Coffee & Kareem, the new Netflix racial comedy, jumps back and forth across the thin line separating satire and cynicism. Upon broadcast, it immediately ignited controversy when angry viewers failed to appreciate the targets of the film’s humor or its troublesome premise.
Kareem Manning (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), a bitterly precocious, foul-mouthed black pre-teen in Detroit, resents that his single mother, Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), is dating a white police officer named Coffee (Ed Helms). Kareem hires a local crook to intimidate Coffee, which leads to a confrontation with drug dealers in Detroit’s criminal underworld. Can you count the clichés?
The vehement viral responses to Coffee & Kareem have been funnier than the movie itself, exposing culture-wide ignorance about the tradition of Hollywood racial exploitation. It also reveals how humorless and defensive contemporary identity politics have become.
Surely the smart-ass black adolescent — target of so much marketing in movies from Beasts of the Southern Wild and Black Panther to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the recent Wendy — should be a proper subject for skepticism and satire. Hollywood knows how to control the black youth market: by flattering it. And that’s the deepest insult.
Coffee and Kareem is a product of the same industry that extolled and gave an Oscar nomination to Straight Outta Compton, the film that attempted to rewrite cultural history by portraying the juvenile, irresponsible gangsta rap group N.W.A. as political activists. Kareem, this film’s profane, pudgy protagonist, could be N.W.A.’s cutely obnoxious, dreads-wearing progeny.
Coffee & Kareem first caught my attention because its title suggested some kind of satirical audacity. Would this comedy somehow offer comment on basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who, ironically, has taken on a new profession and become a cultural critic for such mainstream media publications as Time magazine and The Hollywood Reporter? The Kareem of the movie was very likely named for the former basketball player (whose birth name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor), in the familiar tradition of children being named after celebrity-heroes and quasi-Afrocentricity. (Call it Kwame Afrocentricity.)
But, alas, director Michael Dowse and screenwriter Shane Mack (exposed on the Internet as changing his former screen credit as “Shane McCarthy” to something sounding more ghetto) aren’t so advanced as to subvert the political biases of modern post-Obama journalism. Instead, they follow the blueprint laid out by TV shows such as blackish and the new Lena Waithe series Boomerang in which racial stereotypes are repeated if not stressed as an expression of the new vogue for “representation.”
Dowse and Mack are no different from those Millennial race men and women who are favored as showrunners in Hollywood but who don’t have a grounding of cultural heritage that they can rely on for consistency or ethical inspiration. Back at the beginning of Seventies Blaxploitation, when that movement’s first promise gave opportunity to serious race artists such as Melvin Van Peebles and Ossie Davis, one of the biggest hits was the action-comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel that featured a team of black detectives: Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin” Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques).
This was grown-up, not juvenile, fare. Himes chose names that lampooned the hard-boiled crime genre through ironic black slang; it belonged to an indefinable essence of Davis’s and Van Peebles’s sly folk wisdom. The lack of that essence — misremembering it — was part of the problem with Eddie Murphy’s Netflix project Dolemite Is My Name. And now Coffee & Kareem is another project based entirely on superficial topicality: Detroit as a symbol of urban decay, with a cast of characters caught up in a series of shallow racial and sexual misperceptions, meant to be comic.
Typical of Netflix “movies,” Coffee & Kareem plays like a TV show with perfunctory violent gunplay, or the worst theatrical films (The Hangover, 21 Jump Street, Hustlers) that make hip, progressive points: the kid and the kop becomes buddies like a surreal update of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48HRS. In a strip bar, they meet a dancer who is upwardly mobile, she’s part of the film’s woke feminism, mostly presented by Taraji P. Henson in another unfortunate display of her misdirected intensity.
Coffee & Kareem skips along the thin line between opportunity and humiliation; it keeps Netflix junkies credulous yet incensed.