San Francisco Chronicle
In ‘Karen,’ racism rears its ugly head
If you’re Black, “Karen” is a film that feels almost too familiar. If you’re Black in the Bay Area, you may have even met one before — a few times.
The new BET thriller, airing Tuesday, Sept. 14, as part of the network’s “Summer of Chills” series, stars Taryn Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”) as Karen Drexler, a privileged, racist, self-victimizing white woman who torments her new Black neighbors, Imani ( Jasmine Burke) and Malik (Cory Hardict). Its opening shot is of Karen scrubbing a Black Lives Matter mural off the street, a scene eerily reminiscent of the August 2020 videos of a white couple in Martinez defacing a similar BLM mural.
A few minutes later, when Karen gets two Black diners kicked out of a restaurant for laughing too loud, I thought about the group of mostly Black women who were booted from the Napa Valley Wine Train in 2015 for doing the same.
Eventually, when Karen questions
her Black neighbors about how they ended up in her upper-class, suburban community, headlines about November’s Discovery Bay incident, in which a white woman was caught on video telling her Black neighbors to stop “acting like Black people” in the “white neighborhood,” popped back up in my memory.
This movie isn’t subtle. But maybe that’s the point.
Viral moments of white privilege colliding with anti-Blackness have been so commonplace in the Bay Area in recent years that new variations of Karens have popped into the local lexicon. In 2018, a white woman called the police on a group of Black people who were barbecuing by Oakland’s Lake Merritt and came to be known as “BBQ Becky.” Another white woman in San Francisco called the police on a young Black girl for selling water on a sidewalk, earning her the name “Permit Patty.”
Racism has been an inextricable part of America’s fabric since the country’s founding, when Africans were captured and brought to this land in chains. Slavery’s legacy permeates every part of Black American life, from economic plight in Black communities to disparities in access to quality health care and education. Racism isn’t subtle.
That a mainstream film like “Karen” can be made based on a moniker popularized to identify problematic white women shows just how pervasive anti-Blackness remains in this country.
In 2005, white comedian Dane Cook made jokes about obnoxious Karens during a stand-up special, and a decade later Black comedian Jay Pharoah included Karens in his own stand-up special. By 2018, the phrase had made its way into Urban Dictionary, a site that tracks and defines pop culture slang. Now, in 2021, it’s the foundation of this film’s plot.
The new suburban Atlanta home that Imani and Malik move into is located in the Harvey Hill Plantation, a fictional neighborhood named for a Confederate general. Karen’s bathroom, as Malik discovers later in the film, is filled with Confederate memorabilia.
When Karen shows up to Imani and Malik’s housewarming party, she gets into a heated debate with Black guests over Black Lives Matter, saying, “Don’t all lives matter?” She adds that if Black people don’t like it in America, they can “go back to Africa.”
The heavy-handed approach the film takes doesn’t stop there. Karen’s brother is a racist cop who, during a traffic stop, plants weed in Malik’s car, punches him and threatens to shoot him.
The film fails to take a timely topic and use it to deftly navigate Black and white relations in this country. Instead, it stumbles into being almost a parody of Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit horror film “Get Out.”
“Karen” is far from a good movie. But for Black people in the Bay Area and beyond, it can serve as a pretty decent documentary.
“Karen” (not rated) airs on BET at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14, with an encore showing at 10 p.m. Sept. 17.