“Two men. One podcast. Every black film ever made.” So declare Len Webb and Vincent Williams, hosts of the excellent film podcast The Micheaux Mission, based here in Philadelphia. Over the course of more than 200 episodes (and still going), the duo have discussed films running the gamut from high-brow to low-brow, across eras and genres, in conversations that are consistently informative, incisive, and entertaining.
In the first of several visits to BMFI, the duo moderated a talkback after an opening-weekend screening of Sorry to Bother You. Set in an absurdist version of Oakland, the film follows a black telemarketer whose mastery of his “white voice” elevates him to the surreal world of Power Sellers. Now is a good time to watch (or rewatch) Boots Riley’s wildly inventive satire, which features a madcap vision of labor, economic insecurity, media, and race that seems increasingly prescient. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to wide-ranging conversation, which touches on the “white voice” versus the “black voice”, depictions of masculinity, The Last Dragon, and much more.
Sorry to Bother You is part of a long tradition of films using the tropes of science fiction and fantasy as an instrument for social commentary. Below, we’ve rounded up a few other noteworthy titles from the past twenty-five years that grapple with the issues, anxieties, and events of their moment.
1997 · d. Paul Verhoeven
In the 23rd century, the world is united under Federation rule, rights are earned through military service, and Earth is engaged in a vast war with a species of insectoid aliens. After graduation, a group of friends joins the war effort, proceeding through brutal boot camp to the intergalactic front. Starship Troopers wears the guise of a big, dumb, rollicking blockbuster, but arch-satirist Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Elle) is up to something more sophisticated. Throughout his career, the director has practiced a unique brand of satire, over-indulging in the tropes of a genre in order to expose and skewer its underlying assumptions and ideology. This case is no exception—the film’s fixation on physical perfection, propagandistic media interludes, and gung-ho jingoism gradually reveals shades of Riefenstahl and Nuremberg. Starship Trooper‘s savage irony completely eluded critics at the time of its release, but has been recognized over time as one of the most subversive major studio films of all time, and an anti-war masterpiece.
2008 · d. Alex Rivera
Hoping to bring more income to his family in rural Oaxaca, a young man heads north to a dystopian Tijuana rife with militarization, greed, conspiracy, and reality TV. There, he becomes a cybernetically-augmented “sleep dealer,” jacking into a digital network to remotely control drones performing labor across the border. “We give the United States what they’ve always wanted,” he’s told. “All the work without the workers.” Sleep Dealer puts a unique spin on the cyberpunk thriller, weaving in a myriad of issues related to the American-Mexican border. Director Alex Rivera would continue his exploration of border and immigration issues in the recent documentary The Infiltrators (which played in BMFI’s Theater 5), co-directed by Cristina Ibarra.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
2012 · d. Benh Zeitlin
Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath resonate through this wild, dreamy work of modern fabulism. Six-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her father in a freewheeling, doggedly independent Bayou community called The Bathtub. When their home is devastated by a catastrophic storm, she begins a journey to find her long-absent mother. Made on a shoestring budget with non-professional actors, Benh Zeitlin’s debut became a surprise hit, earning four Academy Award nominations.
2016 · d. Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
As instructor Paul Wright, Ph.D., discussed in his fall 2019 Cinema Classics Seminar, Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Godzilla used its giant reptile narrative to channel its era’s nuclear anxieties and comment on Japan’s post-war reentry to the international community. Since then, the franchise has produced many sequels, spin-offs, and remakes, but Hideaki Anno’s 2016 Shin Godzilla may be closest in spirit to Honda’s original. Here too, Godzilla’s emergence is linked to nuclear energy, but instead of the atom bomb, it’s the 2011 Fukashima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown that looms over the film. Being a Godzilla flick, there’s no shortage of wanton destruction, but the film dedicates just as much time to the bureaucratic squabbling and buck-passing as the government tries to respond to the threat. Ultimately, Shin Godzilla proves to be a film about civics, concerned less with monster mayhem than questions of accountability and governance.
2017 · d. Jordan Peele
African-American photographer Chris is expecting an uncomfortable weekend when he accompanies his white girlfriend, Rose, to meet her family. And awkward it is. “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could,” her father immediately declares, proclaiming his colorblind credentials. But the vibes keep getting weirder. There’s the standoffish behavior of the family’s black service staff. There’s a disconcerting hypnosis session with Rose’s mother. Soon Chris discovers a sinister plot afoot in the seemingly idyllic suburb. A critical and commercial sensation, Get Out bends its genre trappings toward a trenchant and provocative examination of race relations. Responding to questions about how to categorize the thrilling, scary, and often funny feature, director Jordan Peele tweeted “Get Out is a documentary.”