Amid Trump’s national anthem rhetoric, Spike Lee’s latest film and Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’ reinforce satire as the preferred genre of the oppressed, writes the NBA Hall-of-Famer and Hollywood Reporter cultural columnist.
“Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work,” observed ex-slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass. To the slave owners, singing slaves would drown out their own cruelty and oppression, clothe them in a coerced choir of decency. But it wasn’t enough that the slaves had to sing, they had to sing their oppressor’s feel-good songs that are summed up in the Porgy and Bessrefrain of “I’ve got plenty of nothin’,” and nothin’s plenty for me.”
Currently, the song being demanded is the national anthem during football games. But during a warm-up game on Aug. 10, despite President Trump’s previous condemnation, several Eagles players kneeled during the anthem or raised their fists — their way of singing their own song. For them, lyrics like “land of the free” don’t accurately represent the daily reality for people of color. They love their country but want that country to recognize the suffering that occurs when it isn’t living up to its constitutional promises.
Trump reacted by tweeting, “Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define.” Who would know better how to define their outrage: the privileged darling of white supremacists, the 94 percent-white team owners, the 75 percent-white head coaches or the 70 percent-black players who actually take the field each week?
The daily challenge for African-Americans is getting white Americans to listen to their song, especially when it isn’t a grinning, grateful or pandering patriotic song. Two movies have recently been released that sing songs that define black America’s continuing frustrations and outrage: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Both movies are about black people finding their voices and then having the courage to use those voices to tell their truths. But will America listen to what they’re singing, especially in today’s post-truth and “alternative facts” environment?
Sorry to Bother You is a wickedly funny and absurdist satire about class struggle and the systemic racism that attempts to usurp the authentic voices of people of color. In this case, “taking their voices” is literal: When the protagonist, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), gets a job as a telemarketer, it isn’t until he adopts a ripe-with-entitlement “white voice” that he becomes successful. This is an accurate reflection of the studies that show job applicants with black-sounding names are less likely to be called in for interviews, and that students with black-sounding names are more likely to be seen as troublemakers. Research has shown that black-sounding names conjure images of being physically larger, dangerous and more violent than white-sounding names.
Cash becomes so adept at his white voice that he even uses it when he’s alone with his girlfriend, much to her disgust. The plot spirals into surrealism as Cash is challenged to trade in his black identity, even to betray his own community, in exchange for success in the white world. The conflict may be familiar from other black satires like Putney Swope, Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but the storyline used to portray it is wholly and delightfully original.
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