Trouble is brewing in Oakland, California. Two weeks ago Annapurna Pictures released the surreal, satirical Sorry to Bother You, shot on the streets of Oakland last summer by rapper turned filmmaker Boots Riley. The movie begins as a simple workplace comedy along the lines of Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999) but ripens into a nightmare of capitalist exploitation. If that doesn’t shake you up enough, this week Summit Entertainment opens Carlos López Estrada’s bitterly funny drama Blindspotting, which was filming in Oakland at the same time as Sorry to Bother You. A cri de coeur against police violence, Blindspotting also finds time to probe the open wound of the city’s ongoing gentrification, as poor people of color are displaced by middle-class whites from the Pacific Northwest and gilded San Francisco across the bay. Like many other contemporary movies, these two knockouts examine the divide between black and white in America; like very few others, they remind us that the deeper dividing line is green.
Like the recent horror phenomenon Get Out, Sorry to Bother You ponders the danger of trying to assimilate into the white world, but at heart it’s a multiracial, proletarian call to arms. The young hero, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), is so broke he lives in his uncle’s garage, a fact sprung on us when he and his straight-talking girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), are making love and the garage door flies up, exposing them to passersby. (“Get a room!” quips one, not recognizing that they’re already in one.) Desperate for a job, Cassius shows up for an interview at a telemarketing firm with a boxful of high school trophies bought at a second-hand store and a fake employee-of-the-month award. The general manager, Anderson (Robert Longstreet), busts him for this charade, then commends him for his initiative and hires him. “This is telemarketing,” he explains. “We’re not mapping the fucking human genome here.”
Riley based the screenplay on his own experiences as a telemarketer, and he’s definitely nailed the emotional terrain of a cold-calling boiler room, with its crosscurrents of professional motivation and private despair. A sign on the wall orders callers to “STTS”—stick to the script—but this isn’t always so easy once Cassius is plunged into his customers’ lives. (In one of Riley’s most potent sight gags, the hero’s desk drops through the floor into people’s living rooms.) When an elderly woman reveals that her husband has stage-four cancer, the script advises Cassius to “make any problem a selling point,” and he launches into a prepared spiel about a wellness brochure; scalded, the woman hangs up.
Cassius has a pretty rough time on the job until an old-timer named Langston (Danny Glover) teaches him to seduce his customers by affecting a cool, whiter-than-white voice. This new voice (supplied on the soundtrack by David Cross) does the trick, and before long Cassius is making sales and ringing the big bell that hangs in the boiler room. His supervisor, the haggard, hyperactive Johnny (Michael X. Sommers), dangles before him the prospect of becoming a “power caller,” getting a huge raise, and moving up to the top floor of the building, “where the callers are ballers.” Meanwhile, Cassius’s coworker Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is trying to unite the sales force for collective bargaining. Anderson succeeds in peeling Cassius away from his coworkers by kicking him upstairs, and Cassius takes advantage of his hefty new paycheck to move out of his uncle’s garage and into a fashionably spare, blindingly white luxury apartment. Detroit, who has since joined the telemarketing firm and the union effort, still spends the night but chafes at his compromises.
Cassius’s dilemma may not be particularly fresh—British filmmaker Ken Loach has been telling stories like this for decades—but Riley isn’t afraid to push the class warfare to wild extremes. As a power caller, Cassius is assigned to WorryFree, Inc., an innovative new company that offers workers lifetime labor contracts in exchange for free room, board, and medical treatment. WorryFree is the brainchild of tall, handsome Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), author of the best-selling book I’m Still on Top!; in a TV interview, he flashes a million-dollar grin at the news that WorryFree has been cleared by a congressional committee that’s investigating slave labor. Pulled into Lift’s magic circle, Cassius attends a swank party where the overbearing host orders him to rap for the assembled white guests. A beat kicks up on the sound system, and Cassius stands alone on a staircase, fumbling for words. Finally he blurts out a string of racial slurs; to his dismay, the guests repeat his chorus.
Blindspotting is more down-to-earth than Sorry to Bother You, but like Riley, screenwriters Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal locate their story at the intersection of race and class. Collin (Diggs) is days away from completing a year of parole after serving a prison term for aggravated assault; the bar fight in question was initiated by his white friend, Miles (Casal), but when the cops arrived on the scene, they went straight for the black man with dreadlocks. Collin and Miles, who work for a moving company, have known each other since middle school, and Miles considers them authentic Oaklanders in a losing battle with migrating white hipsters from Portland and Seattle. A hopeless yahoo, Miles keeps dragging Collin into his chaos, failing to consider that, despite their common economic circumstances, being white affords him a level of protection from police violence that his black friend doesn’t enjoy.
The movie’s early scenes are as funny as any in Sorry to Bother You, but unlike the greedy Cassius, Collin is eminently sympathetic—all he wants is to stay out of trouble, finish his parole, move out of his halfway house, and win back his former girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), who ditched him in disgust after the assault. In one of the best scenes, Collin innocently hops into a car with Miles and their friend James and discovers that the pair are packing no fewer than six unlicensed firearms. One night, while driving home, Collin stops at a traffic light and, to his horror, watches as an Oakland policeman (Ethan Embry) opens fire on a fleeing, unarmed black man, killing him in the street. When Miles urges Collin to come forward as a witness, Collin tries to imagine the phone call: “Hello, police? I’d like to report a murder you did. Yeah, I’m a convicted felon. Back to jail tomorrow? Yeah, what time?”
Collin faces an even starker dilemma than Cassius, yet the action of Blindspotting is propelled mainly by Miles’s rage at the gentrification of Oakland. When a rich hipster boxes them into a parking space and refuses to move his car, Miles curses him and leans on the truck horn; because Collin is at the wheel, he gets blamed later when the hipster calls the moving company to complain. Miles can hardly contain his venom at these people who are taking over their working-class town, with their vinyl LPs and their suspenders and their motor scooters. Even the bar fight that landed Collin in prison began as a class altercation between Miles and a rich carpetbagger, who had the nerve to infiltrate their favorite watering hole.
As in Sorry to Bother You, a party sequence brings all the film’s racial and economic tensions to a boil. Blowing off steam after an explosive domestic argument, Miles drags Collin to a house party hosted by just the sort of wealthy interloper Miles despises. Miles wears a tattoo on his neck that shows a map of California with a dot marking Oakland; to his chagrin, their smug host boasts an identical tattoo on his neck, not to mention a coffee table cut from the trunk of a giant redwood. “Plenty of drink in the kitchen, homeys!” the host calls out to his little cluster of black guests. Before long Miles has chased some smartass out of the house onto the driveway and proceeds to beat him senseless, firing a few shots into the air to scare off the other guests. Collin has to haul Miles away from the scene before the police arrive, though this time the stress of covering for his friend forces him to an epiphany: “You are the [N-word] that they are out here looking for!” he tells Miles.
Movies about race in America are seldom in short supply, but rarely do they venture past the realm of personal prejudice into the more complicated terrain of economic racism. A notable exception last year was Dee Rees’s period drama Mudbound, about a dirt-poor white family in the postwar south that can survive only by exploiting the black family down the road, but this Netflix production screened in theaters only long enough to qualify for Oscar consideration. Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, in their sheer brilliance and ferocity, reverse this trend with their multiracial stories about people trapped at the bottom of the ladder. In fact they’re both delighted to bother us, and we need more movies like them. v