On the Significance of Sorry to Bother You

Most in the American left have heard about this film; in all likelihood they have had it raved about to them. I wrote a few thoughts on why that might be and published them at Red Wedge:

Capitalism is an irrational system which refuses to see itself for what it is. Like an obnoxious trust fund kid slumming it at a dive bar, it cannot help but loudly declare how ingenious and deserving it is. Accepting its arguments for how things are and how they change is to accept the argument that there is some method underneath the layers of madness, that its opulence can somehow be separated from its exploitation, that it has something other than an ever-deepening inhumanity in its future. While our dreams are deemed irrational, capitalism’s degradations are justified as science.  

To grasp the significance of Sorry to Bother You is, on some level, to grasp this truth about capitalism. Boots Riley has written and directed a film that is being celebrated by the far-left and mainstream critics alike. Those familiar with Riley’s musical and lyrical work with the Coup know that he is adept at combining his unabashed revolutionary politics with a skewed, cartoon-like worldview. The world of Sorry to Bother You is one much like the Coup’s 2012 album of the same name. Very few elements are out of place, and taken together they add up to something totally weird, and to a degree that is unsettling but engaging and hilarious.

In short, what I tried to tease out was how Riley's film re-introduces a somewhat dormant tradition of radical filmmaking that relies more heavily on the non-real rather than the realist/naturalist oeuvre that has dominated "political films" for the past few decades (think of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, John Sayles).

The surreal, the deconstructionist, the fantastical and just plain weird; these all are in my estimation far better at illustrating the processes of dehumanization and alienation that capitalism inculcates and spreads. The peculiarity of the late-neoliberal cultural moment is that while it is quite adept at using the weird and surreal to sell and justify itself (see the situationist definition of recuperation) most of the cultural language of left creatives has skewed back in the direction of the real. There is nothing wrong with more realist or naturalist potrayals, and they have strengths that the broad irrealist oeuvre doesn't. But when taking into account the long line of radical and Marxist filmmakers who saw their aesthetic experiments as heavily overlapping with the forging of a radical imagination, it seems to me that the disappearance of this tradition -- at least in the English-speaking film scene -- represents a forfeiture of the imagination back into the hands of capital. It's my hope (and theory) that the content, form, and timing of Sorry to Bother You opens the door for irrealist radical filmmakers to return to the cultural conversation regarding how life is lived.

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