Blog Post

Surrealist Film and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You

The purpose of this presentation was to discuss the characteristics and artistic and thematic impacts of surrealist film elements, especially within films that engage with mediations of race. To that end, we focused specifically on one film that has been labeled surrealist and Afro-surrealist by various critics: Boots Riley’s 2018 Sorry to Bother You (while also bringing in snippets from Jordan Peele’s Get Out). So what does it mean for a film to be labeled as surreal? Many of us agreed that the term suggests to us a dreamlike quality, absurdness, WTF moments, and often times critical commentary on reality through extreme representations of it. In some ways then it seems that surrealism is based on an affect of uneasiness - on making viewers feel like something is off, or not quite right. This is perhaps how to distinguish surrealism from horror, which arguably makes viewers feel a deeper intensity of terror. Still, I do think surrealism can make us feel horror and that it can function quite similarly to the horror genre as in movies like Get Out, which has also been labeled surrealist. As Professor Gates noted, given surrealism’s history as an artistic movement in western civilization the label takes on a tone of “high art” while horror is often degraded as “low art” or as the genre most suitable to B-movies.

One question to consider in relation to this discussion is whether or not surrealism, like horror, is a film genre in and of itself. Or is it merely a mode within other genres? I would argue that, despite the industry’s long history of categorizing films into genres, nearly all films blend genres in some shape or form. Thus maybe genres simply need to be reimagined and thought of less as labels of distinction and more as visual modes or storytelling tools with which filmmakers can experiment and create. In her Slate article about “the new black surrealism” Maya Phillips writes, “Afro-surrealism depicts the realities of contemporary black life through its intersections with the absurd and unlikely. It’s as fluid and true as a dream, though still open to interpretation – art that in its fluidity can transcend genre. Is it horror? Is it comedy? Is it a thriller? It’s every element of every genre that can be collaged into a picture of contemporary black life.” To speak of Sorry to Bother You specifically, it is clear that the film contains various genres – including science fiction, horror, comedy, satire, and romance. Perhaps this film in particular is built as a compilation of various modes and genres (as well as intertexts like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Michael Schultz’ The Last Dragon). In a sense then, Boots Riley’s first movie, seems to be a celebration of film and especially black film. I also suspect that Riley’s background as a musician with the hip hop group The Coup has something to do with the sampling style that seems to be one of the underlying structures to the film. The Coup even made an album based on the screenplay for the film years before the film itself was created.

The song “We’ve Got A Lot To Teach You, Cassius Green” is about main character Cassius and contains elements of the surreal in its language of monsters, beasts, and creatures. The movie itself feels surreal through various stylistic and story elements, including the musical choices which alternate between earthly hip hop and more cosmic sounds, the blatant over dubbing of white voices onto the black characters, the absurdity of the elevator code to get to the top floor of the telemarketing firm, the absurdity of the slave sales that happen up there, the intensely violent turn Detroit’s art show takes, the absolute cluelessness of the white people at the WorryFree party who chant the n-word, and of course the introduction of the equisapians in the final act. Yet while all of this feels surreal, it is not that far off from reality. As I mentioned above, I think this is perhaps a unique quality of surrealism – to make that which is nearly real feel absurd. I am still left wondering the impact of such a filmic mode. Does it help us to see the preposterousness in the reality around us and encourage us to address it? Does it point to the future and show us where we are headed? And in this case how specifically does it help us to consider mediations of race and particularly the experiences of black men and women?

In speaking further about Afro-surrealism, Maya Phillips says, “Now, as Afro-Surrealism has resurged, it’s the years of police brutality against black and brown bodies, and it’s our constant cultural conversations about racial appropriation, performance (i.e., code switching), and different kinds of racial masking (i.e., blackface, whiteface).” Sorry to Bother You is a film that quite clearly critiques capitalism and the simultaneous exploitation and erasure of black people within such a system. For this reason, and its use of interracial dubbing, the film reminded me very much of the following scene in Julie Dash’s Illusions. Here the white actress singing on screen is dubbed over by a black vocalist who isn’t allowed on screen herself. The vocalist is only represented through her voice, and she is clearly paid far less and receives less job security than the actress on screen. In Sorry to Bother You the black erasure is doubled, given that Cassius is already unseen as a telemarketer who works only as a voice across a phone line and that even his voice is erased in this case. Through this process, he is essentially made nonexistent except as the cash he earns, which is why his nickname is so fittingly “Cash.” It seems to me that these scenes, which represent what happens behind the scenes, show us that the oppressive ways in which race is and has always been mediated through capitalism, including within profit-driven Hollywood, are both surreal (in the horror they make us feel) and very real (in the horror they help us to see beyond the screen).



While in this class presentation, I asked why we have genre in film. It has always troubled me, since once there is a label on it one tends to think/view from that narrowed perspective. I would like to see film labeled in the same manner that book have been. Fiction, non fiction, history etc. I suppose the ratings could stay though (just in case folks get naked). If film was represented as books are, readership/viewership may increase. 

I find that there is often more dissection and critique of media objects produced by people of color. Why must we feel the need to pick it apart? To compare it to some other work by some other artist (non-color)? All media objects affect the viewer/reader according to experiences had/shared/felt. Tearing the object to peices to determine where it belongs (in the film world) to me, seeks to erase the work for what it is, a creation. This is not unlike the erasure of the voices in the film. Black bodies, moving their lips to make sound, only to be replaced by a white voice. The inclusion of this aspect of erasure was a brilliant move. For those in the know, it was a slam dunk challenge to the absurdity of it in the first place. For those hearing/seeing it for the first time, can now question everything from films of their past.  


The works that seem to be categorized in the surrealist category (FX's "ATLANTA," Peele's "Get Out" and Riley's "Sorry to Bother You") have energized how I personally view film and television.  In terms of how I've watched television and movies, shows before these types of works (there are many others) tended to feel like I knew what to expect, how to process, and how to feel by the end of the film/episode.  What I feel in watching these works is engaged in a way not typical, at least historically.  In terms of shows like ATL or Random Acts of Flyness, I watch with a sense of interest in not only what I'm going to see, but where the viewing takes me emotionally and creatively.  The same was true for me in watching Get Out.  I thought I was going to see something scary, but found myself laughing (a lot).  I also found myself surprised to be engaging thought around race relations in America (though admittedly no particularly deep thoughts, just engaged in an awareness of the issue).  I feel that this form of entertainment is good in that it exercises various tastes and sensibilities which typical TV/Movies just don't do anymore.  Regarding the discourse around race relations/social inequality, capitalism, etc, I see them as small parts that are being brought into the fold for engagement of "certain muscles," but not the overall point.  It's an interesting type of work when they are done well (as per my own taste), but I'm not sure if putting it into a genre will make sense given that these works go into so many emotional and creative types of spaces.  What I feel is happening is that we are being pushed into new ways of consuming visual entertainment, and openness to difference is the requirement.  Trying to put labels on it or trying to gauge how we're supposed to process seems counter to the point of the style of the work.


With an emphasis on trying to fit this movie into a genre, the non-linear quality of Sorry to Bother You certainly makes the film read as surrealism. The narrative structure (or lack there-of) challenges the viewers ability to make sense of all the different elements in the film. I think there is something of value to be said here in how narrative structure can be used as a tool of critique or resistance (this is hardly a new idea). Thinking about the movie trailer, it sets up the viewer to believe that the movie is going to be a comedy with a black telemarketer using “white-voice” to get ahead at his job. The expectations of what one ends up actually watching is never set up beforehand, and that’s really the whole point of it. It is very much a disruption of our conventional sense of understanding a story or a message. Trying to fit it into a genre takes away from other conversations that could be had. I still fail to construct my own clear analysis of the movie, which is probably Boots Riley’s intention.