Few films that try to cash in on current trends find much love from viewers or critics. Exploitation films can work well when they defy expectations through high production value, conceptual authenticity, or artistic nuance. However, most “timely” exploitation feels at best, cheap and unnecessary, and at worst, shallow and offensive. Sadly, writer/director Coke Daniels’ thriller film, Karen (2021), does everything in its power to make a serious issue — racism in America — unbearably simplistic and contrived.
From the moment I saw the trailer for Karen, I knew that it was going to be bad. I also knew that I would inevitably watch it. It wasn’t that I felt drawn to the cultural relevance of the film’s plot, but rather the absurdity of its existence. When it comes down to it, Karen is little more than a meme masquerading as a legitimate take on the state of being black in modern-day America.
The film uses the format of a crime thriller to justify increasingly farcical confrontations loosely based on very real racial bigotry. In Karen, Malik (Cory Hardrict) and Imani (Jasmine Burke) are a young black couple moving into an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood in Atlanta. In fact, they appear to be the only African-Americans living in the area. This fact is not lost on the couple’s neighbor, Karen (Taryn Manning), a busybody whose microaggressions are readily apparent. Within days of their arrival, Karen installs security cameras outside her home, with one pointed directly at Malik and Imani’s house.
Though Malik and Imani have done nothing wrong, Karen tries to use her power as the head of the local Homeowner’s Association to get them removed. The rest of the neighborhood is not nearly concerned about their presence, making Karen’s bigotry all the more obvious. Hellbent on finding evidence against them, Karen stalks Malik and Imani, patrolling their every move. She even enlists the help of her brother, Mike (Roger Dorman), a police officer who shares her racist sentiments, to continually harass the couple.
As one can imagine from a thriller, the microaggressions quickly turn into overt attempts to disrupt Malik and Imani’s lives. The confrontations become so intense that the couple considers moving, though they ultimately endeavor to fight back by refusing to give in. Tensions mount as Karen and Mike face off with Malik and Imani, who even ask for help from a lawyer who specializes in racially-motivated crimes.
The problem with Karen (2021) is not that it tells an unrealistic story. On the contrary, it is the kind of story that happens in neighborhoods all across the country every single day. The real problem is that Karen is a laughably amateur film in nearly every respect. Take the title, for example.
Most viewers already know that “Karen” has become a colloquial term for entitled white women who often express their privilege and bigotry in outrageous ways. Using the term for the title automatically conjures up images of white women filming innocent black people having lunch in the park, or white women demanding to see the manager of a supermarket over the most trivial inconveniences. The term is society’s attempt to ridicule and make laughable an otherwise detestable segment of the population. This is why naming the film after the “Karen” archetype makes it feel like a bad joke from the start.
Another aspect of Karen that makes it impossible to take seriously is its inability to come up with creative scenarios. Nearly every scene is taken directly from news headlines or Youtube videos. We see Karen filming a group of black teens just walking through the neighborhood, as she screams in fake terror and plays the victim until the police arrive. Yes, it is something that happens all too often in real life, but the film does not make it feel scary or serious. It is yet another bad joke in a film full of bad jokes.
This brings me to the issue of actually analyzing Karen as a sincere thriller. In the face of overwhelmingly negative critical responses, Coke Daniels tried to argue that the film is actually a satire, but this just feels like a sane person pleading insanity after the fact. Karen is, without a doubt, a terrible film. The writing does not work. The pacing and editing are clunky. Karen’s wig looks ridiculous. And, perhaps most importantly, it is so obviously an attempt to exploit growing racial tensions in the United States to make a quick buck. Coke Daniels deserves no praise for bringing this disaster into the world.
When people call for more black filmmakers into the mainstream, this is not it. There is plenty of great black cinema and talent out there, but creating a meme-inspired race film adds nothing of value to the conversation. Instead, it manages to turn the very real issue of racial discrimination and violence against minorities into one of the worst thrillers I’ve ever seen.
Karen (2021) Movie Rating: ★ out of 5
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