it to talk trash about it, and we accept that. I’m an artist, and I don’t expect unanimous love and admiration across the board. I don’t need it. That’s not my purpose in life or my motivation. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me. As to why they responded that way? I can’t speak on all of it, but maybe fear of what they don’t understand. There’s a lot of pain from the Black community—and suffering—that’s been going on for decades. More recently, it’s been an ugly past couple of years for Black people in this country, and that’s why I felt as an artist, with the climate that was going on, I would not have felt right just writing another romantic comedy and something that didn’t speak to these issues or speak truth to power. It’s jarring. It’s in-your-face. I went for the jugular. I didn’t pull any punches and didn’t talk about racism from a safe place; I went into the belly of the beast and addressed the issues. I’m from the hip-hop generation, and much like when N.W.A came out and there was backlash and people were picketing, that’s the kind of art that I want to create. It helps expose the wicked underbelly of racism in this country, and the Trump administration in these past few years has brought to the forefront in America how real racism is. I live in the South and still see people hang Confederate flags in front of their houses, and drive trucks by that are waving Confederate flags.
I’m curious when the film was shot and what inspired it. You mentioned George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, but were you also inspired by some of these viral “Karen” incidents, like “BBQ Becky” or “Permit Patty?”
Oh, absolutely. I wrote this film about a year ago, at the height of the pandemic. I saw the protests going on in Atlanta, but I have two young kids and thought that I couldn’t take them out there, and I was so frustrated because I wanted to do or say something. I felt hopeless. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: you make movies, so write something about this stuff.
As far as the casting of actress Taryn Manning as Karen, she’s someone who’s voiced support for both QAnon and Trump, and has claimed that Black Lives Matter protests are funded by Soros—in other words, sought to undermine Black Lives Matter protests by calling them a liberal conspiracy. So, was that casting intentional given her beliefs?
Those are questions you’ve probably got to talk to Taryn Manning about. As far its relationship to me, if you look at any actor’s past and tweets… you know, this is the “cancel culture.” We find things and say, “Oh, you’re ‘canceled.’ You can’t do this.” I’m hearing about a lot of that for the first time—I was aware of some of it—but again, she’s an actress. She was right for the role. I didn’t hire her for her political views; I hired her to play Karen. And she did an incredible job. There are a lot of artists and actors in this game who have some wild personal beliefs, and I’m not familiar with all the things that you’re talking about—and those are Taryn Manning questions—but as far as being an actor in the film, from day one she showed nothing but care and empathy for people. She’s a very loving and caring person and she lives out lout and expresses her opinion. We all have different opinions—and I can’t talk about that, because I’m not familiar with that—but I hired her for the role because she’s an incredible actress, and she’s also one of the only actresses in this business bold enough to take this role and deliver the goods.
Well, she has voiced support for Trump and criticized Black Lives Matter protests, so I’m curious if you had conversations during the course of filming with her about the film’s content and some of these issues?
Nah. She just liked the material. She did it from the heart and wanted to spark change. I don’t think if she was a legit Trump supporter she would’ve taken on this film, because she’s probably pissed all of the Trump supporters off. And I’m sure those in the business who’ve worked with Taryn know that she’s a great artist because she’s sensitive and she feels things. Social media is a new animal where sometimes you may feel something and post it—and then regret posting it. I’ve never seen or heard anything from Taryn Manning that led me to believe that she has a racist bone in her body. She was in Atlanta with a largely Black cast, a Black crew, and shooting in Black neighborhoods in Atlanta, and I never saw anything funny from Taryn Manning toward anyone in any way. All I can speak to is the Taryn Manning I know, and she signed on after reading the script, I didn’t have to deal with a rep, and she said she signed on because she wanted to help and affect change.
And you were in a hip-hop group, Mad Kap, in the ‘90s.
We were the first group signed to Loud/RCA Records. They went on to sign Wu-Tang Clan, Big Pun, Akon, Mobb Deep, the list goes on and on. We toured extensively with Wu-Tang, Pac, and Biggie, and we were on MTV. We were part of the L.A. underground rap renaissance. I ended up walking away from music when Pac and Biggie got killed, because it was really jarring for me. Initially, music was an outlet for me to get out of the streets, but then rappers were getting killed like they were gang members. I didn’t like where the industry went. That’s what makes me different from a lot of other filmmakers. Not a lot of people can say they went on tour with Wu-Tang, and opened up for Tupac, and stole Biggie’s bottle of champagne and almost got beat up.
You almost got beat up by Biggie’s crew?
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s for another interview! I’ll tell all my hip-hop stories another day. But I’ve been part of this culture forever. I’m not some trust-fund baby and I didn’t go to film school. I went straight from rap to filmmaking, and I had to learn by trial and error.
I’m curious… What is a “Karen” to you?
A “Karen” to me is an entitled, middle-aged white woman who uses race and class as a weapon at her disposal aimed, more times than not, against minorities. I also want to say: we are by no means villainizing white people. We have very strong white characters in the film that come at pivotal points to show the opposite side of the conversation, because we don’t believe “all white people are like this” or “all Black people are like that.” And in the end, it’s a feel-good film. It’s about redemption. It’s educational but it’s also entertaining. The spotlight is on us, so now let’s have some discussions.