Two brilliant surrealist films get deep about race and class

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Films have a huge influence on broad audiences around the world. Viewers often perceive images on screens as accurate representations — no matter how distorted or stereotyped. Consequently, Hollywood’s depiction of Black Americans has reinforced racist views.

Though not all is perfect, there has been a welcome shift in Hollywood in recent years as a fresh crop of films featuring Black narratives and mostly Black actors have been widely released — movies like Loving, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight. Included in this harvest are two impressive films by Jordon Peele and Boots Riley, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You. Both movies use Afro-surrealism to reflect the horrific racism and working-class exploitation that continue to exist in this world.

Surrealism in film is a fascinating medium. It provides a way for artists to creatively use fantasy, horror, or the supernatural to stimulate audiences into making connections to the real world. Afro-surrealism focuses on Black narratives or issues. A good example is Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved, which presents the ongoing impact of slavery via a paranormal story.

Alert: spoilers ahead. With Get Out, writer and comic actor Jordan Peele has made a twisty, thought-provoking film. In a nod to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his movie begins with a mixed-race couple on their way to meet the white girlfriend’s parents.

But Peele violently reconsiders the premise of the earlier movie, with its rose-lens view of race and romantic ending — wherein Sidney Poitier’s handsome and upwardly mobile professional character gets accepted into an illusionary white world and rides with his sweetheart into a harmonious interracial sunset. Get Out dares us to re-examine this clean-cut version of race relations and hits us with a surreal story that gets real about racism.

Like Poitier’s character, Chris in Get Out, played by Daniel Kaluuya, awkwardly deals with the subtle racism of liberal-leaning parents. But, as the plot unfolds, his experience takes a bizarre, eerie turn.

The Black people that he meets at the parents’ estate act strange. Then he is hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother and put into the Sunken Place, a dark void where he can’t be heard or escape. He is unsure if the Sunken Place is real or if he has been plunged into a nightmare. He eventually comes to understand the odd behavior of the other Black people as he realizes that there is a sinister conspiracy to hijack his body and keep him forever imprisoned in the Sunken Place.

Peele’s clever film uses a surprising blend of genres to get at the exploitation of Black bodies in a culture of white dominance. His fantastic plot also is an ingenious metaphor for specific aspects of racism in the U.S. today. Think of the mass incarceration of 487,000 African Americans or the harsh attempts to silence Black protests, including those of the NFL players and fans who kneel to protest police murders of unarmed Black people.

A shock to the system. A political organizer and the lead vocalist for the hip hop group The Coup, Boots Riley also uses Afro-surrealism and science fiction to make a class-conscious movie that indicts racism while dealing with union organizing and multi-racial collective action in a way that is highly unusual.

Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as he rises up the ladder of a telemarketing corporation. After struggling for a bit, he receives advice to use his “white voice,” which then helps him get more sales. He gets promoted to a “Power Caller” position that puts him smack in the middle of a capitalist horror show in which he makes deals for WorryFree, a corporation that promises food and shelter to workers who agree to work for free.

Though morally tormented over this humanity-sucking job, he does nothing about it because he needs the financial security. Maintaining this new economic status comes at a price. Cassius is forced to do a racist song and dance show for a mostly rich and white audience. It also requires him to cross a strike line that his co-worker friends organized for better wages and working conditions.

Cassius is finally jarred to rebellion after learning that WorryFree’s creepy methods of exploiting their slave workforce extend much, much further than he could ever have imagined.

Get Out and Sorry to Bother You are dazzling movies that jolt audiences with the strange and absurd. At the same time, both come with a point of view that is eye-opening about the race and class divisions that are all too real in this insane world of ours, with its carnival-like corporate culture and wackiness in the White House.

Yes, this is the world we live in. But — sorry to bother you — we have the power to get out of this gory mess if we will only take it!

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