Q: How are politics portrayed in film and why are audiences so intrigued by it?
A: There’s a common belief that art is ‘ruined’ by direct assertions of their creators’ politics. Traditionalists suppose that art must traffic in subtlety, or else risk becoming ‘mere’ propaganda. I’ll counter this claim by looking at two affecting films that wear their politics on their sleeves: Mahogany (dir. Berry Gordy, 1975) and ‘Sorry To Bother You’ (dir. Boots Riley, 2018). Both films feature characters who struggle to reconcile their promising career opportunities with the social unrest around them.
Given widespread doubts about the plausibility of politics-as-art, these films may entice audiences who wonder if they’ve accomplished the ‘impossible’: art that ‘tells’ its convictions as much as it ‘shows’ them.
*Light Spoilers Below
After presenting a future in which Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) is a lavish fashion designer (apparently inspired by graffiti and East Asian regalia), Mahogany flashes back to her humble beginnings as a secretary in Southside Chicago. Tired by constant discouragement from her professor and her boss (a fashion buyer at an elite department store), Tracy meanders through a crowd of neighbors at night, intending to bypass a tireless community organizer with a megaphone. Brian (Billy Dee Williams) is the organizer in question — an optimistic city council candidate who wants Black residents to fight housing inequality. Tracy and Brian have immediate chemistry, and they become combative love-interests — him being the virtuous angel to the ladder-climbing devil on her shoulder. As Tracy breaks into the fashion industry, relying on Sean (Anthony Perkins)’s exploitative interests in her and her hometown, Brian forewarns that success shouldn’t cause her to betray herself and her people, but Tracy thinks betrayal is the only way to have the life she wants.
Tracy’s come-up in fashion was initiated by her beauty. Being tall and thin, with pearly teeth and smooth, brown skin, she quickly caught the attention of Sean — a high-fashion photographer. He groomed her as a model and named her ‘Mahogany’ — she was his latest muse. As Sean’s controlling tendencies eclipsed her dreams of being a designer (he wanted her to be a doll, not a decision-maker), Tracy had to fight to save herself and her artistic integrity.
Mahogany meets the struggles of Southside Chicago with raucous laughter and a sound message. It’s got (Motown) style and political substance.
One of Sorry To Bother You’s early scenes shows Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) and Detroit (Tessa Thompson) cuddling in cramped quarters — a garage converted into a modest bedroom. The moment recalls a song by Boots Riley’s band, The Coup: “I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day In Bed With You.” From this scene, viewers are attuned to a zany color palette — the highlights of Detroit’s curls, the couple’s mismatched pajamas, the poster-collaged walls of their living space.
Everyone in their Oakland, CA orbit is either underemployed or underfunded. Case in point: Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews)’s house (where Cassius and Detroit are renting garage-space) is on the brink of foreclosure. Desperation leads Cassius and Detroit to take jobs as telemarketers for a morally bankrupt corporation: RegalView.
As he and his coworkers begin organizing against the company’s labor exploitation, Cassius is distracted by his potential for mainstream success. He masters the coveted “white voice” that bolsters “Power Caller” careers, and he shamefully crosses the picket line to sell profitable war weapons and other deplorables while his friends protest at great personal risks. The plot thickens when Cassius is invited to an exclusive Power Caller party and consorts with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of Worry Free (a spoof of Amazon, Walmart, and any other conglomerate company known to mistreat workers). Cassius learns that the next phase of worker-exploitation is non-consensual genetic mutation (intended to create “super-workers”) and he might have ingested a powder substance that triggered his own mutation.
Having shaken his friends’ and lover’s confidence in him by selling out for money and power, Cassius is faced with the decision to conform to capitalist interests (and hope he isn’t discarded when he’s no longer useful), or join a worker-led revolution (and give up his elite status).
Riley’s directorial debut doesn’t fare well in representing women and/or queer people, but Sorry is refreshing in its commitment to showing and telling. The film craftily conveys Riley’s passions and principles as a political organizer.
Conclusion: These films aren’t perfect (their drives for aesthetic symmetry sometimes drown out their character development — see Aretha Franklin’s classic critique: “great gowns, beautiful gowns”) but they are remarkable for their respective investments in bold politics and stylish expression. Gordy and Riley delivered films that facilitated cultural shifts, normalizing the existence of films that are visually and morally striking, all at once.
Sidenote: I recognize that concrete characterization isn’t the end-all-be-all of meaningful storytelling, but some stories hanker for meatier characters. I enjoy these films’ liberties, but I believe they’re of the hankering variety.
**Mahogany can be streamed for free on YouTube; Sorry To Bother You can be streamed on Hulu