As Black Lives Matter continues to make gains, Counterfire writers discuss a personal selection of films concerning race and class in the US and UK
Capitalism is dystopian: Sorry To Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018)
Sorry To Bother You is a dystopian satire written and directed by rapper and activist Boots Riley. The film is set around a telemarketing company, inspired by Riley’s own experience working for one. The protagonist Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, is a young black man who has just started at the company, is broke and living in his uncle’s garage which he’s four months overdue on the rent for.
Cassius’s fellow telemarketer Danny Glover advises him to use his ‘white voice’, which he describes as the voice of someone who doesn’t have to worry about his bills or rent. Cassius becomes a hotshot salesman and is constantly told he could be promoted to a “Power Caller”, where he’ll work on the higher floors serviced by a golden elevator, and make the big bucks.
Meanwhile, his co-workers are beginning to form a union and getting organised to demand better wages. After joining them in downing tools, he discovers an age-old tactic used by employers to deal with workers organising – he gets promoted. With his own financial situation in mind, he quickly turns into a scab. But he also starts discovering what Power Callers actually sell. As his new manager tells him:
“Before a drone drops a bomb on an apartment building in Pakistan, who do you think drops the bomb ass sales pitch?”
The story goes on to reveal an even more sinister plot to genetically enhance workers, bind them by life-time wage-free contracts (basically slavery) and to stop them from successfully organising.
The film uses absurdity and dark humour to encapsulate the nature of exploitation that any working person can relate to. Throughout the film, we also see how racism is produced and reproduced within the system. One example of this is when Cassius is asked to tell a room full of white people about “that Oakland gangster shit” and then forced to rap, and is explained to that he’s been chosen to become a false Martin Luther King that can stymie worker organisation.
The antidote in the film to this raw exploitation is the power of workers organising and taking action even in the face of police repression, and this is shown clearly by the fear it creates in the ruling class.
- Sorry To Bother You is available to buy on DVD and Amazon Prime
Fighting back: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)
The film has a strong claim to being the first Blaxploitation picture. Unlike the sub-genre that followed, it plays less on stereotypes regarding blackness, and is very much a product of the militant post-’68 period in the US. Dedicated to all those who have ‘had enough of the Man’, the film features the director in the role of Sweetback, who has been wrongfully arrested for a murder, along with a young Black Panther called Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). When Mu-Mu is savagely beaten by the police, Sweetback, using his handcuffs as brass knuckles, puts both the cops in a coma. After he is re-arrested, a petrol bomb is thrown at the police car by a black revolutionary, allowing him to escape. Later attempts at arrest land the police in the morgue.
We then see Sweetback go on the run, meeting along the way a selection of figures from the black community who help him to varying degrees; when a priest will not, it is made clear that this is because he doesn’t want funding withdrawn for his drug rehab project. In this way, the difficulty of working class African-Americans accessing state funding for the community is highlighted. The end sees Sweetback escape into Mexico, having swapped clothes with a hippy. He promises to return to ‘collect some dues’. Contemporary audiences were shocked by this, expecting him to die, as was common in Hollywood narratives, and indeed expected when the Production Code was in existence just a few years earlier.
The film was a huge success, making $15.2 million on a budget of $150,000. As well as depicting a world before unseen to the majority of Americans, the film was formally radical. It has nouvelle vague-inspired jump cuts, montage sequences, superimpositions, matting effects, and a soundtrack from the then-unknown Earth, Wind and Fire, which was actually used in the pre-release publicity, as there was no advertising budget.
Sweetback’s raw sexuality and some of the film’s sexual scenes are a little shocking to viewers now, but there is no doubt that after years of black actors having to hide their sexuality to allay white fears over black masculinity, the film’s representation of a sexually confident black man was an important step in the Black Power movement.
- Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is available on DVD from the BFI.
Two roads for the Windrush generation: Pressure (Horace Ové, 1976)
It tells us something about the kind of racist society we live that it took until 1976 for the first black British feature to hit our screens. Pressure, directed by Horace Ové, is a sincere and unromanticised depiction of the struggles of a young black teenager Anthony “Tony” Watson (Herbert Norville), the son of Windrush generation West Indian immigrants, to overcome the multitude of social and psychological “pressures” of systemic racism in 1970s Britain.
Tony is torn between his parents’ desire to conform, work hard, assimilate and avoid getting into “trouble” and his Black Power activist brother Colin’s demands to join the struggle to fight the system through collective political organisation and action. This generational tension plays out against Tony’s increasing alienation and entrapment by the social restrictions and racial prejudice he encounters, whether from employers, landlords or police, as well as his growing confidence to resist it.
The film does not shy away from exposing the corruption and violent hostility of the police nor from exposing the political divisions with black activists themselves about how best to oppose the system. There is a rawness and immediacy to the photography, and in combination with the hand-held camera, the non-professional cast and the energy of the activist meetings, it feels at times like a documentary of the period, and in a sense it is, laying bare the tensions that would explode in urban riots against police racism in the years to come.
Yet in its candid depiction of organised resistance to racial profiling and injustice, it also strikes a chord with the issues that have fuelled the Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks.
- Pressure is available on BFI online and on a BFI DVD.
Plant is just short for plantation: Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)
Mark Dee Smith
“I didn’t set out to make a left-wing film. While I was working on the script, I realized it had come to a very specific Marxist conclusion” – Paul Schrader, director
It’s the Captain Beefheart song that strikes you first, grabbing you firmly and squarely by the throat, a hold that will be maintained throughout this hidden gem’s hour duration.
Shot on location at the Checker Motor car plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the drama takes the form of a standard heist film involving three production line workmates, two black and one white, played magnificently by Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel. It is the authenticity of their performances that make this film.
The heist goes wrong, and at this point the film’s orthodox surface cracks open to reveal a vivid exploration of the interpenetration of trade union consciousness, a self-serving bureaucracy and a malevolent state.
It is very rare for Hollywood to reflect industrial work; the actual daily grind and how it distorts and damages our relationships as well as our selves. The loose, naturalistic approach to depicting working class life Schrader chose for his directorial debut reminds us of Ken Loach’s 1980s work, but is rarely seen in the US mainstream.
This film shows us why capital needs labour power and how it will stop at nothing to control it – it is also very entertaining.
- Blue Collar is available on both Amazon Prime and BFI Online as well physically from Indicator.
The whole system is racist: If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)
If Beale Street Could Talk is an emotionally charged story of a young black couple in Harlem, New York in the 70s. The film is based on the novel by James Baldwin which juxtaposes a heartwarming love story with the harsh realities of a deeply racist society.
The story of Clementine “Tish” and Alfonso “Fonny”, narrated by Tish, foregrounds the structural nature of racism. Both come from working class families; their dads have had to hustle to get by, Tish has to work on her feet until her last month of pregnancy and the kind of work Fonny can find is extremely limited. Tish faces constant racism and sexism at her job in retail, and almost no one wants to rent an apartment to Fonny. Fonny finds escape in his art and his love for Tish, but his hopelessness makes him aspire to leave the country.
The centre of the story is the racist criminal justice system. Fonny is accused of raping a woman and put in jail. The victim is coerced into accusing him, there is no other evidence, and Fonny’s friend Daniel, who is his alibi, is arrested by the police and threatened with being re-incarcerated unless he changes his story. Before Fonny is arrested, Daniel tells him about how he was imprisoned for stealing a car even though he doesn’t know how to drive and he’s deeply scarred by the experience because “when you in there, they can do with you whatever they want”.
Though written 15 years earlier, Baldwin’s story has strong parallels with the case of the Central Park 5 which was the basis for the recent four-part Netflix series When They See Us.
If Beale Street Could Talk shows how far-reaching and personally shattering racism is and why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.
- If Beale Street Could Talk is available on Amazon Prime and to buy on DVD.
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