Home Videos should be a natural progression for Jerrod Carmichael’s work—a personal, comedic look at his own life and family isn’t too much of a departure from his work on The Carmichael Show or his production of Ramy Youssef’s family comedy, Ramy. Both Ramy and The Carmichael Show excelled at placing their protagonists’ emotional issues within the context of their family dynamics, creating brilliant character studies.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of Home Videos. If you walk into this special expecting a personal look into Carmichael’s personal life or family, you’ll be fairly disappointed. It is neither a compelling character study nor a particularly gripping narrative. It’s not even a comedy special. Billed by HBO as the first part in a two-part series where Carmichael explores “aspects of the black experience through interviews with his family,” it is, at best, a poorly made documentary that looks at a rough draft outline of “black womanhood” rather than providing a fully formed exploration.
Rather than an honest, intimate look at his family, Carmichael instead offers them up as generalizations for black womanhood. There isn’t any actual home video footage, no embarrassing looks at Carmichael as a young, awkward kid. There are no stories explaining what it was like to grow up with Carmichael or how these women shaped him. The veil is never actually lifted to explore who Carmichael or these women actually are. Instead, Carmichael engages the women around him with incredibly leading questions about society that suggest Carmichael already has the answers. In fact, he is rarely interested in digging into the women’s responses and keeps things boringly high level.
Take for example, the first interview in the special. Carmichael sits with a young woman who may be his niece, cousin, or younger sister. This is never covered and we never even learn her name. Carmichael asks her wide-ranging questions that don’t really allow her to dig into her own experience, that is, until he asks “do you see yourself represented in pop culture?” For the first time, the girl seems genuinely interested in the conversation. She immediately replies no, but does Carmichael ask her to say more about it? No. He just cuts her off and moves on to the next question: “What is happiness to you?” Contrary to what Home Videos may believe, being related to black woman is not the same as actually listening to her.
While this could’ve been an interesting series of conversations centered around a man confronting feminism and racism with the help of the women in his family, it barely hits that mark. First of all, none of the women in the special are even named. Their relationships to Carmichael are left to subtext. The first interview is with a younger woman who could be Carmichael’s niece or little sister, who knows. The next interview is with a woman who might be his sister or cousin. After that, there’s a group interview with a bunch of black women who may or may not all be related to Carmichael. It apparently isn’t important that we know their names or how they know each other.
We figure out the last woman interviewed is his mother because he talks about his father cheating on her. Carmichael’s interview with his mom is the most interesting because we actually know their relationship dynamic, but it still suffers. Carmichael’s mother seems uncomfortable and doesn’t really open up or press her son when he talks about sex or admits he’s had relationships with men. She simply replies “okay” and says she’s never had feelings for a woman. They move on to another topic and cut to shots of Carmichael’s mom cheerfully making a cake. It’s unclear whether Carmichael’s admission is supposed to shock his mom or bring them closer, but it mostly excels at doing nothing.
The setting and conversations are too general to have much emotional impact. The special opens on Carmichael driving around an American suburb, but none of the interviews talk about where Carmichael grew up. The special was filmed in North Carolina, which is something gleaned from the program description since Home Videos makes no attempt to tell us where the events are taking place. Perhaps this is an attempt to make his family’s experience seem universal or relatable, but it just adds to the broad generalizations that make up this rough draft.
Home Videos starts to move into specifics in a post-credits scene. Here, Carmichael talks to the woman we now know is his sister. She says, “I’m used to you only calling me sister, but now you have a biological sister.” This is when we finally learn that Carmichael has recently found a half-sister he’s never met before. The special ends with Carmichael embracing his new sister in her home. Home Videos finally finds something like an interesting plot, and it’s in a brief post-credits scene. But, this is the first part in a two-part special, so this could be where the next special will begin.
Maybe this is a documentary for people who’ve never met a black woman. In that case, it could be interesting to learn that some black women hate R. Kelly while some black women still support him, or that black women’s bodies are hypersexualized in our culture. But, if you’ve read at least one Melissa Harris-Perry book or actively have conversations with a black woman in your daily life, there’s very little to learn from this “exploration” of the black experience.