dir: Boots Riley
Any film can go off the rails in its third act, but few do it in such a bonkers, catastrophic fashion. If you’re going to crash and burn, I say do it as spectacularly as possible, and this flick certainly gives it a red hot go.
I could not even begin to describe what genre this movie slots into. I guess you could kind of say it was a comedy? Corporate satire with racial / social commentary? I mean, it’s pretty funny in parts, but it tries to do so much in its running time that to say it transcends traditional restrictions in favour of making an insane set of literal and allegorical points would really not even scratch the surface.
Maybe it’s just easier to call it a satire, though a satire of late-stage capitalism and the pretentiousness of performance art, or the way African-Americans have to commodify themselves in order to eke out a living, I could not rightly say. It’s saying something, or a lot of somethings, it’s just that I don’t know ultimately what it means, if anything.
Our Hero Cassius, or Cash as he’s referred to more often, is played by Lakeith Stanfield, probably best known for playing Darius in the FX series Atlanta. The characters, at least initially, aren’t that dissimilar. He also had a brief but memorable role in Get Out, as someone who clearly wasn’t feeling like himself anymore.
Here he’s a financially disadvantaged bum who lives in his uncle’s garage, and is desperate for work. We see him trying to put 40 cents of petrol in his car, one which needs literal strings to be pulled in order to get the wipers moving. I wouldn’t have mentioned the uncle except that the uncle is played by the sublime Terry Crews, who is confidently working towards taking over America by appearing in everything and on everything. If there is only one person on the planet I can accept getting to refer to themselves in the third person, and there is only one, it’s Terry.
I have however expended more words in the last paragraph than Terry gets in the whole flick. Let me not give the impression that Cash’s uncle Sergio plays any significant part in the proceedings. He doesn’t, other than as an occasional antagonist.
Cash tries to lie his way into a job at a telemarketing place. He unfortunately perpetrates a bit of resume padding claiming he worked as a manager at the Bank of Oakland during a particular time period, not knowing of course that the jerk interviewing him was the manager at that bank at the same time. Other places would show you the door, but this is telemarketing, of course, where being an awful person is its own reward and a valuable skill. Cash’s initial attempts to sell bullshit to people on the phone fails because the second people hear his voice they hang up.
An old hand at the job, Langston (Danny Glover), advises Cash to speak with his white voice. A voice that reassures the listener, that calms and comforts them, radiating ease and privilege, a voice that never knows want or fear of being able to pay the rent. When Cash finally masters that kind of voice, his rise through the ranks becomes stratospheric.
His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) doesn’t much care for or about money, as she is an artist, darling, but hates the white voice when he uses it, so he has to be careful when and where it’s deployed. Not at home, not amongst his friends, because at best the voice freaks them out, at worst it makes them doubt Cash’s sanity.
When he uses the voice, it’s comedian and actor David Cross, who’s probably not the whitest person any of us have ever met, but he’s got a pretty distinctive voice. When, later on, Cash enters the realms of the Power Callers, the elite who literally live and work on a different level, it’s David Cross’s White Voice rubbing up against Patton Oswalt’s White Voice. It’s…a thing to be heard to be believed.
Obviously, the more success Cash achieves, the more money he seems to have thrown at him, the more distanced he becomes from his friends and girlfriend, who see him, unsurprisingly, as a sell-out. The story doesn’t exactly keep things subtle as he gets asked to sell progressively more despicable realities to worse customers.
In the sort of background are two other streams which inevitably converge – these ads for the services available from some corporation taking over the world called Worry Free, one that encourages people to sign over their lives and their freedom in order to voluntarily become unpaid employees (also known as slaves), and the antics of the latest up and coming entrepreneur Steve Lift (Arm Hammer, who excels at playing privileged pricks aka the Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network).
Also, while initially wanting to help his friends unionise at RegalView (the shitty telemarketing company), he chickens out because, after all, he wants to get paid.
For much of the film’s length the humour is wry and fairly subtle, as in, it doesn’t bonk you over the head with its obviousness, but unless I was deluding myself previously, all attempts at subtext or even text are thrown out the window when two things happen: it seems that Steve Lift is not the wonderful person no-one thought he was, and his plans of how to extract even more labour and value out of people he doesn’t want to pay involves ridiculous amounts of genetic engineering, and, get this, he might be a racist to boot.
As if to underline the point, then use a highlighter over it, then draw some stars around it again in case we didn’t get it, Cash is forced, at a party at Lift’s house, to put on a ‘rap’ performance, despite not wanting to, despite not being able to. In order to pacify the white master and the mostly white crowd, he ends up screaming “N____ shit N____ shit N___ shit N____ shit” much to the crowds’ delight. Anything else he tried to say up until that point was greeted with perplexed confusion.
So. To be heard, he can either only use the whitest of white voices, or use the most stereotypically ‘black’ voice he can muster, with no room for understanding or subtlety in between.
If I’m confused how I feel about the latter part of the flick, I’m even more confused by the scene where Detroit reads sections from the screenplay of The Last Dragon, which was the perplexing African-American Kung Fu epic the world never asked for produced by Motown legend Berry Gordy. Not only that (and the dialogue isn’t that great) she is practically naked, and the audience are encouraged to throw bags of sheep’s blood, old mobile phones, bullet casings and batteries at her. When Cash yells at the audience for sadistically pelting her with stuff, his girlfriend, and, perhaps the film itself asserts, No, Cassius, it is You who is the arsehole for interrupting her performance.
I’ll be honest and say I find that situation more perplexing than what follows, which is truly nuts, involving involuntary transformations of people into human – horse hybrids.
And on that note, I’m going to admit that while I enjoyed the heck out of the earlier parts of the film and how it was put together, and the performances especially (Steve Yuen is really good in a strong role as a union organiser who also pines for Detroit), I kinda lost interest at the end when the story veers into absurdist / science fiction bullshit where it didn’t need to be so, or what do I know, maybe it made perfect sense. The film is on stronger ground when it’s critiquing the global movement towards the gig economy, where a lot of desperate wage-earners seem to be working more than ever for less and less, or the social media fuelled mentality where someone getting smacked in the head with a drink can propel people to that meaningless level of notoriety that soaks up a lot of air time but doesn’t really produce anything worthwhile for anyone.
Lakeith is great in this as he is in everything that he does, but he’s an acquired taste. If one doesn’t appreciate his performance as a perpetually stoned lunatic philosopher in Atlanta, then it’s unlikely to carry over any goodwill for here. Sure, his character progressively becomes more of an arsehole, but no-one really has clean hands in this story, because I guess they’re saying we’re all to blame being complicit in the system.
I dunno. I’m not that much of a thinker or an intellectual, and there may be subtle nuances I missed watching this entertaining film, which is anything but subtle or nuanced. It’s enjoyable enough, but I’m not so sure it’s about to start any revolutions any time soon.
7 times I wonder how many people would volunteer to be slaves for a bunk bed and some terrible food out of 10
“If you beautiful perversions don't shut the fuck up, I'll turn you into glue!” – that’s no way to talk to your employees – Sorry To Bother You