In September, 2017 I listened to a discussion between Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein moderated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (An edited version of this talk can be seen here) The theme of the talk was that we needed to do more than just say no. That we, as progressives, need to not only resist what Trump and his administration represent (arguably, the apotheosis of capitalist ideology), but also create an alternate vision of what America and the world can be. One of the things Naomi Klein urged was new narratives, new art, that could envision a different world. Not just dystopic art, but art that envisions, to steal a term from Rawls, a “realistic utopia.” I feel like Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You begins to answer this call.
Sorry To Bother You paints a fully realized picture of a not-so-distant future capitalist dystopia and, then, offers a version of resistance that is hopeful, that creates a newish world. I don’t want to get too much into plot points because no one likes spoilers. Suffice to say, the answer is, perhaps, an old one – class unity across racial and ethnic lines. Without being prescriptive and without denying the very real cultural (human?) desires for material comfort, the film offers up, in its quirky and magical-realist way, an alternative vision of what success is. Funny enough it is articulated by the main character’s girlfriend, Detroit, in the beginning of the film. When confronted with Cassius’s existential questions about what happens when all human memory is wiped from the universe by an exploded sun, Detroit responds that she wants to be surrounded by the people she loves when she dies and that all that matters is the present moment – love between two people. This seems hopelessly naive at the time, but proves to be precisely what matters in the end. Or so one hopes.
But Sorry To Bother You is not naive. It makes clear that those simple pleasures will not be won without a fight. The powerful cannot be shamed into behaving humanely. Power must be wrested from the hands of those who would abuse it and placed into the hands of a re-imagined collective. This seems less like class warfare and more like a realistic assessment of the task at hand for progressives. It does beg the question, can one live comfortably in a world where anyone is deprived of the basics necessities of life? In other words, even if the class struggle in America were to be fought and won, would living comfortably be justified in the face of global poverty? But perhaps the first step is for we progressives who have to live uncomfortably, to recognize and fight against our own complacent complicity. To appropriate a phrase, art’s job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think Sorry To Bother You succeeds at that and, like all great art, deserves multiple returns to its rich narrative.
A bit of trivia – somewhere in the middle of the film, Detroit’s earrings (which are always changing) say “Bury the rag deep in your face.” A little Bob Dylan for the careful viewer. Made me smile.