After a successful run of movies in the 1980s, Spike Lee used to say “Make Black Film” like a mantra, and we saw it in the 1990s with Matty Rich, the Hughes Brothers, John Singleton, and Lee himself. It looks like it’s in effect again with boundary-bombing work by Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Arthur Jafa, Donald Glover, Jordan Peele, and Boots Riley. The latter’s Sorry to Bother You is not just the movie of the moment, it’s a statement, a stance, and a hopeful catalyst for change.
Like any worthwhile project, Boots Riley has been working on this one for a while. The screenplay itself was finished in 2012 and published by McSweeney’s in 2014. I got it and started reading it before I knew it was a movie. Once I heard it got made, I had to stop.
At times—for obvious reasons, I know—you can hear Riley talking directly through these characters. For instance, when Squeeze tells Cassius that it’s not that people don’t care, it’s that when they feel powerless to fix a problem, they learn to live with it. As surreal and wacky as this movie often is, social commentary rarely gets more germane than that.
Earlier this year I started a screenwriting class. I started trying to write a screenplay several years ago just to see if I could do it. It’s a very different kind of writing than I’m used to, and I wondered what exactly you put on a page to make things happen on a screen. I never finished the script I started, so I thought a class might help me get it done.
Anyway, the teacher of this class made me very uncomfortable. It took me several days after our first class meeting to figure out what it was. I am not easily offended, nor do I do passive-aggressive online reviews (I emailed the institution about this teacher; in fact, much of the description in this post is excerpted from that email), but I couldn’t shake my unease after that one class. My instructor had some very odd attitudes toward movies, stories, and, more specifically, people. His frequent jokes about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Woody Allen bordered on apologist, while his views on anyone who wasn’t a straight, white male were heteronormative in the extreme and bordered on the sexist, racist, and outright intolerant. He was a nice enough guy and a knowledgeable teacher, so I was trying to figure out what had me so on-edge after the one class. I kept coming back to things he’d said: subtle references, jokes, comments, and recommendations that I finally found I couldn’t ignore. I was unable to attend his class again.
One specific thing that instructor said is relevant here. He made the argument that if you’re telling a universal story (i.e., one about love, loss, coming of age, etc.), it doesn’t matter what your background is, your story will connect with an audience. While this assertion is true and could be the basis for a great argument for diversity, he used it to defend the longstanding white-male dominance of storytelling!
One of my other writing heroes, Tina Fey, does a great job of diplomatically explaining this issue to David Letterman on his My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. She uses the SNL writers’ room as a microcosm or cross-section of the audience at large. Explaining that things that might not have played well with mostly (white) men in the room, did when the room became more diverse. So, sketches that had never made it to dress rehearsal before started making it onto the show once there were more women and people of color in the room to laugh at them. That is such an important shift in gate-keeping, and it applies to all such gates, not just those in comedy.
While I’m writing here about voices in the figurative form, Sorry to Bother You uses them much more directly though still metonymically to make a similar point. The phrase “Sorry to Bother You” applies not only to the telemarketing refrain on which it’s based but also to the hegemony against which it stands. It’s in theaters now. Go see it!