There’s a phrase that comes to mind when I think of Tessa Thompson’s character Detroit in Boots Riley’s debut feature, Sorry to Bother You: symbolic disrupter. She wears the clothes of a revolutionary. Literally—her clothes are part of her performance-art aesthetic. In one scene, she wears earrings designed to look like penises; in another, a shirt that reads “the future is female ejaculation.” No one comments on it. Even her name, Detroit, invokes a legacy of racial and economic inequality, as well as the rich legacy of organizing to fight it. Detroit carries herself as the physical embodiment of radical Black female resistance, and it seems to be Riley’s intention that she is. Still, it’s a resistance no one in the film, including her boyfriend Cash (Lakeith Stanfield), the film’s protagonist, seems to fully acknowledge or address.
I can’t blame the characters for not taking her seriously, though, because at no point in the film are her values made plain to the audience. Sorry to Bother You is a film that openly critiques and lampoons whiteness, as well as the capitalist structure that upholds it and the ways people sell out for success within that structure rather than actively dismantling it. Cash’s sellout opportunity comes when he realizes that adopting a “white voice” (provided by David Cross) at his telemarketing job catapults him to a world of privilege that requires rejecting his friends and coworkers. This seems like the exact sort of behavior Detroit would clock early and critique immediately, but she doesn’t do it until much later. Her own art takes on a guerilla sensibility—everything is a secret, including her opinions.
Detroit’s artistic and revolutionary sensibilities remind me of the current incarnation of Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s Netflix series reboot of his 1986 classic She’s Gotta Have It. In one episode, Nola (DeWanda Wise)—also an artist—is dismayed by a thoughtful critique of her work by a seasoned critic (Wallace Shawn). He rightfully calls Nola out for not really having an intention for her work and an inability to succinctly explain her message. The episode highlights my biggest problem with Nola, and by extension, Detroit: They are not fleshed-out characters so much as they are figureheads—collections of radical Black iconography, symbolism, and buzzwords all signaling vaguely to rich concepts on which we never see them build. Detroit is a Black radical who doesn’t seem to spend time with any other Black women and is fine taking a backseat to men at every turn.
This has been a component of Black female characters in television and cinema dating back to the blaxploitation era. In movies like Foxy Brown, Sugar Hill, and Coffy, the titular characters were not written to be members of the black community, but rather emblems of it. Foxy, Sugar, Coffy, and their sisters in blaxploitation cinema were written as ordinary women who became vigilantes to avenge their fallen brothers and lovers; their resilience and loyalty to their communities made them icons of Black female power. In the 1970s, when blaxploitation helped spread the ideals of the Black Power movement and highlight socioeconomic realities of Black urban life, such archetypes made sense. But it’s frustrating, in 2018, to feel as though Black women in film are still so often deployed to symbolize their community and support Black men.
They are not fleshed-out characters so much as they are figureheads—collections of radical Black iconography, symbolism, and buzzwords all signaling vaguely to rich concepts on which we never see them build.
What does Detroit stand for? Is she a feminist? Womanist? Communist? Socialist? A combination? It’s almost like the film would prefer that Detroit’s “political” fashion do all the talking. In one telling scene, Cash visits Detroit at her studio and asks what her new art exhibit is all about. But once she begins explaining, he starts to fall asleep and we barely hear what she says. Is it because her rambling spiel is meant to suggest to viewers that Detroit herself doesn’t actually know what her art is about, or is the scene a way to shorthand the distance that’s growing between them? Why make Detroit’s art a plot point at all if we aren’t supposed to know its mission, and her values?
The film’s art-opening scene is even more confusing because, once Detroit takes the stage to address a crowd of woke gallery attendees, it quickly becomes clear that, like her boyfriend, Detroit also uses a “white voice” (that of British actress Lily James). This only leads to more questions: Has Detroit been using a “white voice” longer than Cash? Did she develop hers after he developed his? Is it okay that she uses “white voice” because she only does it occasionally? Is “white voice” only truly insidious when you use it all the time?
These are the questions I wish the film would address in Detroit’s interactions with Cash as his life, and his priorities, quickly change. The conversations they do have are so opaque—mostly due to Cash’s constant deflection—that I wonder why Detroit puts up with him. The film establishes that they have a history dating back to their teen years, but offers no hint of why this dynamic woman is devoted to a man who seems to have no political leanings whatsoever, or why she stays with him even after discovering that the job Cash has such aptitude for involves selling slave labor.
And that’s the problem: Detroit’s passion for Cash never pushes her to challenge or act in direct opposition to him. Sure, she participates in the strike against Cash’s employer, but never calls out her man in public even when he crosses the picket line. That faceoff is delegated to Cash’s former coworkers Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), who exchange tense words with Cash as he betrays his working-class brethren in favor of a slave-peddling establishment. We know that in real life, Black women have been at the forefront of protests past and present; it’s frustrating and disappointing to see a Black woman function as a passive actor in this narrative. Worse yet, she becomes a sex prize: the unnecessary, confusing plot point where Detroit hooks up with Squeeze seems to exist mainly to give her something to do. But there’s already plenty to do. She could be working side by side with Squeeze—or better yet—organizing the protests herself.
Since seeing Sorry to Bother You, I’ve wondered what it would look like for Detroit and Cash to face off on picket line, imagined the thrilling possibility of the pair’s ideological differences taking the form of debates that happen in public as much as they do in private. (Especially so characters like Squeeze, who clearly underestimates Detroit at every turn, could see she’s really about the struggle.) In a Newsweek interview, Thompson noted that Detroit “is just trying to figure out the intersection of the art that she makes and activism,” and implies that Cash doesn’t care much for her art or see its relevance to revolution. An argument about that would not only enrich the film, but give us a peek into Detroit’s head: Behind all the symbolism, we could have seen the person.
Sorry to Bother You is a hilarious, intelligent, and socially relevant satire of American business and capitalism, and hands-down one of the best films of 2018—which is why it’s so frustrating that this critique feels so necessary. But social relevance has to encompass more than posturing, and it’s well past time for media to reckon with the way that it marginalizes Black women. With some tweaking, Detroit could have been a great, fully-realized character. It just didn’t happen this time.