This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.
I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.
In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.
At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.
The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.
The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:
Newton opened in India a week ago and I was fortunate to watch the film the previous Saturday at HOME Manchester as part of the ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. I’ve been trying to let my thoughts about the film marinate as I bathe them in the various positions being explored by friends in Manchester as well as across the Indian media. Newton is certainly a critical success and has already been selected as India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee – but critics and audiences both seem divided as to how to take the central character and the narrative that he provokes. The film is an intelligent and wickedly funny political satire. It hasn’t yet reached a wide audience since it opened on only 300 screens in India, but even so some very different readings have appeared. The one negative reaction to the film has come from critics who have claimed that it takes ideas from the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001). Newton‘s director Amit Masurkar has refuted these claims and the Iranian director Babak Payami has stated that there is no plagiarism involved. I have watched Secret Ballot but at this point, before going back to it as I hope to do, I think that although the central narrative action is certainly similar, the different context and the underpinning issues make a clear distinction. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas – but if Masurkar has done this, it should be acknowledged.
Outline (no spoilers)
‘Newton’ (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a young man with a postgraduate degree who has only been able to become a government clerk (he failed the Civil Service exam). Sent out to be a polling clerk in an election in the Eastern Central state of Chhattisgarh, he finds himself volunteering for potentially the most dangerous and difficult job for an election officer – collecting votes in an isolated area that has recently seen activity by Naxalite/Maoist groups. He is helicoptered in with his team of two assistants and meets the local military commander Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and then a local teacher Malko (Anjali Patil) who acts as an interpreter and liaison with the potential voters. Is Newton going to be able to register any votes in the jungle?
Without spoiling the narrative, I can say that Newton tries very hard to follow the rulebook and it is up to the audience to decide the extent to which he succeeds. This is a political satire that takes aim at many different targets, including Indian bureaucracy, media constructions (a foreign media crew visits the area to see the election process), the conduct of the military, Indian ideas about democracy, inequalities, attitudes towards ‘scheduled tribes’, policies about ‘insurgents’ etc. At the centre of all this, in Rajkumar Rao’s wonderful performance, is Newton. Is he a brave hero, a staunch advocate of democracy – or is he completely insensitive to everyone’s different problems? Or is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps the real pressure of attempting to conduct an election under threat of disruption pushes him into a difficult place where he struggles to function. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the film which take place outside the jungle context and perhaps provide clues about Newton’s behaviour. I’d like to see the final scenes again but one scene sees an attempt to ‘humanise’ the presentation of Newton’s potential nemesis Aatma Singh. Singh actually faces similar problems to Newton in that he is trying to fulfil his orders to keep the region free of Naxalites, protect the villagers and keep his men safe.
The setting of the drama is important. Chhattisgarh was formed out of the south-eastern districts of Maya Pradesh in 2000 and it is still a relatively poor state even though it has fast developing areas and rich mineral deposits. The jungle setting is the forest area of Dandakaranya. This is an area associated with the spiritual and the stories of the Ramayana (which is referenced by a joke in the film). It’s also the home of ‘tribal peoples’, one of the most disadvantaged communities in India. These people speak Gondi, a South-Central Dravidian language not understood by an educated Hindi speaker like Newton. The insurgents who are seen briefly at the start of the film (and whose presence is often invoked later on) are variously described as Naxals, Maoists or ‘communists’. Naxalites (from Naxalbari in Northern West Bengal) emerged in the late 1960s and new Naxalite groups have since emerged in many Indian states, forming a ‘corridor’ through the centre of India from North East to South West. Chhattisgarh has been a centre of much activity since 2005. Naxalites often seek out tribal peoples (the ‘Adivasis’) as their most likely supporters. The events in Newton are genuinely ‘realist’ in the sense that politicians have been victims in Chhattisgarh and the Naxalite threat is ‘real’. This in turn marks out Newton as an ‘Indian Independent’ in its presentation rather than belonging to the kind of fantasy world found in mainstream Hindi cinema.
For my money, Newton the character, with his principles and his lack of any sensitivity is not the answer – in fact he could well make matters worse. Indian governments need to consider the needs of the poorest people and curb the exploitation of resources with better regulation if they are to meet the challenge of the insurgency. Education is vital. An election is not democratic if voters don’t know who they are voting for or what elected people would do in power. But will Newton, the film, help audiences to engage with these kinds of debates about how to make democracy work? Some of the reviews I’ve read seem very naīve in taking Newton to be a ‘hero’. Perhaps if he listened carefully to Malko, he might be persuaded to modify his behaviour or at least learn how to disguise what he thinks?
Newton was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a prize and subsequently at other festivals. I hope it gets an eventual UK release and that it gets to the final Oscar shortlist. The film is produced by Manish Mundra and Drishyam Films which is fast becoming a celebrated ‘brand name’ for Indian Independent films. It has an excellent script by the director and Mayank Tewari. The only issue I have with the quality of the production is that the camerawork sometimes appears to lose focus in parts of the frame for no apparent reason. But this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the presentation.
I fear that only seeing the film once may turn out to be a problem. Since posting this I’ve discovered that there may be a line of dialogue in the film that suggests that Newton may be from a Dalit background. That might change my reading. I fear there may be other such revelations to come. If I’ve got things wrong, I hope I’ll be corrected. Please leave a comment.