Saturday, September 1, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

Director Boots Riley

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU             B                    
USA  (105 mi)  2018  d:  Boots Riley            Official site

Being black in today’s America can best be expressed through horror movies, apparently, as after the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) last summer, this is what’s gaining the most traction at the box office.  In just his first feature film, indie rapper/producer/community activist Boots Riley has produced the ultimate protest film, in keeping with the times, where being black requires vigilant protests against shooting deaths resulting from police brutality, voter suppression, racial taunts and insults hurled with renewed vigor during the Trump administration, where it’s like the President of the United States is the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, emboldening all manner of brutally disturbing racial vitriol, where at least in the eyes of a substantial number of white people, just being black is apparently a crime.  Trump’s utter dismissal of anything accomplished during the Obama administration, leading a lengthy Birtherism conspiracy theory refusing to accept Obama was even a U.S. citizen during his presidency, then leading campaigns to diminish the rights of anyone of color, describing Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, referring to El Salvador, Haiti, and African countries as “shitholes,” closing the border on Syrian refugees fleeing aerial assaults initiated by their own governmental, temporarily banning the arrival of immigrants from six Muslim-majority nations, but also ignoring the citizens of Puerto Rico, who are also U.S. citizens, refusing to offer any major assistance in the reconstruction following the utter demolition of the island from Hurricane Maria, their worst disaster on record, where power outages over much of the island remained six months afterwards and beyond, and hundreds of deaths related to that outage weren’t even counted as disaster related since they didn’t happen immediately afterwards.  From targeting specific minorities from entering the country, legally or illegally, there has been a continued drumbeat “against” anyone of color.  This kind of white nationalist fervor is not only highly disturbing, but insulting, throwing whatever modest social gains that might have been made backwards in time, especially following our first black President, suggesting the future of black people is appropriately grim in America.  If you are a person of color, you are living an alternate reality to anyone white in America, and this film goes to great extremes to show just how bizarre and absurdly ridiculous it gets, becoming a social satire that turns wickedly weird. 

That being said, no black film made during the Trump presidency will be viewed absent the influence of Trump, just like during the era of Obama black-themed films were more hopeful and optimistic, even those dealing with brutality and racism, as they tended to be solution oriented.  Instead, like hitting a brick wall, examples of what we’re likely to see under Trump are the surreal nightmarish hallucinations of this film and Spike Lee’s upcoming Blackkklansman (2018).  This is a film made for people who are sick and tired of black realities, whose moral outrage is beyond the point of no return, who in the words of an angry newscaster from Network (1976), “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!,”are forced to witness a daily litany of neighborhood shootings for years on end, add to that hundreds of black boys and young men gunned down at the hands of cops, where they run into the smug and dismissive white attitude of yeah, but who cares, so little if anything is being done about it.  Ignored like they’re an alien species by larger society, blacks rely upon themselves to understand and grow from these experiences, but in a democracy where majority rules, with blacks comprising only 14% of the population, they need help from the majority to advance their own causes and political agendas.  Thus the titular phrase, “Sorry to bother you,” which is a polite way of asking if you can get their attention for just a minute before being relegated to the trash bin.  Set on the mean streets of Oakland, California, Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield) has been out of work for months, living with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his Uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage, driving a dirt bucket for a car that requires manually moving the wipers with a string attached, while buying gas (“Forty on Two”) that actually means forty cents.  So desperate for a job that he brings fake awards and trophies to his potential telemarketing employer, Regalview, the boss, Anderson (Richard Longstreet), immediately catches him in a lie, but offers him the job anyway because he meets all the basic requirements (“You have initiative, and you can read.”)  Selling encyclopedias over the phone is not so easy, quickly reaching a dead end, until he receives a bit of advice from a fellow worker.  Inspired by his own experiences working as a telemarketer and doing telefundraising in California, he needs to drop all signs of blackness and use his white voice to find success.  A radical device initially seen in PUTNEY SWOPE (1969), which also helped jettison the advertising career of a rising black star, this has the same effect, like talking after inhaling a helium balloon, thriving at his new job and his career literally takes off, reaching hallowed ground when they move him upstairs to become a coveted Power Caller.   

A show stopper that hits with blunt force, this film is not afraid to go cartoonish, exhausting all outlandish methods to drive in their points, like when Cash is making his calls, he literally drops into the living rooms of the people called and confronts them directly.  Escorted by a mysterious unnamed black character with an eye patch (Omari Hardwick) to the top floor, a gold elevator awaits Cash, using a security code that has about a hundred numbers, where a woman’s voice (Rosario Dawson) sensually identifies him and speaks of his surging sexual prowess, yet what they’re selling upstairs is altogether different, selling weaponry and human labor to an agency known as WorryFree, which dominates the television advertisements, promising a free and easy better life with them, suggesting they’re a new workplace model (actually modeled after 19th century employers like the railroad or lumber business), providing communal living with bunkbeds and free meals so long as you sign a lifetime contract guaranteeing your labor, using slogans like “Each day you awake you’re already at work.”  Despite the all-too-perfect nirvana appearance on TV, a stab at Silicon Valley, always promoting a perfect world, workers know a scam when they see one and organize a union, taking strike actions to gain public traction, with Detroit and all his former coworkers joining in the protest, but Cash ignores what they’re doing, thinking he’s actually “making it” for the first time in his life, allowing a police strike force to pulverize the heads and bodies of the protesters with Billy clubs, clearing a path for Cash to get to work and continue the company’s business.  His uncle’s house finally saved, he and Detroit are suddenly living in that perfect home that resembles a glossy magazine spread, thinking all their problems are behind them.  Detroit, however, isn’t like that, as she’s a sign twirler on the corner of the street, a performance artist and social activist decked out in outrageous outfits, such as a T-shirt that says, “The Future is Female Ejaculation,” or home-made jewelry, like super-sized earrings of a man in an electric chair dangling from each ear, or highlighting words like MURDER MURDER MURDER or KILL KILL KILL, all in good fun of course.  Wearing glitter, she’s a particularly witty and inventive character, down to earth and fun, with terrific chemistry with Cash, but she’s losing patience, thinking he’s selling out.  She’s actually an excellent barometer for the temperature of the film, as she spends plenty of time on the front lines of demonstrations and social protests, which have become the heart and soul of today’s black communities, much to the chagrin of a white America that couldn’t care less.    

But white America is exactly who the director is targeting (wondering what will it take to get their attention?), as the film gets even more surreal as Cash achieves more success, though a video of him getting hit in the head with a can of soda thrown by a protester goes viral, wearing a bloody bandage around his head for the rest of the picture, which is in contrast with his plush surroundings in a comfortable white world.  When Cash is invited to a party thrown by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of WorryFree, it’s like an invite to the Playboy mansion and Hugh Hefner in a robe, surrounded by a bevy of girls, where he’s the token black star, the supposed savior of the company, where both work well together and are so hilariously over the top.  Gleefully asking him to share in a bowl-sized snort of cocaine, Lift is the frat boy at the top of the food chain, the guy who always had all the advantages, got all the breaks, and became ridiculously rich, doted on by the media, yet what he’s truly skilled at are the humiliations of the economic system that keep the lower classes in their place, allowing the privileged to remain at the top.  Once Cash gets wind of what’s up, he goes on all TV networks to expose this massive fraud, but all it does is rally the stock market in WorryFree’s favor, becoming even more astronomically successful.  Veering into a sci-fi world, Lift’s forced labor system is little more than a Pinocchio-style Pleasure Island slavery system of those at the lower rung of the ladder, where the poor suckers are engulfed in a culture of obedience and complicity, where conformity is the rule, with Lift envisioning Cash as the champion of the lower classes, someone who could mix and mingle and undermine all efforts to unionize, allowing Lift and his company to triumph into the new world as mega-billionaires.  While you might always suspect some people think like this, but to hear it with such unvarnished delight, showing no interest whatsoever in the fate of the affected workers, it’s clear Lift already views them as nothing more than company property, where Cash can help him keep them down.  Turning into a twisted and distorted anti-capitalist take on MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), which was itself a recreation of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927), where underground-dwelling workers toil to operate the great machines that power the city, keeping a slavish worker state underground while the rich roam free, never having to do a day’s work in their lives.  Lift’s hare-brained scheme is like something concocted by mad Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, increasing human productivity through genetic experimentation, then using a Sonderkommando infiltrator to keep the overworked underground workers in their place.  While this grows more and more ridiculous, and strangely uncomfortable, like a bad hallucinogenic acid trip, straining all levels of credulity, at the same time it asks the question what has to happen before an apathetic public will actually take interest?  Does it have to literally reach sci-fi levels of proportions, suggesting reality is already at their limit as we speak.  What’s truly remarkable is framing this entire story through a work stoppage, using union agitators to demonstrate for something larger than work, blending deplorable working conditions with much needed social activism, where the soulless race for profits creates unchecked billionaires that steal us blind and rob us of our humanity, with no one batting an eye.  It all speaks to an abominable Orwellian future that boggles the mind, created out of indifference and neglect, that will only happen if we let it. 

In a strange way, this is a modern era update of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).

Examples of black-themed movies made during the Obama administration:

Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us (2010)
Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011)
Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011)
Shaka King’s Newlyweeds (2012)
Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five (2012)
Danny Green’s Mr. Sophistication  (2012)
Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013)
Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love (2013)
Brian Helgeland’s 42 (2013)
Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Ana DuVernay’s Selma (2014)
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights (2014)
Yoruba Richen’s The New Black (2014)
Tate Taylor’s Get On Up (2014)
Chris Rock’s Top Five 2014)
Alton Glass’ Cru (2014)
F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015)
Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015)
Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson (2016)
Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016)
Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016)
Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (2016)
Richard Tanne’s Southside With You (2016)
Quasim Basir’s Destined (2016)
Dee Rees’ Mudbound (2017)
Jeremy S. Levine and Landon von Soest’s For Ahkeem (2017)
Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? (2017)

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