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Has the Resistance Come to Hollywood?

The radical and usefully absurd politics of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ and ‘The First Purge’

Universal Pictures/Annapurna Pictures/Ringer illustration

It’s taken only two summers since President’s Donald Trump’s election for Hollywood to reimagine the nation’s bonkers political energy as spectacular farce. The First Purge hit theaters Wednesday. Sorry to Bother You arrives in select theaters on Friday, with a nationwide release planned for later this month. Two movies, two black directors, two very different tones, but both films trade in the dominant mode of left-wing politics these days—resistance.

The First Purge—a prequel for the Purge franchise—chronicles a dystopian political party’s plot to revolutionize American life through whimsical brutality. Having won the presidency, the New Founding Fathers of America—a bizarro spinoff of the GOP—stages the inaugural purge all across Staten Island. The party pays volunteers an entry bounty of $5,000 plus additional compensation based on performance. The local serial killer and a vengeful cokehead both enjoy their respective advantages in the way of violent crimes. But wait! Gradually, the characters reveal the crucial means by which the NFFA has rigged the experiment to achieve the party’s ideal political end: maximum carnage. Thus, the local struggle to survive the night of long guns becomes a rogue mission to identify, and neutralize, the true source of the violence. Through the NFFA’s grand design, director Gerard McMurray implicates the NRA, Blackwater, and white American conservatism for the political cynicism that culminates with the nation’s first purge. The night sky, filled with various traces of smoke, illuminates the evening’s multitudes—in the 12-hour time limit, Staten Island hosts a Day-Glo–painted rave, spooky ruins, a race war in the streets, and, worst of all, a fascist raid against defenseless civilians.

As political allegory, The First Purge is delightfully excruciating. The violence itself isn’t too bad; there are a couple of gruesome slashes shown too closely for comfort, but most of the movie’s action is chaotic gunfire and some elegant martial arts. It’s the politics of the purge that provide the movie’s unique tension. The First Purge pits the black working class, the white working class, white supremacist groups, local cops, drug gangs, mercenaries, and a serial killer against one another. For the movie’s first half, the viewer is left to discern where, exactly, the movie’s sympathies might lie and where its biases might ruin its connotations and implications. Ultimately, the movie breaks left.

There’s one stark shot of several uniformed cops encircling an injured, unarmed black man bleeding all over first base at Richmond County Bank Ballpark; the shot is ominously incomplete and maddeningly brief, and the movie does little else to suggest how the police force that killed Eric Garner might have policed the borough’s first purge night. The movie does characterize white supremacist groups as exceptionally violent and brazen; they’re one of the few local factions to cruise through the purge night without masks to hide their identities from the NFFA’s drone cameras. In its final act, The First Purge posits the wisened street drug boss, Dmitri, played by Y’Lan Noel, as the burly, brutal protagonist; Dmitri defends his friends stranded at the top floor of Park Hill Towers from an armed siege, led by a white, M. Bison–sized warlord draped in NFFA’s dark authority. Despite our knowledge of purges to come, The First Purge culminates with relief in the knowledge that, for now, the black residents won.

As an action flick masquerading as a horror flick, The First Purge is only so smart. The NFFA’s reliance on mercenaries serves as a critique of the U.S. military-industrial complex; but mercenaries also happen to undermine the movie’s consideration of the natural stakes for the borough’s black residents, who suffer the worst assumptions about their capacity for violence; the poor, who suffer the greatest need for NFFA’s money; and women, who suffer rape threats. The initial, uncorrupted setup suggests that the inaugural purge might inspire only some block parties and an uptick in recreational drug use. The modified experiment leaves viewers wondering whether the movie recruits mercenaries and Klansmen to spare the more common, legitimate factions of white American life from a more brutal and more divisive critique.

The First Purge is a gruesome movie, and watching it should make viewers feel awful in the best way. In contrast, The Coup rapper and left-wing activist Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is what the hacks in a marketing department might bill as the feel-good movie of the summer; rightfully so. The Coup’s music is a socialist romp, and so, too, is Riley’s movie. It’s got its own dog-eat-dog politics pushing its characters to the brink, but to comedic effect, and with a far more optimistic outlook on the world. In Sorry to Bother You, the struggling telemarketer Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, seems to dramatically improve his lot in life once his wise colleague, Langston, played by Danny Glover, teaches Cassius how to summon his inner “white voice” to successfully manipulate the agency’s customers. Meanwhile, Cassius’s colleagues launch a strike against their employer, RegalView, protesting for benefits and higher wages—but Cassius defects once the floor bosses promote their newest star caller to the arms-dealing executive suite. On top, Cassius suffers new waves of debasement and treachery that nearly transform him into one of Pinocchio’s jackasses.

Sorry to Bother You makes a mockery of its heroes and its villains alike. The lead labor organizer, Squeeze, is a cad, and Cassius’ girlfriend, Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, is a total Maureen. But the visionary businessman, Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer, embodies the archetypal Silicon Valley–mogul’s perverse outlook on innovation, labor, and quality of life. Steve Lift conceives of human beings as horses, and he means to recruit Cassius into a conspiracy to exploit his wage-class employees to a surreal extreme. From start to finish, Sorry to Bother You is exponentially silly, culminating with the sci-fi delirium that Bright wishes it had successfully achieved. Boots Riley disavows subtlety at every turn, and his movie is better off for this decision—Sorry to Bother You synthesizes the incisive and the ludicrous to yield the funkiest possible allegory. It’s a class satire without peer in its decade. Riley’s madcap debut is woke, but in the classical sense: enlightened beyond reason and paranoid, or at the very least skeptical, as one’s default mode.

Mercifully, these two summer 2018 releases do not narrow their political concerns to “the Trump age,” as if 2016 is when all the nation’s nonsense begins. In The First Purge, McMurray impresses the fact that U.S. politics are brutal in a broad and chronic sense; and Riley characterizes socialism as a timeless struggle that ideally outlives any one exploitative figurehead. There’s real catharsis in both these movies, if only because both defy reality in the extreme while engaging with the nation’s peak political fervor in astoundingly figurative terms.