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‘Sorry to Bother You’ Kicks Off Summer of Socially Conscious Black Films

Summer movies are synonymous with escapism. They tend to focus on costumed heroes or marauding dinosaurs. But is it possible for these beach weather offerings to be both entertaining and socially conscious? This year, the answer is yes, as a string of critically acclaimed festival darlings with searing commentaries on race relations, corporate greed and police brutality are about to hit theaters.

The first, “Sorry to Bother You,” from Oakland rapper and activist Boots Riley, opens Friday in limited release before expanding wider the following week.

First-time feature director Riley says his absurdist workplace satire, which has been compared to “Idiocracy,” is intended to represent the angst of the working class amid the backdrop of an increasingly corporatized world. It’s also an invitation to think more deeply about inequality and hopes to inspire viewers to take action, he says.

Sorry to Bother You” follows the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who takes a job as a telemarketer and learns that the key to success is to use his “white” voice. His fellow telemarketers join forces to form a union, hoping to improve their working conditions. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), is a performance artist who briefly works with Green and urges him not to abandon the cause of his coworkers even as he finds success by masking his racial identity.

“Art should be representing what people’s lives are like and what they believe in. It should also push the envelope and make people think and make people want to be involved in the world,” Riley says. “Good art does that.”

Riley remains convinced that audiences are looking beyond superhero sequels to films that bring originality and a point of view not often reflected in mainstream movies.

“The thing that bores the hell out of the public: all these formulas they have, the disaster formula, or the superhero formula. When you make movies by committee, that’s all you can do,” he says.

Tackling politics in the film also represented a gamble for those involved, Riley says. “The film itself is risky not only because I’m a musician and I’m not from the film world, but the narrative form itself, the political content,” he says. “Honestly there are films with black casts that don’t take the risks that this movie takes.”

Riley joins a growing list of black artists gaining attention in Hollywood, including Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and others whose work has found critical and box office success. 2018 has so far proven to be a banner year for black directors, starting with  “Black Panther,” which brought a distinct voice to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and helped shatter myths about the commercial viability of films featuring predominately black casts. Halfway through the year, “Black Panther” is on the short list of many Oscar nomination predictions and follows the success of directors and writers like Peele and Barry Jenkins at recent Academy Awards editions.

Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time,” “Selma” and “13th“) says it’s not about the arrival of a new wave of black filmmakers. It’s that there’s been a lack of attention over the years paid to black filmmakers who she argues have consistently delivered successful films.

There’s “this miraculous vanishing that seems to happen every year where no one remembers the year before, or the year before that,” DuVernay says.

“Black filmmakers have had consistent success in the studio and independent realm — that is, the ratio of success to the ratio of people making films is very high,” she said. “The ratio of success to the ratio of black filmmakers that even get to make a film is stratospheric. So many of them hit that it’s part of the fabric of this industry to say that it doesn’t exist when it’s right in front of you every single year.”

Sundance title “Blindspotting,” from Mexican director Carlos López-Estrada opens July 20. Written by Rafael Casal and “Hamilton” alum Daveed Diggs, who also star, the Oakland-set was bought by Lionsgate after the festival.

It’s the story of childhood best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), whose bond is tested after one witnesses police shoot down a fleeing black man. The film doesn’t just grapple with racism and police brutality, it also takes on gentrification and income inequality, heady stuff for audiences accustomed to lighter fare.

And while Spike Lee isn’t a new name, some are calling the upcoming “BlacKkKlansman” his best movie in years. The timely picture will be released Aug. 10, on the one-year anniversary of the deadly Charlottesville riots. “BlacKkKlansman” tells the true story of a black police officer who infiltrates a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs, Colo., eventually becoming the group’s leader. The film debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. Focus Features, the indie label behind the picture, hopes that the critical raves will help “BlacKkKlansman” break out beyond the arthouse.

It’s not the first time that movies about race in America have managed to tap the zeitgeist during popcorn movie season. In 2015, “Straight Outta Compton” opened in mid-August and astounded box office pundits when it went on to gross more than $200 million worldwide. If any of the films by Riley, López-Estrada, and Lee become hits, maybe this time Hollywood won’t be so shocked.

“Sorry To Bother You” Cast Interview: 

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