by Conor G.
Warning: this essay contains (somewhat vague) spoilers.
In their essay “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution” from 1999 [PDF], historians Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch reflect on a peculiar trend in hip-hop: the revolutionary thought of Mao Tse-Tung. The authors show how the lyrics of Boots Riley—frontman and main rapper of the communist Oakland-based group The Coup—restore Mao to the “pantheon of black radical heroes.” Kelley and Esch unfurl the hit opening track of The Coup’s debut 1993 album Kill My Landlord, “Dig It”:
The Coup refers to its members as “the wretched of the earth,” tells listeners to read The Communist Manifesto, and conjures up revolutionary icons such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, H. Rap Brown, Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt. In classical Maoist fashion, the group seizes on Mao’s most famous quote and makes it its own: “We realize that power is nickel-plated.”
Mao, according to Kelley and Esch, “gave black radicals a non-Western model of Marxism that placed greater emphasis on local conditions and historical circumstances than canonical texts.” From the Marxism-Leninism of W.E.B. DuBois and the Black Panther Party, to the revolutionary black nationalism of Harry Haywood and Stokely Carmichael, to the urban rebellions around the Rodney King riots, after which the Bloods and Crips wrote a “Plan For The Reconstruction of Los Angeles,” Maoism flowed as an undercurrent through African-American political movements since the 1949 Chinese Revolution. It extended into the Black Arts Movement, too, especially the poetry and theater of Amiri Baraka.
Baraka articulated ideas on art in a work called Hard Facts, building off of Mao’s own Talks at the Yenan Forum from 1942. (“The first problem is: literature and art for whom?” Mao asked. “This problem was solved long ago by Marxists, especially by Lenin. As far back as 1905 Lenin pointed out emphatically that our literature and art should ‘serve the millions and tens of millions of working people.'”) Rebuking cultural nationalism, Baraka urged artists to “jettison petty bourgeois attitudes and learn from the people, taking ideas and experiences and reformulating them through Marxism-Leninism.” By exposing the bullshit, conveying everyday struggle, and laying bare class exploitation through dialectical analysis—only then can artists convey a revolutionary art that serves the people.
The Hard Facts pamphlet, published in 1975, includes a prime example by Baraka—a poem called “A New Reality is better than a New Movie”:
to survive with no money in a money world, of making the boss
100,000 for every 200
you get, and then having his brother get you for the rent, and if
you want to buy the car
helped build, your down payment paid for it, the rest goes to buy
his old lady a foam
rhinestone set of boobies for special occasions when kissinger
drunkenly fumbles with her blouse, forgetting himself.
If you don’t like it, what you gonna do about it.
Rockefeller is your vice president and yo’ mama don’t wear no drawers.
Kelley and Esch conclude that Maoism—as it flourished in the United States between the 60s until Mao’s death in 1976—was on the decline (save for a few peculiar references in 90s pop culture, like The Coup). That historical trend has not changed, at least in the US context—save for a few promising formations such as Serve The People-Los Angeles and the Maoist Communist Group based in NYC. That’s what makes the release of Sorry To Bother You, a radical satire written and directed by Riley of The Coup, such a pleasant surprise. Riley takes the pastiche style and politics of “Dig It” (which Boots has since described as too on-the-nose), and infuses it into one of the funniest, most original, and empowering stories about militant organizing.
Boots Riley spent years hustling to get this movie made. It was, as the New York Times observed, a kind of “infiltration.” (Someone joked on Twitter that the Times profile of Riley was probably the paper’s first positive portrayal of a communist.) Riley hadn’t made a movie before but wrote a script in 2012, and shopped it around until it got the attention of liberals like the actors David Cross and Patton Oswald and the producer Forrest Whittaker. From there it got the approval and financial backing of the indie cinema circuit, including Dave Eggers and Sundance executives—and the Annapurna production company1 has been pushing a wide release. It’s now playing in 1,050 theaters.
As science fiction, Sorry To Bother You offers viewers a new movie and a new reality. It stars Lakeith Stanfied—the wiry actor who memorably uttered the title phrase in Jordan Peele’s Get Out—as Cassius Green, a telemarketer who climbs the corporate ladder by mastering an inner White Voice, overdubbed by Cross. The joke never gets old. Halfway through the movie, Cassius and his manager (played by Omari Hardwick using Oswalt’s whiny White Voice), stand in a Kendall Square-style open office (“White Voice at all times here!”) discussing the sale of slave labor. In the universe of Sorry To Bother You, the contradictions of black capitalism are a dark joke and ever-present theme.
Like Robin D.G. Kelley himself, Boots Riley seems to has pivoted, somewhat, from a hard materialism towards Surrealism, “a body of political thought that recognizes that oppression is often rooted in capitalism, but that unleashing the imagination and being able to see beyond one’s immediate circumstances is a big part of being free.” What better venue than blockbuster science fiction, then, to explore the darkness of US capitalism in the era of Trump and Bezos? Riley’s imagined Oakland is fictional, but not unbelievable: conditions are only somewhat exaggerated, so that when a CEO named Steve Lift—the main villain, played brilliantly by real-life multi-millionaire Armie Hammer doing a mix of Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, and the neoliberal gene hacker George Church—tells Cassius of his plan to mutate manual laborers at his worker detention sites into a submissive, subhuman species, it doesn’t seem all that far off. “This isn’t irrational!” Lift cries, when Cassius protests. Given the history of race-making among imperial states, he’s not wrong.
The real star of the movie is Tessa Thompson, who plays Cassius’s girlfriend, a radical installation artist and secret member of the underground black-bloc style group (and lowkey protagonists of the film), Left Eye.2 Her name is Detroit, and she is the steadiest and most vocal anti-capitalist of the film—speaking plainly about how U.S. imperialism was built on the enslavement of Africans, while Cassius, tired after a long day at work, listens but ultimately just wants to get high. Detroit, like Cassius, is guilty of using her own White Voice (Lily James’s effete British accent) to sell art, but she is unwavering in her worldview.
Detroit features in one of the film’s “plays within a play”; one of the more complicated and funny scenes includes a piece of her performance art, where she stands nearly naked, except for underwear made out of black rubber gloves, and tells her audience to throw bullet casings, cell phones, and water balloons full of sheep’s blood at her while she recites lines (in her White Voice) from the kung-fu movie The Last Dragon. It’s a play on fluxus art of the 1960s—something like a gorier, anti-imperialist version of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), meant to shed light on exploitation in the Congo—but Cassius, like a lot of us, doesn’t get it, seeing it only as masochism (self-humiliation is a pervasive theme in Riley’s portrayal of capitalism, as Khury Petersen-Smith has pointed out) and tries to stop the performance mid-way. Detroit becomes increasingly impatient with Cassius, who at this point has sold out—lured to the top of the telemarketing chain as a so-called Power Caller.
It’s at this juncture that both characters seem confused, in their own ways, as representative members of the petty bourgeoisie. They are specialists and artisans who, in various ways, constantly fluctuate between struggle and the enticements of the capitalist class.
Steven Yeun plays Squeeze, one of the steadiest and most loyal comrades in the film. We learn he’s a “salt,” a professional organizer who goes from workplace to workplace organizing fights against bosses and spreading political education about the struggle. He appreciates Left Eye, but is not a member like Detroit is; his preferred strategy is trade unionism. He organizes a work stoppage among the lowest-paid employees of the telemarketing company, which culminates in a weeks-long battle outside the office and, finally, clashes with police.
It’s in these scenes that we see the clues of Boots Riley’s radical message, himself as an artist exploring the limits of trade unionism: in the moments when police start swinging the billy clubs, the cinematographic style switches from one of mirages, overdubs, and animations, towards a rough, documentary-style realism. Suddenly, this is no longer satire or science fiction. It is the reality of working-class Oakland.
For all its plot twists and surreal imagery, Sorry to Bother You has a straight-forward political message about black capitalism, identity, labor, masculinity, gentrification, the police state, and, above all, race. It’s important to note that in the Sorry to Bother You universe, there are no major white heroes. “Whiteness” itself is a myth, a socially-constructed American Dream, the fantasy of the neutral, upwardly mobile, and carefree middle class. “White Voice is what white people think they’re supposed to sound like,” says Cassius’s co-worker Langston, named in an homage to the communist poet Langston Hughes, perhaps, and played by Danny Glover.
“The whole movie deals with performance,” Riley has said. “The idea that race, and its definitions, are mostly performed.” Where it is certainly not performed is among the proletariat: for the mutant underclass, race becomes not just “the modality in which class is lived,” per the Stuart Hall maxim, but a stomach-churning, embodied fact. Under capitalism, Riley reminds us, white supremacy is not merely the justification of exploitation—by identifying non-white groups as lesser or sub-human—but the very engine of its existence.
One of the final and most indelible moments in the film comes after when Cassius Green—whose politics are, at best, ambivalent and contradictory—tumbles out from the world of the bourgeoisie (after a clarifying and horrifying moment, when a crowd of rich white people demand that Cassius raps, just because he’s black, chanting: “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!”). He’s thrust into the back of a police van, after being knocked out by a cop. Day turns into night. He wakes up and gazes outward, seeing a surprising and fantastical display: comrades from the newly-formed mutant underclass successfully beating back the riot officers. Squeeze’s crew has disappeared, outside the frame.
The political insight here—that “the withholding of labor,” as Boots Riley likes to say, and the militancy of violent rebellions are both necessary in the mass struggle—is reiterated in the final moments of the film. Same struggle, same fight.
As a communist, Riley rebukes both reformism (Cassius refers to Martin Luther King, off hand, as a “fake leader”) and also left adventurism—the performance of radicalism without connection to the masses—throughout the film, often in subtle and funny ways. Detroit and Left Eye make political art that is illegible to the public. Cassius, early in the film, finds himself the star of a viral video when, while crossing the picket line, he’s hit on the head with a can of soda (the meme is an homage to Riley’s old protest tactics as an organizer in college). The publicity gives him a platform to go on television to urge a wide audience: “Call your Senators!” he cries. But nobody’s listening and nothing’s changing. “People know that won’t work,” Squeeze concludes.
But will Squeeze’s tactics work? In perhaps the most biting line in the film, Cassius, during an argument with Detroit, shouts: “What’s Squeeze gonna do about fucking slave labor?” Trade unionism, it seems, doesn’t make much of an alternative to electoralism.3
In an interview with LA Times, Boots Riley expanded on this political stance. Asked whether this is “a system you’d ever take part in by running for office,” he replied, “No,” since the seat of power is among “the 1%” and “not in the elected office.” Riley elaborates: “The ruling class was afraid of an actual movement, perhaps a revolutionary movement happening, and because of that, we’ve got the New Deal… So if we’re looking for extreme changes like that, and we want elected officials to make big changes like that, we’ve got to stop focusing only on elections, because then we’re going to get caught in this cycle.”
In the fight for international proletarian revolution—against white supremacy—elections may be fruitless and the labor movement may have “lost its bite,” to quote a song by The Coup. But, Riley urges viewers, we have to start somewhere. If just because the sun will one day explode.
1Important to say that Annapurna is owned by Megan Ellison, daughter of Larry Ellison (Oracle co-founder and third-richest man in the US), and she produced the CIA propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty. Clearly some compromises were made during the production of this film. One of the tougher, unresolved questions for socialist viewers is: How much is Boots Riley using his own White Voice to make the movie amenable to a mainstream audience?
2As a background note, Boots Riley portrays anarchism in an interesting way throughout the film. Left Eye follows tactics of rioting, destruction of property, and art (converting, in one memorable example, a billboard for a mega-corporation into the famous Huey Newton throne photograph). Detroit herself could be an anarchist (it’s unclear). But same time, Cassius’s direct supervisor and manager—one of the most laughable characters in the film—has an anarchist symbol tattooed on his neck.
3When I asked some Maoist comrades what they thought of Sorry to Bother You, they went further, rejecting the film as “communist” especially because of its ambivalent portrayal of trade unionism: “Capitalism itself contains the premises for a fraction of the working class to constitute itself as a revolutionary class, organized in its Party. To be a revolutionary class is (1) to gain mastery of the social process of knowing the society of which the masses are victims; (2) to organize itself for the continuous destruction of that society in stages. The key historical premise for the construction of the Party is the appearance of permanent worker organizations—trade unions—which, in their very first historical phase (the 19th century) are able to participate in the subjective, political identity of the working class. However, trade unions are only a historical premise, entirely distinct from the Party itself, and today they are nothing more than a simple bourgeois instrument of incorporation that divides the working class from politics (i.e., the question of power and the state). Trade unionism is a bourgeois trend in the working class. As Maoists, we must combat it—and all the more fiercely because of the illusions it sows among the working people… The bourgeoisie, as a political class, can only be defined as the political force that is opposed, in an antagonistic and protracted manner, to the revolution. This definition is something other than defining it as ‘bosses’ from whom one can ‘withhold one’s labor.'”