If you’re a fan of duo Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key’s brand of comedy–their ability to seamlessly code switch at the drop of a dime and to poke fun at the absurd–then you will laugh, in fact, you’ll crack up, at their first theatrical partnering, Keanu. And while the film is hilarious, you might also find yourself feeling a tad bit uncomfortable, possibly even wondering, am I supposed to be laughing at this? If you do, that’s perfectly fine with Peele, who penned the script with his writing partner Alex Rubens. In fact, he aimed for that exact reaction.
“Our whole M.O. as comedians is to steer directly into the controversy, straight into the blinding light of the sun. There’s no avoiding it,” Peele tells EBONY.com. “All we can do is try to get a laugh while discussing these things and what we find is that laughter is a universal salve.”
In Keanu, Key and Peele team up with Method Man, Jason Mitchell, and Tiffany Haddish to make audiences laugh, while challenging them to think. In the film, lovesick Rell (Peele), who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend, finds solace in a precious little kitten who comes scratching at his door. When his apartment gets burglarized and the kitten (which he’s names Keanu after the Matrix star) goes missing, Rell’s nerdy cousin Clearance (Key) comes to his rescue and assures him they’ll find his beloved tabby.
Finding Rell’s cat leads them right into the pit of drug kingpin Chedder (Method Man), leader of the 17th Street Blips, who isn’t quite down to hand over the adorable ball of fur. Rell and Clarence have to think on their toes and pretend to be street-wise badasses–clearly something they’re not–in order to gain possession of the kitten. Somehow, Chedder believes the bumbling twosome are notorious assassins in disguise, so he challenges them to accompany his gang on a drug deal if they want to get the cat back. When the deal is made, comedy ensues.
The idea that Black folks would risk their lives for a cat may seem ridiculously absurd to some, but Peele and Rubens wrote the story for a very specific reason–and it had nothing to do with anything walking on four legs.
“This movie, for us, is a commentary on film and the way African Americans are portrayed in films – and the way they haven’t been portrayed in films,” says Peele.
“And what we haven’t really seen is guys like Keegan. There was no place for us in a badass action film, so we decided to put ourselves in this movie that is basically how would we survive in New Jack City. Or how would we survive in The Wire.”
In Keanu, Key and Peele play two guys who lack street-wisdom, but are willing to go to war over a pet using the most powerful weapon in their arsenal–code switching. It’s something we’ve seen the actors do regularly on their hit sketch comedy series, Key and Peele. But translating their signature brand of humor for the big screen could have fallen flat, or worse, perpetuated stereotypes. But the duo wasn’t afraid of the challenge.
“What you’re seeing when you see Clarence and Rell in the film is really Jordan and Keegan multiplied by five,” explains Key. “It’s a little bit of a zhush, but there’s not a lot of acting going on there. It’s important for us that you understand that we’re highlighting a stereotype.”
While Key says they wanted to play with stereotypes in the film, he also wants viewers to know that all Black folks aren’t the same.
“We we live on a spectrum,” he says. “We’re not a monolith. We live on a spectrum just like every other person.”
For Peele, confronting commonly held ideas about Black people head-on, and in an irreverent way, is only part of the goal of Keanu.
“Our show started when Obama was coming into office and of course we know he’s a master code switcher. But after years of dealing with it and exploring it we are sort of realizing now that code switching is not a Black phenomena,” he says. “This is a piece of the human condition. We all have different facets of our personality. We all have different mechanisms, ways of speaking – there’s a different way you’re going to speak to your mother than you’re going to speak to your best friend. And because we were the African American comedians doing sketch at the time we felt like alright we gotta dive in. We can’t avoid how we see race.”
One way the pair chooses not shy away from race in the film is via the extensive use of the n-word. Be warned, you’ll hear it a lot in Keanu, and Key and Peele are unapologetic about its use.
"Once again, there’s a reality to the movie that we wanted to be intact. If you’re in that community that’s a word that’s used with unmitigated regularity,” explains Key. “So I don’t want to speak for Jordan as the person that pinned the script – but I still feel that that’s the reality of that situation. We’re simply speaking to the reality of the situation.”
Peele agrees, but takes the explanation about the frequent use of the word a step further. “My intention was to satirize the amount we see the word in pop culture as well, like in the Tarantino movies. When Alex and I sat down we said what if we made a movie where we – ironically use the n-word more than any Tarantino movie? And we failed at that.”
“And I think anybody would fail at that – it’s a Herculean task,” adds Key.
“He continues to beat us,” Peele laughs, before explaining why they choose to use the word so much in Keanu. “It’s such a powerful word and it’s one – even on our show–that gets bleeped.”
“It opens up the conversation and if people laugh at a scene where that word is being used they are left exploring that and discussing it and asking themselves what was funny about that?” he says. “So we do not have a problem with people feeling uncomfortable and people feeling like ‘should I be laughing at this?’ That’s gold for us because it means that people’s minds are opening up.”
Keanu is in theaters nationwide.