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Steven Manicastri is a political theorist and labor organizer. Having recently viewed Sorry to Bother You and seeing its clear relevance to his own research he posed the following questions to Lewis Gordon because of his theoretical work on race, class, and politics in film.
STEVEN MANICASTRI: The director of Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley, is a well-known community activist and openly communist. Is there any value for revolutionary politics in crafting a film with an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist message? Does the explicitness of the politics in such films matter when commercially successful films such as Black Panther and Last Jedi present themselves or are at least interpreted by the media as “left-wing” films?
LEWIS GORDON: Your question requires much unpacking and taps into concerns of aesthetics and politics—indeed, political aesthetics—primarily for people on the left, Steven.
First, much depends on what “value” means here. If what is meant is to communicate a political message to a large audience, that would depend on how many people go to see the movie. Of course viewing a film and learning from it are different experiences. If the film were made as an act of political resistance to the rising tides of fascism and class massacre across the globe, then the hope would be for learning something from the film, and in this case that would be allegorical truth.
An allegory involves showing how something else brings things out into the open. It’s from the Greek words allos (“another,” “something else”) and agoreuein (“to speak openly”). That is why Plato’s famous example of what happens when a shackled individual escapes from the cave and learns about reality from being outside. The famed “Allegory of the Cave” is allegorical on the levels of content and form. The allegory is in the story and relationship to the story, in its form, its kind, is allegorical.
If revolution offer truth, then that truth should be revealed wherever and whenever possible, including through use of things that appear at first as something else. The second part of your question refers to commercial or market value. The answer there is whether a film garners profits. If truth and profitability don’t mix, then all would be lost, at least under capitalism, no? Of course, there is the other side, which is that falsehoods have proven to be very profitable. So, wherein lies the difference? The issue isn’t whether truth produces profit but whether truth is subordinated to profit. That would be an instance of the commodification of truth.
At this point, we would have to address additional features of capitalism, which, after all, aims to be complete or total. Capitalism, after all, offers a simple credo: everything can be commodified. Or, made plain, anything and anyone can be bought.
We have witnessed this not only with knowledge, laws, religions, and states but also politics. I’m thus taking your point about commercialization to refer not only to the commodification of art but also the politics within aesthetic production. Here we find a deeper problem. It is possible for politics to be palatable when presented as entertaining. There is a subtextual limit of not taking the aesthetic product seriously. Thus, it is not only in films such as Sorry to Bother You, The Black Panther, and The Last Jedi, but also in most superhero films and other art forms such as dance, music, visual arts, etc., where, at least when offered as entertainment, the political content has free rein.
This has been one of the conundrums of certain avowedly political art forms such as hip-hop and performance art. Boots Riley is a hip-hop artist—and a damn excellent one in fact, as his going on three decades of work with The Coup attest—and longtime political activist. He brings them together beautifully in Sorry to Bother You. Many will be entertained; others will receive much more. As entertainment, however, it is able to emerge in ways that, stripped of allegory, may have otherwise been rejected.
It would take some time for me to address the fallacies of how “rightwing” and “leftwing” are talked about today.
For instance, many people think nearly everything that is visually postmodern is leftwing despite their offering in many cases a form of libertarian anti-essentialist individualism that is compatible with neoliberalism. I have argued in some of my public lectures, for instance, that the kind of fascism spreading around the globe today is actually postmodern, as some, such as what at times appears in Breitbart News, even claim to be anti-essentialist. So, let me just say this. Oddly enough, even many people on the right identify with leftwing politics at the level of entertainment and fantasy. Whether it is Robin Hood or the fantasied rewriting of the biographies of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the basic premise is to overthrow the Sheriff/Empire, not identify with him/it. This is why amusing situations occur when, for instance, U.S. comic book fans visiting Australia for their conventions, get miffed at opening ceremonies acknowledging the Indigenous and historic owners of the land. They object to “politics” intruding on their event, even though the content of most comic books is actually the basic political premise of identifying with those fighting against imperialism and tyranny.
So, to the point, look at it this way. First, “right” and “left” are historically arbitrary. The designations come from seating arrangements of monarchs and republicans in the eighteenth-century French parliament. Yet, there is now content to these designations. What distinguishes the right from the left is, among many factors, their position on contemporary crises.
The right believes one could “return” to a perfect past. They regard that past as a perfect cohesion of law, order, and right. To do so, they are willing to give up on any source of dissent—especially difference. That’s why the right always leads to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and a variety of other practices against difference. A strange feature of the present is a bizarre fascism that uses class against class. The logic is this: If one cannot be rich, living with it is better if others are poorer. Radicalized, this path comes down to a simple question: What are you willing to give up to be “safe”? It’s the question Thomas Hobbes posed in The Leviathan (1651). In the past, this meant reinvestment in monarchies. If the answer is a willingness to give up everything but one’s bare life, the outcome, at least since the twentieth century, is fascism.
The left, on the other hand, is premised on the conviction that there was no perfect past. History is thus a long struggle of trying to make things better, with setbacks here and there. So, the left’s recommended response to contemporary crises should not be “return” but instead, as the Martinican revolutionary psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon had counseled at the end of his classic Les Damnés de la terre (1961), to build new concepts, try new things, change the material conditions, and transform the world in movements toward dignity and freedom. That there are left-identified people who don’t think in this way, however, but instead about nostalgic models of what or where they would like humanity to go, indicates a form of conservatism. Of course, there is more to the left since, unlike the right—which ultimately seeks security through homogeneity—the left tends toward heterogeneity and often prizes freedom and liberty.
That leftism also faces difficulty, however, since freedom and liberty are not identical. The libertarian left could in advance reject certain social options the result of which could lead to affinities with ideas of the right.
Freedom, however, isn’t neat. It requires maturity and is never secure. So, in opposition to the right, the question to the left is this: How much security is one willing to give up for a life of dignity and freedom?
This question isn’t a simple one to answer, since many on the left have historically pointed out that freedom without material conditions is meaningless, which is why many among anti-colonial, Indigenous, Black, and class-based movements have argued for conceptions of the human being, social conditions, and freedom as interrelated.
So, to return to your reference to The Black Panther and The Last Jedi, such films always leave us at the points at which the battle for liberty is won while the struggle for freedom continues.
SM: Sorry to Bother You has numerous fantastical elements from the very beginning, with Cassius entering people’s private lives during each call, to his use of David Cross’ white voice. While fantastical elements are initially used for gags, by the end of the film they become a real point of tension and horror with the creation of equisapiens. How does the fantastical help us understand the absurdity of capitalism, and its depravity in the search for profit?
LG: Your question raises the question of myths. Even though science fiction explores what at first seems fantastic, it often inspires invention into the future. This is so because despite the science, such fiction is communicable primarily through the resources of myths. Euromodernism insists on science being posed against myth, but the problem there is that it would be like being able to see without meaning.
From the Greek word muthos (which means told or narrated from the mouth), myth brings to the fore what must be told, which are not only stories but also rituals of repetition through which a story is told and retold. This practice of retelling brings meaning also beneath meaning. This is why we are often able to realize a familiar story in what at first appears to be a new story. The familiar story we see in the avowed new story reveals the truth at work in its narrative. There is thus truth in fiction, where such stories reveal ongoing retold stories.
For instance, Sorry to Bother You is also a retelling of a tale in The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), though it’s no doubt in most movie-goers’ subconscious through its retelling in Walt Disney’s version, which was simply entitled Pinocchio (1940). In the 1883 novel, his friends and Pinocchio endanger themselves through going to The Land of Toys. In the Disney film it’s called Pleasure Island. In both versions, children are lured there with the promise of pure license or liberty without responsibility (what many libertarians today confuse with freedom). The unsuspecting children—in the novel they are boys and girls but in the Disney version they’re only boys—devolve into donkeys, where they are then sold into slavery.
Whether Boots Riley realized he was retelling the Pinocchio tale of The Land of Toys/Pleasure Island or not, its parallels make sense as Sorry to Bother You is also about the exploitation of labor and its logical conclusion: enslavement.
The name of the nefarious corporation, WorryFree, speaks for itself. There are all-too-obvious metonyms, metaphors, and play on words such as Cassius Greene (“cash green” as a way of saying green cash), Steve Lift (perhaps Steve Jobs through a signification of uplift), Squeeze (for the union organizer), Detroit (the city devastated by neoliberal policies but making its comeback through activism, art, and urban agriculture, in addition to being where Boots Riley lived in his childhood before moving to Oakland), Diana DeBauchery (debauchery), Mr. ____ (a “Power Caller” with one right eye, or a Cyclops, as opposed to the radical group, “The Left Eye,” who vandalize WorryFree advertisements), Langston (complicated here, but most likely Langston Hughes, the great blues poet); Coke (both the cola and cocaine), the RegalView (the monarch’s view and kingdom), and, of course, the title, since “Sorry to bother you” doesn’t only refer to the annoying catch-phrase of telemarketers but also the relationship political reality has to those who prefer to live life with, as the late Stanley Kubrick put it, eyes wide shut.
Given your first question about political aesthetics, “sorry to bother you” is also a meta-cinematic self-reference to what the film is actually doing to many viewers, which means it is also a breaking of the Fourth Wall. There are many more examples I could mention, but I’ve already made my point.
The grammar of myth, and the connection to Pinocchio, is there throughout Sorry to Bother You through the theme of transformation. The process begins with the search for employment at first through deception (remember Pinocchio’s famous failed lies), then at the level of voice, through to questions of class struggle whose racial and engendered elements become increasingly clear, and then on from white voice to “Power Caller” and so on.
This movement is also dialectical and reminiscent of a crucial understanding in Marxism, which is all about social transformation. Marxism is also a critical position on transformation for its own sake. The warning is that some kinds of transformations could involve the radicalization of enslavement. Revolutionary transformation requires responding to contradictions through changing the conditions that maintain them.
Steve Lift, for instance, offers Cassius an opportunity to be a Martin Luther King, Jr. He doesn’t, however, mean the Dr. King who died fifty years ago while fighting for workers’ rights in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, as part of his Poor People’s Campaign. Lift meant, instead, the Dr. King caricatured in moralized portrayals of a pacifist dreamer instead of a political fighter. The Cassius he beckoned versus the one who emerged from transformation is a leader more in stream with the Dr. King whose affinities were with Frantz Fanon, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X), and Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay).
Your observation about depravity comes forth through the additional layers of myth, since it also brings to the fore the psychoanalytical implications of capitalism. Capitalism’s promise of acquiring everything makes human beings an unfortunate inconvenience. The desire is for the maximization of profit, which requires taking away whatever remains in labor as a source of limiting that goal. That requires destroying their humanity. Notice that the large penises revealed at crucial moments in the film are limp. They are penises but not phalluses; in psychoanalytical terms, the equisapiens lack “the” phallus and are thus not erect or, alluding to their perverse creator, neither uplift nor upright. I could say more, but it would be best to reserve analysis for another time when more people would have seen the film.
SM: Danny Glover’s character Langston teaches Cassius to use his white voice to sell products, which eventually land him a promotion to the upper echelons of the company. Why is Cassius so easily tempted to enter the top, whereas Langston, despite his ability, chooses to stick to the picket line?
LG: I have already alluded to why. Langston is likely the invocation of Langston Hughes, the African American blues poet. Hughes was part of the radical left. He was publicly supportive of the Communist Party USA, even though his biographers say he wasn’t a formal member of the party. For our purposes, Hughes’s poetry gave him access to white commodification, which he rejected through his political commitments. He was part of a group of left-oriented poets such as the Jamaican Claude MacKay, the Cuban Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista, and the Haitian Jacques Romain, to name three. Notice that Langston also functioned as the mythic guide Virgil from Dante’s Inferno. Virgil leads the protagonist through limbo and the many levels of hell to its cold center to see what he needs to see to be released from his fears and hatred and thereby find his way out. Langston always sees what is beyond appearance. A crucial indication of who he is becomes apparent in the bar, where he demands “the good stuff,” which is in a bottle hidden within another bottle.
SM: Detroit plays a central role as both a revolutionary artist, but also as a political and moral anchor for Cassius. What is the significance of the name Detroit, and what does it tell about the possibility for revolution in the US?
LG: I also already alluded to Detroit. Before her, however, I must say something about Squeeze. According to Brian Locke, who writes on misrepresentations of Asian Americans in cinema (see, for example, his book Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen ), American films tend to structure Asian Americans, particularly Asian American males, as a threat to security through which a bonding of blacks and whites would protect the nation. Nearly every element of the character Squeeze breaks this and other stereotypes of Asian American males in Hollywood cinema. He is a courageous leader whose speech is not marked by presuppositions of foreignness, and he is not only a sexual being but also a desirable one. He works across class and racial lines. And the proposed deal of a capitalist bond between Lift and Green, wherein the union led by Squeeze is the threat, is derailed through alternatives already set in play because of Squeeze’s efforts across class, gender, and race. In short, working-class people of color and white people who believe capitalists are on their side are delusional.
Squeeze’s relationship with Detroit is a complicated one. Think of a reference to him as Chinese, although he is (at least to me) clearly Korean American. The impact of Korea and Japan in relation to the American automobile industry was felt in Detroit perhaps more than in any other American city. That Detroit and Squeeze understand each other in relation to WorryFree/Steve Lift makes sense, if we think through how the plutocrats and kleptocrats in Russia and the United States are collaborating against China, the European Union, and pretty much the rest of the world.
Squeeze’s name also offers an additional meaning. He doesn’t only squeeze the bosses but is also a squeeze in the sense of a lover. Detroit, then, has her main squeeze (green cash) and her other squeeze (squeezing The Man). China is not a liberal democracy, but unlike Russia, it continues to devote its energy to bringing nearly a billion people out of poverty.
So, we come to the specificity of Detroit. She is, as we know, a performance artist, and her work includes citing, in a black, leather-gloved bikini, lines from the Berry Gordy produced Last Dragon (1985) while audience members throw old cell phones, bullet casings, and balloons filled with lamb’s blood on her. Since Gordy was the mogul who founded and ran Motown, which was in the city of Detroit, is one reference, and the lines are from a scene in the 1985 film coming down to this: How far are we willing to go for material wealth? The answer of the plutocrats, oligarchs, and kleptocrats today comes down, through the nihilistic implications of their practice, to this: at the expense of reality, truth, and, ultimately, the future.
Notes on the Contributors
Steven Manicastri is a doctoral student writing on the Cobas Scuola, a horizontally organized Italian labor union of public school teachers. He is also serving as the current president of the UCONN Graduate Employee Union. His interests include Marxism, critical theory, and film, and he has written “Not All are Aboard: Decolonizing Exodus in Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer” with Professor Fred Lee, who teaches in Political Science and Asian and Asian American Studies at UCONN-Storrs.
Lewis Gordon is editor of Black Issues in Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; and the 2018–2019 Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. His most recent book, co-edited with Fernanda Frizzo Bragato, is Geopolitics and Decolonization: Perspectives from the Global South and his forthcoming book is entitled Fear of a Black Consciousness.