New Black Absurdity in the Age of Trump
Sorry to Bother You starts out in the real world. The summer’s cinematic science-fiction surprise opens with main character Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) struggling to make rent and lying his way through an interview for a job he needs but doesn’t really want. However, once he starts at his hellish telemarketing gig, spaces and places begin to fracture and change their rules around him, and Cassius—nicknamed “Cash”—begins a journey straight into the heart of an utterly modern iteration of the chief American absurdity.
The debut film by rapper/activist Boots Riley comes along at a perfect moment, a time when the urge to perpetuate the hegemony of straight white rich men has never seemed more rabid. A set of power relations that always declared itself to be the reasonable and rational state of things, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, now lives and moves in the body of President Donald Trump; racism and classism have been taking a jaunty stroll all across the continent, to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
As Jamelle Bouie has written in Slate, we’re in the midst of a program that’s designed to lock in white hegemony against demographic change. Policies that strip away voting rights, healthcare, and legal protections for economically vulnerable communities are the order of the day, along with reforms that slash taxes for the rich and shred the social safety net. Where the program’s proponents once spoke in code and deflection, now white nationalists, emboldened by the president’s racist speeches and policies, march in Charlottesville chanting “blood and soil” and “we will not be replaced.”
What happens to a dream deferred? It mutates into a fusion of things you recognize and things you can’t predict.
What Boots Riley presents in his first feature film is a satirical fever dream, a work of science fiction that speaks of the systematic unreality of the everyday world and the powers behind it. It carries on a cultural motif older than the current crisis, in which black American artists perform a comedy of the impossible to disassemble the false ostensible logic of the country and rebuild it into something weird and absurd and true.
You can tie the the rise of black science fiction writers after the Civil Rights Movement to this motif. Samuel R. Delany’s novel Babel-17 imagines a future where language is a corrupting weapon, while Octavia Butler’s early works in her Patternist cycle details the struggles of a stratified society where people with psychic powers are bound to each other. These works and others like them operate in a trickster mode, using genre conventions to entertain while disguising critiques of the country they were made in. That tradition continues in TV shows like Atlanta, where the unstable scene-to-scene reality feels like a new answer to the question in Langston Hughes’ famous poem: What happens to a dream deferred? It mutates into a fusion of things you recognize and things you can’t predict.
One of the best conceits in Sorry to Bother You happens when Riley shows the invasive force of late capitalism reconfiguring physical spaces. When we first see Cash at home, he and girlfriend Detroit are canoodling in his bedroom. A wall lifts up and away, daylight floods in, and it’s revealed that the bedroom is really his uncle’s garage, the only place he can afford to live. At RegalView Telemarketing, Cash’s job requires him to disrupt people’s lives in scenes that show him crashing, in person, into their most private moments. The desperate scramble to make money breaks down the walls between Cash’s reality, the people he calls, and the super-rich who profit off all of us. As Cash’s journey continues, the various meanings of more physical spaces get subverted: a crass game show becomes a pulpit for shocking exposé, and his whistle-blowing appearance on a news program backfires, resulting in a narrative where mad-science perversion gets hailed as progress.
Cassius seems destined to be an underperforming cubicle drone until an older black man named Langston (Danny Glover) tells him he needs to find his “white voice.” The affect, Langston instructs him, means “sounding like you don’t have a care in the world.” He goes deeper by saying it’s not what actual white people sound like, “it’s what they wish they sounded like.” The white voice can sell anything; people want to believe whatever it tells them to believe. To unlock his own version, to rocket himself to corporate success, Cassius has to buy into that wishful, mythful thinking of sounding like he doesn’t have a care. He has to deny reality, and the success he reaps from doing so puts him at the heart of American tradition.
The chattel bondage of African people and its continuing legacies are the ultimate American absurdity. While this nation was new, its founding fathers simultaneously wrote laws that declared all men equal and ensured that black folk living in slavery were to be considered property. Plessy v. Ferguson, Dred Scott v. Sandford, and the host of legal contortions that American politics went through to implement state-sanctioned segregation? Absurd. Phrenology and the other fraud disciplines cited to explain the supposed inherent inferiority of black people? Absurd. America’s entire history around the social constructions of race is absurd because that centuries-long effort demands that non-blacks deny what is right in front of their eyes: other people.
When one group of human beings acts like other people aren’t people, anything is possible. And when you’re part of a group deemed un-people, you make New Black Absurdity like Sorry to Bother You, a culture work premised on escape, justice, and revenge. Riley’s film realizes that, in a economically and socially stratified existence, it needs to violate the terms that govern reality.
With that moral and artistic choice, Sorry to Bother You joins the other black cultural productions that strain against the gravitational pull of institutionalized inequality with humorous and speculative subversions. The same energy is evident in the poem at the beginning of Ishmael Reed’s 1976 Flight to Canada, which sees runaway slave Raven Quickskill effecting escape by commercial airline:
I flew in non-stop
Jumbo jet this A.M. Had
Compliments of the Cap’n
Who announced that a
Runaway Negro was on the
Plane. Passengers came up
And shook my hand
& within 10 min. I had
Signed up for 3 anti-slavery
Lectures. Remind me to get an
The novel that follows the poem mashes up the 1970s present with the 19th century past, imagining carriages with AM/FM radios and air-conditioning. Like most of Reed’s novels, it’s painfully funny because it shortens the comfortable buffer between old racism and its slicker descendants.
A similar compression happens in The Sellout, an award-winning novel by Paul Beatty, in which the main character, Bonbon, finds out that his fictional hometown of Dickens has been redistricted into nothingness. After painting borders to anchor his Southern California hamlet in the real world, Bonbon brings back segregation and slavery in a series of well-meaning mishaps.
Bonbon is just one of a line of Beatty characters who opt for Door No. Free when faced with the choking strictures of a world ordered by white hegemony. In The White Boy Shuffle, dozens of prominent black people kill themselves in a wave of protest suicides sparked by a perverse misunderstanding of a speech given by the protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman, a basketball phenom who also writes poetry. Accompanied by haiku, the suicides walk the tightrope between hilarity and tragedy. A brewmaster who drinks himself to death with the blue beer he invented after being refused service in a bar:
This drunken belch
leaves the last bitter
taste of life in my mouth
A poet who electrocutes herself at a podium after being asked to sing a Negro spiritual:
Imagine this poem is cluttered with references to obscure
figures of Greek mythology,
antique birchwood bureaus,
and a quaint New England bed-and-breakfast;
then send it to The New Yorker
A moment of frustrated dialogue from Gunnar hits on the ethos tying The White Boy Shuffle and all these other works together: “Look, I’m outta here, all you motherfuckers who act like you give a shit—stop me, you care so much.” The suiciders in Beatty’s novel destroy their own black bodies and lives in one last act of angry defiance, robbing the racist world of the opportunity.
Black bodies are at the core of these absurdities because they’re always being arbitrated in American society. Whether they should be kneeling or standing, deemed dangerous or unintelligent, declared citizen or property. In his 2017 masterwork Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele homes right in on that tension. He uses the conventions of horror movies—a remote location, seemingly friendly strangers with ambiguous intent, mad science—to shove the realities of black American lived experiences into viewers’ faces. The threat that Chris, his protagonist, faces is a society that wants to hollow him out.
In Atlanta, surreality travels more subtly. The hit TV show created by Donald Glover largely operates as a distilled dry sitcom. Earn, Paperboi, Darius, Van, and the other characters deal with a sliding scale of everyday headaches—a drug test after a night of smoking weed, backstabbing frenemies, simmering family tensions. But over the course of two seasons, the moments where things get inexplicably weird have been a core element of Atlanta, one that illuminates how the psychological and emotional struggles of Earn, his crew, and the people they are heightened by the legacy of ambient institutionalized racism. So, running into a weed-happy frat house isn’t just a narrow escape from danger, in this case a post-performance brawl sparked by machismo and hot tempers.
In the frat house, they’re met by a goofy white boy eager to recite lyrics from a black man’s Southern rap hit, as a giant rebel battle flag and a clutch of Confederate Army swords in an umbrella holder lurk in the background. It’s a moment that snickers at how people can revel in black culture while existing in spaces built on anti-black exploitation. You can run away from the petty fights or even the cops if you’re lucky, but there’s no escaping the ugliest aspects of American history. The surrealism of Atlanta—a metropolis where you might encounter an invisible car, a haunted forest, or a musical prodigy turned horror maestro—isn’t always that didactic but it does consistently remind us that we live in an America where alternate realities jostle against each other.
Random Acts of Flyness might be the most absurd creation of this latter-day Black Absurdist moment. Terrence Nance’s HBO series comes across like a public-access show from another dimension, careening from skits to confessionals and archival TV news footage. The show hooked me with episode one’s “Everyone Dies” segment, hosted by Ripa the Reaper from the Department of Black Death. The mercurial kids-TV host is supposed to acclimate her young audience to the inevitability of her visits. But, before she dutifully shuffles a gaggle of cute grade-schoolers off this mortal coil, she manically goes off-script and fires off a bunch of actions that have gotten black folk killed in some of the most infamous police-involved incidents. The kids get reminded that their existences can be ended by events that may seem random but are really part of a foundational devaluation of black life. It’s a negative-space explanation of why it’s necessary to say why Black Lives Matter.
In Sorry to Bother You, death would just be an easy escape. Instead, Cash’s body faces a different sort of crucible. Megalomaniacal CEO Steve Lift, creator of a chain of permanent unpaid workforce facilities, wants to transform the bodies of his employees to get more labor out of them. Even though Cash crosses his union’s picket line and sells his way straight into Lift’s good graces, the CEO expresses his admiration by trying to extract even more value from him through his secret experiments. The killer combo of racism and capitalism make it so that he doesn’t even get to die a defiant death.
Repurposing his body for slave labor through science-fictional means sends a meta-message: Y’all don’t hear us when we’re sincere and sober so, fuck it, let’s get weird. In these New Black Absurdist frames, a fairer society doesn’t feel quite so out of reach. Sorry to Bother You ends with management acquiescing to some of the demands made by the striking workers at RegalView Telemarketing and with Cash’s painful transformation into an anti-corporate revolutionary.
After fighting his way free from the horrors of the Armitage family’s Coagula project in Get Out, Chris is suddenly caught in the flashing lights of an arriving police cruiser, and he and the audience both know what he has to look like in a cop’s eye: not a surviving hero, but a suspect surrounded by mayhem. A target. Peele knows that’s what black moviegoers expect—and then, instead, he offers an alternative. The cop sees him; the cop knows him; the cop is his own best friend, in his TSA work gear, come to save him. Yet another absurdity, the absurdity of relief. In 2018, we’re not supposed to expect black people to live in that scenario. But Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta and other works dare to imagine it.