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‘Sorry To Bother You’ Fights for Oakland

What do you say about Sorry To Bother You?

Y’know, besides how it’s very weird, an art film of high color and texture, a satire that grows fantastically absurd, a nonstop avalanche of don’t-blink-because-everything-matters, all while being black as fuck?

If you already know about Lakeith Stanfield from Atlanta and Get Out, then expectations for his projects he acts in will employ those qualities.

Even the title is a riff on the black experience. It’s the opening line of the telemarketing agency’s script, but it’s also the sarcastic retort in an American racial landscape where uncontrolled blackness is a bother to the white majority. (Plus, the movie clearly means to bother us, as it moves from absurdity to conspiracies.)

Among the many things Sorry To Bother You prompts within me, I can’t stop thinking about Oakland, Calif.

The film is director Boots Riley’s love letter to his hometown Oakland, Calif. It responds to what has been happening to Oakland, and the Bay Area at large. The Bay Area, like a lot of America, needs more love – well, justice and equitable living conditions – these days.

Oakland sits on the edge of Silicon Valley as tech expands (or exhausts) other parts of the Bay Area. As the tech boom continues, the median home price in the Bay Area hit a record $820,000. People working at Facebook and Google, making six figures, can’t afford places to live. Homelessness continues to rise among those with everyday jobs, including in service industries that cater to Silicon Valley.

I’m a sports fan, and I see it there, too.

The Golden State Warriors, the NBA’s current dynasty with three titles in the past four years, are leaving their arena in Oakland for a shiny, new complex in San Francisco. The team is owned and run by a venture capitalist, and traded in a lot of its long-suffering, hardy fan base of old Oakland for technocratic herbs who wear giveaway T-shirts over their button-ups.

The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers left Candlestick Park years ago for a $1.3 billion stadium, packed with amenities and luxury suites, 40 miles south in Santa Barbara that sits half-empty on hot days and is seen as a traffic clusterfuck.

And what about the Oakland Raiders, the ultimate outlaw outfit of, with those Thunderdome fans and a pirate on the silver-and-black logo? They’re leaving for Vegas.

Remember BBQ Becky, the white woman who infamously called the police on black people for [checks notes] cooking out at a park? Not only did she illustrate the racializing of spaces and white people’s categorical use of police to enforce a racialized order, she also became a symbol of the gentrifying, new Oakland working to displace the old, “real,” blacker Oakland.

Some folks I know, such as at Hack the Hood, an Oakland-based nonprofit working train low-income young people of color into the tech industry, are trying to bridge the gap between old and new. Leaders in the city step into partnerships uneasy with riches and rebuke.

All of this, in Oakland, home of the Black Panther Party, home to radicalism, singularity, anti-capitalism, and the pursuit of living your life however the fuck you want.

Boots Riley is here fighting for Oakland through his art, whether in rap with The Coup or in films now. Wearing an Afro and mutton chops, dressed in cowboy boots and vintage clothes, Riley embodies that old-school Oakland attitude.

In Sorry To Bother You, he puts on for his city, for its ghettos and ’hoods, for all its dirt. He’d rather struggle in all these worries than slave away at the WorryFree conglomerate of cheap labor forced to live at the factory and sleep in bunks, two to a bed.

The surprise that falls from behind that bathroom stall door is still haunting me. The Black Mirror-like reception of the world to capitalist, technocratic overlord Steve Lift’s plan – a literal dehumanization billed as progressive evolution – drew rueful laughter from me.

Riley’s critique is clear: As long as you can attach the idea of white, male genius to sell something, then it won’t matter how abhorrent, monstrous and ungodly that thing is.

We’re supposed to lap up Soylent, a nutrition paste, instead of savoring a meal, despite its name referencing a fictional food made from people. A clinical term such as “disruption” papers over Uber skating past regulations while undoing taxi services so severely that cab drivers are committing suicide.

Jeff Bezos is throwing his $131 billion fortune at privatized space travel as the only way his money will be worthwhile, as his own Amazon employees need food stamps.

Elon Musk demands taxpayer funds to innovate electric cars his company isn’t good enough to build a promised supply, while dodging safety regulations because he doesn’t like the color yellow. He wants more taxpayer dollars to build underground highways, while Puerto Rico still doesn’t have power after Hurricane Maria.

In Riley’s estimation, it’s only a matter of time before the monsters, built by the overclass, will revolt and fight back. That they may return the violence visited upon those who take action forcefully but peacefully. And it’s tough to say we’re not getting close in our own world, from Ferguson to Standing Rock, Parkland to Arizona.

Can you imagine if we had Riley’s take on Nat Turner, instead of Nate Parker’s half-baked Birth of a Nation? I’d watch that.



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