The New Age of the Minority Filmmaker
Essentially coming back-to-back, Boots Riley and Carlos Lopez Estrada's debut films use reality to paint an impactful picture.
We are seeing a resurgence of the minority filmmaker in 2018. Two projects that are generating buzz come from debut directors who are both centered in Oakland, California. While the films differ in tone and style, the messages tend to over lap and ask the viewer for a sense of racial awareness that many people in today’s society lack. Blindspotting (2018) and Sorry to Bother You (2018) were both written years ago, but the thematic elements still resonate today, and that is the element that makes these films so powerful. Grounded in comedy, we see future auteurs flex their chops in witty depictions of a divided America that are both hilarious and impactful.
Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, is no stranger to political activism. Born in Chicago and grew up in the bay area, Riley has seen himself at the center of protests and radical activism all of his life. He studied at San Francisco State University, and wanted to be the next Spike Lee, but eventually moved his artistic merits to form the musical group, The Coup. Under this musical guise, Riley released albums like Genocide & Juice as a means to spread his political message. It is through his activism that Sorry to Bother You was made in the first place, and aided from both personal experience as well as recognition from his peers.
Following his stint in music, Riley did what any well-known political activist would do… quit and went into telemarketing. Reportedly, Riley was so good at his new found job that he only had to work “once every two weeks,” and continued his pursuit of aiding the community with his group, Young Comrades. It is in his time working for the corporate machine that he obtained his inspiration for Sorry to Bother You. Unfortunately, it is not easy for a minority filmmaker to break into the industry, and despite having some recognition from his days with The Coup, Riley essentially gave up on getting his screenplay produced. However, the world works in mysterious ways, and Riley ran into David Eggers, an American author/publisher, on the streets of San Francisco. The two were not formerly acquainted, but Eggers recognized Riley from his days with The Coup, and the two had a conversation about Riley’s unreleased screenplay. Soon Hollywood was put on notice as the screenplay was released through Egger’s publishing company, and the rest is history.
Sorry to Bother You is first and foremost a well-made film, which is a welcome surprise from a first-time director. Thematic elements aside, the film is genuinely interested in being sci-fi, although you may not know it until the final 30 minutes. Taking place in a dystopian depiction of Oakland, we follow Cassius Green, a young man that has yet to find his place in the world. Meandering from job-to-job, Cassius finds himself working at a telemarketing agency that preaches the idea of becoming a “power caller:” those who excel above the rest and have their own private, gold plated elevator. It is here that Cassius meets an older man that advises him to use his “White voice,” as it will help him to generate more sales. Using this voice to dupe his clients into thinking they are connecting with a White person, Cassius uses people’s own prejudice to work his way up the corporate ladder. Cassius soon finds himself where he always wanted to be, among the wealthy and elite. However, this does not come without a price. It is revealed to Green that the power callers are selling something much different than the lower level, which is weapons of mass destruction to those who wish to use war as a means of profit. Cassius is faced with a dilemma here: sell his soul for money, or quit and join Steven Yeun’s character in unionizing the company.
This is where the film gets its power from, as we see a clear picket line being drawn between the elite of society and those who are less fortunate. Cassius turns his back on the union that he was once a part of, and sells out to become a part of the 1%. This spells his downfall as he goes viral after crossing the union line, and becomes a shell of what he perceived the rich to be. He believes he is a peer to those around him once he reaches power caller level, but it is apparent those who brought him there only see him as a pawn to manipulate other minorities into a sick plan to weaponize the human being. I won’t give away the reveal here, but it is extremely metaphorical to how society treats minorities who are able to penetrate the 1%. Rooted in racial consciousness, the film never becomes preachy and is able to paint a pretty bleak picture of the divide between races. It also sets its targets on what Riley believes to be the true source of contention among human beings: money, and the control the corporate world has over society.
Blindspotting, directed by Carlos López Estrada, is another film that signifies the rise of the minority auteur. It is c0-written by Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame), and stars himself and Rafael Casal. Blindspotting is a film that demands attention. According to Casal, the film has been written over ten years ago, but just recently garnered attention. The fact that the issues are still present ten years later speaks volumes to why the film is so powerful. Following Digg’s character, Colin, the film tracks the last three days of his probation. Right from the start of the film we get a sense of the tumultuous relationship between Miles and Colin who joke about the excessive amount of guns inside of the car. From here the film slowly reveals what happened with Colin to get him into the situation, and why their friendship is an encapsulation of the divide of perspectives between White and Black.
The film is centered around the idea of perception. On one end you have Miles, played by Rafael Casal, a White male that grew up in Oakland all of his life. He grew up without a father and was picked on all of life. As a means of fitting in, he used violence and made his image congruent to the culture he was raised in. This violence makes its way into his adult life when he purchases a gun as a means to protect his family. On the other end, you have Colin, played by Daveed Diggs, who is a recently paroled Black male. His reaction to violence is completely the opposite where he avoids it at all costs. After witnessing the shooting of a fleeing Black male by police, Colin is haunted by the unsettling memory the entire film. So, essentially there are two contrasting perspectives in the film. One man who uses violence as a means of acceptance and survival, and the other one who avoids it at all costs because of the fear of being perceived as something that he is not. The image the two friends portray is one that is judged by their peers and those who have gentrified their hometown of Oakland. Each character has a prop that epitomizes their core image, and identifies who and what they think they are. Miles has his grill that he is constantly popping in-and-out of his mouth, and Colin’s persona is portrayed by his braids, which is something people immediately look at and see a thug.
This construct of perception and judgement is what the film wants to make the audience aware of. The idea of identity is something that both characters struggle with as their hometown has changed right in front of their eyes. This is an issue that they have dealt with while shooting the film since many of the places they wanted to shoot no longer existed. They also saw people being priced out of their homes, including Digg’s own parents. This gentrification plays a large part in the film’s climax during a scene when the lifelong friends attend a party of “hipsters.” It is here that Colin and Miles see their divide in perspectives come to fruition as Miles is mistaken for a hipster that is appropriating Oakland’s culture as a means of fitting in. Miles, being a lifelong Oakland native, takes exception to this and proceeds to beat the man who accuses him of such to a pulp. He then draws his gun and threatens the party. This event brings their relationship into perspective as the two treat violence contrarily. Miles is again using violence to prove himself as a minority among minorities, and Colin does not aid in his friend’s actions out of fear that a cop will show up and immediately assume the Black man with braids is to blame for the situation. The film’s climax gives a final look into judgement as Colin, in an act of fate, finds himself face-to-face with the same cop he witnessed commit murder right in front of him.
Daveed Digg’s uses his musical background here as he gives a powerful monologue delivered by rapping that expresses the problem of perception and depiction of the Black man in American culture. He ends it with a pointed exclamation that the difference between himself and the cop is that he is not what he is perceived/judged to be by those that inflict violence upon his people. Blindspotting does an amazing job of making the point that you will never physically experience the plight of your fellow man, but you can understand the perspective that their actions manifest themselves from. The film isn’t necessarily about Black or White, but about how two people that come from the same circumstance have contrasting experiences, views, and treatment.
The reality is that we do not have many minority filmmakers in Hollywood today. However, the new wave is here and they are not going anywhere. The issues that are present in the films have existed for years, as noted by the fact that both of the screenplays were not recently written. Rafael Casal makes a point that not only are the issues not going away, but they are in such an abundance that the protests are being lost as people become more desensitized to the mistreatment of minorities. Films like this are important because they are forms of expression, and without them people would not understand the magnitude of the divide between human beings of different perspectives. The media tends to portray things in a way that does not tell the whole story, and with films like these, we are getting the other side. I credit these filmmakers in not only expressing their message, but also making films that are both accessible and comedic in nature. While the films’ core message may not reach everyone, they let the viewer know that the one thing we have control over is perception.