by Enzo Lorenzo & Eve Mitchell
Spoiler alert! These films are not new so hopefully you’ve seen them by now. But in case you haven’t––this article will *spoil* the ending to every film discussed.
In August of 2014, the U.S. was permanently changed. As hundreds gathered in Ferguson, Missouri near the body of their friend / brother / son / neighbor Michael Brown, left dead on the street for four hours, something snapped. Lashing out against their racialized hyper-exploited positions under white supremacist capitalism, the people of Ferguson began looting, rioting, burning, blockading, occupying, marching, protesting: in sum, taking back what was theirs.
Ferguson ignited a movement across the country; it became popularly known as Black Lives Matter (BLM). People took to the streets in cities and towns all over the country (and world), galvanized by business-as-usual police violence and in solidarity with Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Raneesha McBride, Freddie Gray. #SayHerName bloomed in response to the murders of Meagan Hockaday, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland. These struggles transformed the political landscape of the country, laying the foundation for struggles against racist statues and symbols, #MeToo, #NODAPL, the Virginia teachers’ wildcat, and all other struggles that came after. Each one, like BLM itself, contained a host of political tendencies and positions, a variety of strategies and tactics.
Five years since the movement for black lives kicked off, all of us are reflecting on our collective history and arriving at partial conclusions. Some of these conclusions take the form of film, hip hop, poetry, literature, murals and visual art. We believe popular culture is a reflection of the material conditions around (and within) us––a form of theory making and a method for understanding our world. 2018 gave us several films that echoed BLM, by making explicit its contradictions and tendencies. At the risk of oversimplifying, we can divide the best of these films into two categories: liberal and revolutionary. Each mirrors a material tendency that emerged within BLM.
Liberal: Black Panther & Blackkklansman
Black Panther and Blackkklansman proved to be two of the favorite films of 2018, measured by the official society nominations and awards, the box office achievements, social media and other hype. Both represent a contradictory liberal reflection on Black Lives Matter.
Black Panther was the biggest movie of the year. In terms of simply box office numbers, it became the third-highest grossing movie in the US ever. It took on the fervor that Get Out generated the year before and ramped it up many times over. But in terms of politics, the movie was also one of the weirdest.
Ryan Coogler’s first movie, Fruitvale (2013), was an intimate portrait of Oscar Grant, a victim of police violence whose death sparked a series of riots and pre-Ferguson anti-police organizing in the San Francisco Bay area. The film captured the militant spirit of BLM as it was unfolding, humanizing a black man who so many were willing to write off as a criminal, and depicting rioting and looting as a dignified act of justice.
In Black Panther, we are treated to something completely different. The main character, T’Challa, is the king of Wakanda, an amazingly technologically-advanced African society. His initial conflict is whether he should continue his country’s millenia-long tradition of isolationism or use Wakanda’s vast riches to help the world. This reflects audiences grappling with tensions around black autonomy or separatism, a pivot to which often follows after black movements run into the limits of white reaction. Some past examples of this include Booker T’s acceptance of segregation after the defeat of Reconstruction, the birth of Marcus Garvey’s defeatist Universal Negro Improvement Association after the red summer of 1919, and the post-60s excavation of the Black Belt / Black Nation Thesis, which rested on the development of a black bourgeoisie.
Similarly, BLM ran into the limits of white liberal paternalism and Trumpist reaction, a frustration and real threat that led a lot of people to consider how to more effectively build black autonomy. The fictional African independent superpower expressed through Black Panther allows them to imagine what true black autonomy would look like. The next step is thinking through the political and ethical conundrums come with it. Masses were grappling with these tensions in the late 60s and early 70s when the comic was first published; we see it again now.
Organizers can see these rifts manifesting within groups like Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. In a debate between Bruce Dixon and Kali Akuno we can see one wing (represented by Dixon) emphasizing the need for electing MXGM members into local offices, and building the Cooperation Jackson project as so-called “alternative” to capitalism, or a “solidarity economy,” which, in a nod to the Black Panther Party’s Serve the People ethos, attempts to build socialism from within capitalism, one cooperatively owned business at a time. The commonalities between cooperatives and municipalist / electoral strategies are that they both accept the logic of capitalism and the state, limiting themselves to playing by the rulers’ rules. This method alone fails to directly confront racialized capitalism. One result is that communities are not building the experience and skills they need to fight against capitalist forces when the hammer inevitably comes crashing down. Another is that even if communities are able to build autonomous zones, like a Black nation located within the U.S.’s “Black Belt,” or Zapatista territory, these communities risk falling into a utopianist bubble, where the fight begins and ends within its borders and is never generalized beyond its boundaries.
In the Wakanda world of Black Panther, the latter is the issue: does the country open its borders, thereby weakening its ability to retain its greatness; or does the country remain closed off, turning its back on oppressed and exploited people internationally? A tough question. Unfortunately, in the end, T’Challa chooses a third path, keeping the desire for the throne, but offering microloans. Now he will be the owner of the projects and programs, fully committing Wakanda to a neoliberal capitalist framework. This resolution expresses a black bourgeois fantasy of being able to be both independently wealthy, within the logic of capitalism and the state, and also stand in solidarity with the oppressed of the world. Furthermore, this framework seeks to show white billionaires that black billionaires can do redistribution even better. Like Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada and his post-70s middle class black peers in the charter school, tech and non-profit industries across the country, the social program is to create a conveyor belt to the middle class for those they left behind.
On the other hand, the villain of Black Panther, Erik “Killmonger,” Stevens is strangely alluring. His central ideology is that Wakanda has always had the ability to defend the African continent and the diaspora but did nothing with that power. His desire is to arm black revolutionaries around the globe to overthrow their oppressors. The core of his beliefs are admirable, and his final critique of Wakanda goes wholly unaddressed––that the country did nothing as Africa was mined for slaves. He recognizes Wakanda as withholding essential resources and calls for a fundamental shift in power relations the encompasses the whole world; not just “socialism in one country,” or autonomist zones co-existing beside (but actually within) capitalism. Furthermore, we cannot shy away from violence as the method for taking power. We agree with Frantz Fanon when he argued that this is a fundamentally necessary part of the path toward liberation; both on an individual, psychological level and on a totalizing, universal level aimed at revolutionizing social relations.
What’s interesting, though, is that the trappings of Killmonger as an individual––his personality––that are supposed to dissuade us from his side. Killmonger is a misogynist and a terrorist. He murders his partner to further his plans and chokes the leader of the Black Panther ceremony simply because he’s a hateful person. He willingly served in the military, revels in the fact that he killed his own people to make himself capable of overthrowing T’Challa. He does not intend to use black revolutionaries to negate empire, but instead to negate white empire and replace it with a black one (akin to Fanon’s black negation of whiteness in Black Skin, White Masks). His desire to be king is inseparable from his desires to arm black folks around the globe.
This is the only way a liberal framework can conceive of violence. One who advocates a violent overthrow of the government, or of racialized capitalist relations, is necessarily a megalomaniac, a misogynist, a terrorist, etc. In the moralistic mind of a liberal, people are merely motivated by “right,” and “wrong” (as if these were inherently defined and not formed from one’s material conditions), And. Violence. Is. Fundamentally. Wrong. But for those who struggled on the front lines of Black Lives Matter, throwing rocks at cops, smashing their cars and weapons, throwing back tear gas canisters, etc., for those who consistently bear the brunt of racialized capitalist violence, violence is not a moral, individual choice, but an objective, social necessity. As liberal ideology makes invisible the lived necessity of violent resistance and individualizes / demonizes the people advocating violent resistance, it fetishizes leaders and inversely views them as the cause of violent outbreaks (i.e. “outside agitators” stirring up trouble / “putting oppressed people in danger”). The film is a classic example of this dynamic––it makes a huge deal out of Killmonger the villain, when the unspoken adversary in the background is actually the millions around the world who would have joined his side, much like the millions who took militant direct action in BLM. But the film writes them out of history, and in their place, gives us a liberal straw man of the fiery misguiding agitator.
Also on this spectrum of black politics is Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman. The main character of the film is a black cop, Ron Stallworth. He’s not just any black cop; he’s the first black cop in Colorado Springs. Similarly to Killmonger, he willingly applies for this position knowing fully the job of a cop.
The movie sees Stallworth as a good person, who is surrounded by intentionally racist cops and passive onlooker cops. Ron goes through various levels of humiliation, like cops referring to black suspects with slurs, but he does his best to challenge that thinking in the workplace. He demands an undercover job and his first assignment is to infiltrate the local Black Student Union (BSU) and secretly record a Stokely Carmichael speech! He also begins a relationship with the president of the BSU, Patrice, while undercover! Undercover agents manipulating their targets into relationships is not a fiction, but Blackkklansman doesn’t even attempt to address the ramifications of this sickening reality. Instead, Spike Lee sticks to his pattern of flattening female characters, treating them a sidelined factor in a male-centric story arch. In reality, there is no way this woman would be with someone like Ron. Not only does he know nothing about revolution and black power while undercover, but at one point he admits to her that he has been undercover all along. She fails to end the relationship, and does not tell her comrades what she has learned. Does Spike Lee really think black women are so guided by their hearts that they would not take the lives of everyone around them into consideration?
These issues have to be swept aside for Blackkklansman to make its main point: good people in powerful institutions can do meaningful work. The story continues with Ron pulling double duty, both spying on the BSU and also keeping tabs on the KKK with his Jewish partner, Flip. Ron and the other police officers prevent a bombing of the BSU and arrest a racist, corrupt cop. As soon as the operation is disbanded, the Klan starts burning crosses again. Yet the movie lionizes these cops with conviction finally empowered to stop racism. Nevermind that the bomb plot and the racist cop sting operation never actually happened (the only thing the real Ron Stallworth prevented was cross burnings.) By airbrushing history, the movie provides a fable to legitimize liberal calls for body cams, more black cops / cops who live in the neighborhoods they terrorize, “sensitivity” trainings, and other deeply flawed community policing strategies. These tricks and tools are easily recuperated into the state’s generalized policies of violence, repression, and overall terror against working class people––especially black people. As A World Without Police points out, reforms like these assume police can “enforce the law equally, ‘colorblindly’, [and]do their job without enforcing antiblackness and white supremacy.”––a dangerous illusion when their job is to maintain the racialized social relations of capitalism, by any means necessary.
Blackkklansman ends with the infamous Trump quote, stating there were “fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville neo-nazi march. The politics of the film present essentially the inverse of this. Instead of good people on both sides, there are no good people on either side––neither in the Klan nor the BSU––only those in the middle. Ron and Patrice’s last argument is about her inability to be ok dating a cop, while Ron remains the hero of the movie. Her decision is a abandonment of the right cause, according to the movie.
There are some strong moments in Blackkklansman, regardless of the rest of the movie. Harry Belafonte describing an actual lynching crosscut with the KKK enjoying Birth of a Nation, Stokely Carmichael delivering a very long speech, and the footage of the Charlottesville rally are all powerful moments. But like Black Panther, these elements are warped by the ultimately regressive politics of the movie.
Revolutionary: Sorry to Bother You & Blindspotting
Sorry to Bother You
On the other side of the black movie spectrum, Sorry to Bother You is an examination of capitalism, alienation, race and labor. If 2018 was the year of Afrosurrealism, this movie has been the standard bearer. Explicitly political, the movie is simply a visual representation of the themes Boots Riley has been working through for decades with the Bay Area rap group, The Coup.
Sorry to Bother You’s main character, Cassius Green, becomes a telemarketer at Regalview, selling commodities to whomever he can get to stay on the phone long enough. Riley literally drops Cassius into the living room with whoever he’s calling, dramatizing just how alienating this job is for both Cassius and his target. In one call, a woman grieving for her sick husband is interrupted by Cassius, who tries to tell her that the encyclopedias he is selling can help with her husband’s illness.
Still Cassius fails at his job, until an older black coworker shares a trade secret: to affect a white voice. The voice isn’t what white people actually sound like, his coworker clarifies, but what they “wish they sounded like, what they’re supposed to sound like.”––this narrative detail nicely frames whiteness as an aspirational status, what Du Bois called a “psychological wage,” and using it pays off. After mastering his white voice, Cassius excels at his job, quickly moving up the ranks to become a seller of literal slave-labor.
Riley delivers his critiques like shotgun blasts. The most obvious critical analogue is the Jeff Bezos stand-in, Steve Lift (played by Armie Hammer). His company, WorryFree, is a debtor’s prison; those crushed by debt are scooped up by the company, where they are housed and fed, but live in squalor and are forced to work until they die as literal slaves. Lift isn’t satisfied with indentured servitude however, and his ultimate plan is to create human/horse hybrids (equisapiens) who can work even harder and bring WorryFree even greater profits. He’s right: when Cassius attempts to expose his “evil plan,” WorryFree’s stock rises to record-breaking levels. The plot twist highlights the irrationality of capitalist profit and speculation, while defying liberal storylines that typically see protagonists exposing evil deeds to public opinion and thereby resolving conflicts. Instead, Riley’s characters are compelled to seek more radical solutions.
The only solution to WorryFree and RegalView is a labor strike, and Boots Riley doesn’t shy away from the state’s role in assisting capital with labor disputes. Throughout the movie, riot cops escort scab labor through the picket lines. In the end, it’s through the combined forces of the equisapiens, and striking workers that the Regalview is forced to acquiesce to the workers’ demands.
Boots Riley uses surrealism to heighten the absurdity and the alienation of capital. We understand the concepts of code-switching unconsciously, but when Cassius speaks with the voice of a literal white man, we can see the alienation of his labor from himself. Cassius isn’t speaking, a white man is. He is promoted only on his ability to be white, at least over the phone. The same happens with the equisapiens. We know innately that our jobs are predicated on our bosses’ profits. If our bosses can find a way to pay us less, they will. The equisapiens are just the product of trying to find the cheapest way to exploit labor.
Sorry to Bother You is not without its faults though. Like Blackkklansman, the only woman in the story is sidelined for the male-centric story. Detroit, Cassius’ love interest is ostensibly an activist, both as an artist and as a worker. She is down with the cause, but at the same time, she is with Cassius: a strike-breaker who sells literal slave labor. Her own own activism is somewhat muddled as well. While she is down to support the labor dispute, obtaining a job with RegalView ostensibly to assist with the work stoppage, her main focus is art. The centerpiece of her art show is a strange performance art piece where she encourages audience members to throw broken cell phones at her while she recites lines from The Last Dragon. It is unfortunate that a movie like this that takes class struggle seriously has gender politics that are half-baked.
Sorry to Bother You is a militant vision of the struggle against capital, one that is willing to go toe-to-toe against the cops in order to demand more. It takes a similar premise to Black Panther, there is something wrong with this world, and instead of Black Panther’s conclusion to create more outreach programs and project buildings, Sorry to Bother You’s vision of progress is a militant workers’ movement of primarily black and brown folks.
Blindspotting brings together all the best elements of Black Lives Matter: Afro-pessimism, cultural Maoism, and black power grounded in a class framework. The story follows Collin, a black man born and raised in Oakland, who is finishing up one year on parole after a “fire technicality” landed him in jail (he beat the shit out of a disrespectful white hipster). Collin witnesses police killing another black man during a street chase. The death haunts him throughout the film, literally giving him nightmares of dead black men. These scenes are given special emphasis through camera techniques such as the dolly zoom, typically used in thriller and horror films, and recurring beeping and siren sounds that foster anxiety and discomfort in the viewer. These creative choices allow Director Lopéz Estrada to capture the urgency and raw visceral racialized alienation that Afro-pessimism expresses: social death, hyper-incarceration, fear and misery. These are the material starting points for living as a black person in the United States. However, the film also offers a subtle friendly critique of the nihilism that undergirds much Afro-pessimism. Notably, Collin’s thoughts wander toward the dark place of social death usually while he is alone and often in relaxed or sleeping states. This suggests that remaining fixated on misery and death, while material and real, will reinforce the fractured, individualistic (alienated) state inherent to racialized capitalism. It is only by becoming a social thinker and actor that Collin is able to move through his trauma. This reflects real life in a real way: there is evidence that suggests that people who organize and engage in social transformational processes build the skills that allow them to be more resilient to trauma.
This critique of the individualistic nihilist tendencies of Afro-pessimism is reinforced at the climax of the film, where Collin confronts the killer cop he had spotted just three nights before. In this scene, Collin freestyle raps while pointing a gun at the cop, getting closer and closer to potentially killing him. We must admit some disappointment in the ending, since it would have been satisfying to watch a pig die at the hands of a black protagonist (for once). Instead Collin decides not to kill the cop because, unlike him, Collin is not a killer. This ending is moralistic (as Collin’s probation officer states, “you are guilty until proven otherwise … prove otherwise at all times”), but at the same time, a generous reading of the film would distinguish between anti-social acts and social acts: Collin recognizes that the act of killing one cop, as an individual, will not set him free.
Blindspotting’s ability to hold contradictory experiences is especially exemplified in the race relations between Collin, his white best friend, Miles, and the gentrifying neighborhood around them. There are a lot of funny diggs at white hipsters and the cultural norms they are bringing into Oakland ($10 green juice, needing to “indicate meat” at the revamped burger spot, and a truly epic scene ridiculing a white guy with a host of hilarious nicknames, like “Colorado white boy” “Jason Biggs,” and “Portlandia”). At the same time, the race and class layers complicate the story. Miles’ character is extremely volatile, physically lashing out at someone (notably a white man in a nearly all-white hipster context, calling into question the class background, or aspirations, of the black man), who misreads Miles as a “culture vulture.” This scene simultaneously upholds a critique of shallow identity politics whose only concern is language and “cultural appropriation,” while grappling with the material fact of identity. On the one hand, it critiques how shallow identity politics fails to ground itself in a class basis, and so cannot imagine how Collin and Miles coexist as products of the same situations. Yet at the same time, Miles is not able to simply will away his whiteness. No matter how easily he is accepted in his majority black community, racialized capitalism imbues his skin with meaning. As Collin points out, Miles, based on his actions, is the bad guy society is looking to blame. Yet his the social meaning of his skin allows him the privilege to walk free, and potentially pass into whatever white world he wishes to, at-will.
Finally, Blindspotting draws on the best elements of cultural Maoism, many of which were present during the Black Lives Matter era. In this case, we see Collin use hip hop and rhyme as a weapon, most notably against the killer / cop in the film’s climax. Collin doesn’t end up killing the cop, but he assaults him with his culture, reveling in the black power aesthetic that movements led by black people will always illuminate as fused with collective struggle. Hip hop is a form of theory, a way of making sense of the world. Blindspotting, in situating hip hop literally next to a gun pointed a cop, reveals hip hop’s potential as one weapon of many. This multidimensional approach suggests an openness to a democratic diversity of tactics, an essential element of any truly revolutionary struggle. This can be contrasted to both the moralistic middle class aspirational framework of Black Panther, Blackkklansman’s myth of the colorblind state protector, and to some extent, the open-ended embrace of class struggle in Sorry to Bother You.
In the five years since the Black Lives Matter movement took off, we have seen a radical shift in the political sphere. The sources of political power, the news media, the major political parties, have lost legitimacy and a space is opening for a number of different voices, both from the left, and very dangerously, the right. This battle is also playing out in cultural spheres too. Black Panther could not have existed in a time before this one, but its existence is also due to a corporation that wants to tap into black cultural signifiers but that also wants to imbue it with its own meaning. Blackkklansman is a movie willing to take on the dangerous right-wing elements of our time, but is unable to due to a misunderstanding of the left and the solutions offered by official institutions. Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting are interested more in the subjectivity of working black people rather than kings and cops.