First off, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, written & directed by Boots Riley (co-founder of The Coup, hip-hop folk hero, and Oakland Renaissance man) is an excellent movie. Funny, forward-looking, timely, and weird. It’s very much a deconstructed superhero film in structure (THE WHITE VOICE RISES, one could say) but I’ll leave that one alone for the moment because I spend way too much time blathering about superhero films. What I really would like to talk about is the art gallery sequence featuring Tessa Thompson, who plays a visual artist named Detroit (because every character in the film has a name with evocative nuances).
It’s a wonderfully WTF kind of scene, to say the least. Thompson’s character, Detroit, takes stage for the performance-art portion of her big gallery opening. My exposure to performance art is pretty much only through UCLA colleague and fellow Bay Arean Kristina Wong, but thanks to her, the cell-phone-hurling and balloons of sheep’s blood didn’t throw me off too much. Thompson states in her interview with Newsweek that the scene was originally written to be performed in the nude, but they cleverly upgraded that with a bird-thong and hands-on-boobs-bikini top that both disrupts expectations and somewhat recalls this Sarah Michelle Gellar sketch from SNL:
Anyways, all that is engaging enough, but what really takes the scene to the next level is the text spoken by Detroit repeatedly, like a mantra. It’s from THE LAST DRAGON (1985), the martial arts/comedy/blaxploitation cult classic film that is like nothing else in this world. For the uninitiated, THE LAST DRAGON is about….uhm….I want to say it’s about a young Black martial artist who idolizes Bruce Lee and must face Sho’nuff, The Shogun of Harlem (*not even making that up*) in order to gain mystical power. Also, it’s beloved (by me, anyway) as an origin point for El DeBarge’s ’80’s dance anthem “Rhythm Of The Night”:
But of course, you know all this. Like SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, THE LAST DRAGON is a thrillingly atypical movie. It’s also a trailblazing Afro-Asian/Blasian movie (if I may use the term oft-used to describe people of mixed African and Asian roots to also describe a cultural item fusing African-American and Asian heritages), which are so very few, and I found myself asking, if you were to make a film festival program of Perfect Blasian Movies starting with the LAST DRAGON and continuing with ROMEO MUST DIE (2000, starring Aaliyah and Jet Li), what would the third movie be? And all the RUSH HOUR films are disallowed, because of, well, personal taste. There really aren’t that many. Someone please, in the comments, tell me how to complete the trilogy!
So all this is colliding in my head as Tessa Thompson is owning this scene. Just prior to the stage performance, we’d seen Detroit speaking in an affected English accent, an easily-missable moment revealing her own form of “White Voice” which complicates our understanding of Detroit, who otherwise, let’s face it, is pretty much a total moral hero.
And, I can’t help but mention the part of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU that shortly follows the stage performance, wherein Detroit has a hot kinda moment with Squeeze, a labor organizer played by Steven Yeun. I enjoyed Yuen’s performance, and appreciated that Squeeze, like Detroit, is close to an unimpeachable hero. But again, in witnessing the superlative, brash act of POC filmmaking that SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is, I got a little aspirational. Could characters like Squeeze be informed by their Asian background, in the way that most of Riley’s characters are informed by Black culture? Could we elevate to the point where Squeeze has more defining characteristics than “not-a-stereotype?” It would be great to know where he’s coming from.
So yeah, that part, among so many in SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, really got to me. Go see it, seriously. I can’t claim to understand all of its levels of meaning, nor imagine all the spaces it defiantly occupies, but I’m pretty sure it’s all contained in that now-sacred passage from THE LAST DRAGON:
“And in the end Eddie, you know what? You’re nothing but a misguided midget asshole with dreams of ruling the world … yeah also from Kew Gardens … and also getting by on my tits!”