Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele ended their Comedy Central show last year, but they haven’t much gone anywhere. The duo’s first feature film, Keanu, is in theaters now, and as usual, plays out of their takes on blackness and masculinity.
Keanu has a lot to say about blackness and the idea of “code switching” – the practice of changing speech and attitude to fit the sensibilities of your surroundings, particularly through the prism of race and nerdhood regarding what is “acting black” and “acting white.”
In a time when people are debating Larry Wilmore calling President Obama “my nigga” at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Key & Peele lean hard into the word in Keanu. Both instances deal with in-group behavior writ large, and disregard for respectability based on the white gaze.
Their characters, stoner slacker Rell (Peele) and uptight dweeb Clarence (Key), drop some bass into their voices and drop N-bombs aplenty upon meeting the drug-dealing 17th Street Blips. And while some of this is a play on the at-times performative aspects of what it means to be black, it’s also about two nerds trying to fit in with streetwise folks to stay alive.
Keanu posits that perhaps in 2016, these worlds may blend more than we think. Clarence, wearing a checked shirt, tan windbreaker and khakis, just pops his collar among the Blips. But does his outfit stick out so much when Kanye West became famous wearing the same stuff?
Rell just covers up his ironic T-shirt by zipping up his hoodie. Remember when the mainstream called them hooded sweatshirts, and “hoodie” was black slang? We all call them hoodies now after Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in one, while Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing one.
But I also think that Keanu, like a lot of Key & Peele’s work, also as much to say about masculinity. And this time, they do it through the cutest kitten in the world.
We do a pretty thorough job of adding gender to pretty much anything, and cat ownership hasn’t escaped that. We have a lot of gender stuff that goes into cat ownership.
Cats and cat ownership are often seen as feminine things. Cats are cast as fickle, standoffish and crazy – all bad stereotypes of women. Female genitalia is called pussy. A fight between women is called a catfight. A brothel, full of women, is called a cathouse.
Cats are often cast in pop culture alongside undesirability as well.
The crazy cat lady, that hoary comedic stereotype, is tied elementally to spinsterhood. The Simpsons‘ own crazy cat lady, nee Eleanor Abernathy, is a can’t-have-it-all tale of woe.
And with men, cat ownership often is cast as un-masculine. Think of Garfield’s owner, Jon Arbuckle, a single man characterized as a bland, feckless loser, bad with women, whose own cat ridicules him all the time. The in-group nickname for cat aficionados, cat fancier, may further such an image as well; no virile man wants the word “fancy” next to his name, right?
In our Internet era, cat videos still rule supreme. Try as we might with videos of guilty-faced dogs and tiny hamsters eating tiny foods, cat videos continue to lead the way.
And in that time, the cat daddy has emerged.
Thanks, noted cat behaviorist and TV personality Jackson Galaxy, of My Cat From Hell fame. This ain’t your grandma’s cat fancier, with his rockabilly sideburns, hardcore beard, shaved head, earrings, tattoos and bowling league shirts.
Galaxy injected some cool-weirdness and tailpipe-firing man stuff into dudes loving cats.
And, man, this movie, and dudes in this movie, really love this kitty cat.
Keanu features extensive slow-motion glamour footage of Keanu running through the streets of Los Angeles and gun battles. The kitten gets tons of reaction shots to whatever human characters say and do, his face scrunching up or dialing up maximum feral-cute when he bares his teeth.
Everyone who sees this cat fawns over him. When Keanu shows up at Rell’s doorstep, he immediately gives Rell purpose.
Sure, it’s clawing at photos of his ex and posing for a calendar of movie homages including Heat and The Shining, but it’s purpose.
Keanu himself is owned by two drug dealers, fought over by a third drug dealer, loved by a pair of assassins that combine the McManus brothers of Boondock Saints and Michael Myers. (Their names, Smoke and Oil Dresden, are beyond perfect.)
This is a world where hardened drug dealer Cheddar (Method Man) doesn’t keep a pit bull or a rotweiler on a thick chain. He has a tiny kitten dressed in a do-rag and gold chain.
Keanu the kitten’s abduction sends a weedhead slacker and an uptight corporate-culture consultant on a path of crime, death and property damage.
By that token, Keanu links itself to the recent Keanu Reeves film, John Wick, as we see a man go off on a path of vengeance over his pet. (Production on Keanu began before Wick was out.)
But he had a dog, though.
I don’t think John Wick have worked as well as over-the-top action drama if it weren’t a dog. But replace that dog with a cat, and it can’t not be a comedy.
Like many of these kinds of dude comedies with the slacker and the stickler, Keanu follows some of those same character arcs. Rell the slacker loser (Peele) learns responsbility and purpose through the power of love, and Clarence the uptight dweeb (Key) loosens up to become his most authentic self and do something badass.
Rell starts the movie despondent over losing his girlfriend, taking bong rips amid his squalor of an apartment. What kind of man is this? By the end of the movie, he’s got a new love interest and backflips his way into saving the kitten he loves. He doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, but he sure does get a car and drive the hell out of it.
Clarence begins the movie loved but underperforming, with his wife Hannah (Nia Long) encouraging him to do something for himself on her weekend trip away with her daughter, the daughter’s friend, and that friend’s father. His stepdaughter dismisses him, and he sends his wife off with the suspect Spencer (Rob Huebel) after his wife suddenly couldn’t make it. Mmm-hmm. What kind of de-manned fool is this?
By the end of the movie, Clarence’s work coaching gets a gang through a shootout, and he punches Spencer right in the nose over unspecified inappropriateness toward his wife.
And not just any wife, but Nia Long, one of the most downest black female creatures of desire from the 1990s, an era now worshiped today as a wellspring of black pop-culture creativity. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Soul Food, Hav Plenty, The Best Man, and the boho-chic R&B rom-com Love Jones – Long is in all of them! J. Cole, in the song “Role Modelz,” pines for those women of 20 years ago compared to today’s ratchet reality-TV stars: “My only regret was too young for Lisa Bonet / My only regret was too young for Nia Long.”
Upon said punchout, Hannah demands for him to have sex with her right now. Through the capers to recover Keanu, Clarence learns to assert himself and to protect whom he loves by embracing his inner badass and not bending over backwards to meet expectations.
Is such a display in Keanu juvenile? Totally. Dumb? You betcha. But, given where the movie ends, with Rell and Clarence going to actual prison for all the actual crimes they committed, Keanu operates as a buddy action comedy not without consequences, either.
But as for Keanu the kitten himself?
There’s no worry. We find out that he has a genetic disorder that will leave him a permakitten, as in kitten-sized forever.
Lil Bub, one of the world’s greatest Internet cats and love of my wife’s life, is such a permakitten. And she hangs out with rock stars.
Doesn’t get more masculine and cool than that, right?