by Niels Kristian Bonde Jensen
"Boots Riley’s vision of 21st century urban America turns from comic to bleak"
Let’s set off on the prairie
In talking about the mythology of Americana as reflected in cinema, it would be borderline sacrilegious not to mention its most obvious and widely analyzed manifestation: the Western. You know, the opening and closing shots of John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ and all of that. Herein lies many of the most fundamental concepts of the American mythos: Civilization versus Nature: The Frontier; The American Dream; strong individualism versus core family values; so on.
Redundant as it might seem to beat that old stallion once again, for all-American artforms that reflects on the nation’s grand narratives. These concepts are ever-relevant. This reflection is recontextualized and pushed into a new era by Sorry To Bother You – the sensational 2018 feature-length debut by rapper, activist, and producer, Boots Riley.
White picket suburbia to metropolitan dystopia
A lot has already been written about this wild, hilarious and anarchic genre-hybrid of a film. Last year's premiere at Sundance generated a great amount of media-buzz following. Many critics have focused on its direct and unapologetic critique of systematic race-discrimination in modern capitalist society, drawing parallels to the works of Spike Lee, whose comeback-feature Blackkklansman, also came out last year. As in Lee’s film, Sorry To Bother You finds both comedy and stark social commentary in the conflict of a young black man who performs a whiteness to achieve success.
Riley’s cinematic world is, however, very different from Lee’s: a surrealist, color-exaggerated and ultimately dystopian vision of modern American urban life. The young director clearly draws more inspiration from the likes of Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam and, most notably, David Lynch.
Sorry To Bother You is a continuation of Lynch's absurdist and perverse nosedive into the underbelly of American society. In works like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, Lynch employs an often dark, degenerated and wickedly funny spin on classic American iconography, tied to old-school Americana that borrows from film noir, classical Hollywood and 50s rockabilly sensibilities.
Riley takes a similar approach to introducing characters and environments as hyper-stylized caricatures, at once deeply comical and yet disturbing. He also, however, updates the icons to fit in with his critique of 21st century urbanism.
Instead of detectives, gangsters, femme fatales, girls next door, housewives, cool Cadillacs and thoroughly mowed lawns, Riley's world is populated by more contemporary archetypes: the slacker, the self-righteous activist, the cynical super-salesman, the eccentric entrepreneur, the pompous performance-artist.
All these archetypes are pawns in Riley's sketch-like comedy-satire. They thrust into a series of increasingly ridiculous setpieces that liberally incorporate a myriad of disparate genre-tropes, from sci-fi to body-horror, from political drama to workplace comedy.
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Media is the message
These sketches, surreal and stylized as they are, are grounded in situational comedy. They find their hilarity and satire in taking situations we all know from everyday-life, and then exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. Riley has Cassius invading people’s privacy by literally dropping down into their living rooms whenever he tries to make a sale over the phone. This serves not only as a great visual gag, but also as commentary on how media permeates our private sphere: we interrupt our showers, even our intercourse, to interact with it.
Riley pushes the core thematic ideas of the American mythology, popularized by the classic Western, into new territory. Sorry To Bother You is still concerned with the search for wealth and success, and the conflict of strong individualism versus communal loyalty. But where John Wayne’s conflict in The Searchers manifests, simple and beautiful, in the framing of the open door — man as torn between nature and civilization — Riley paints a more complex and kaleidoscopic portrait of life in modern America.
In the film, our telemarketer-hero Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is catapulted into professional and financial success when an experienced colleague teaches him how to use his “white voice”. His ambitious if slightly pretentious girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) stirs up a revolutionary ruckus when she uses her body as a human dartboard in a ridiculous performance-art séance.
In their search for identity, the characters are not simply torn between wilderness and society, freedom and security; they are constantly aware of how their actions in different social arenas affect their sense of self, and how the public views these performances as fitting with certain perceptions of ideology and lifestyle.
Absurdity and Gen Z
Here, Sorry To Bother You becomes an exciting, critical depiction of a generation. A generation detached from both the macho-poetics of John Ford’s Western-heroes, and the innocence-contra-perversion in Lynch’s visions of White Picket Fence America.
Long since abandoning both the wilderness and suburbia, this generation huddles up in mega-cities in search of their American Dream. Deeply affected by mass media and the constant exposure to an endless stream of subcultures and ways of living, their identities are in a constant state of flux.
Boots Riley’s vision of 21st century urban America turns here from comic to bleak. His dystopian society is controlled by big corporations that oppress the population, taking advantage of that unique trait which defines a generation — our generation — and makes us great telemarketers, but lousy protesters.
In our complete freedom to choose and perform our identities, we have become experts in acting out different roles. In this constant exposure to choices, information, and stimuli, we are too sedated, and simply too confused, to know when to act up.
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