Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.


The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Like a lot of political satire (such as the recent Sorry to Bother You), this film from the 1970s seems to try to grab for a lot more than it can realistically pull off. Yet even if some of the content hasn’t aged quite so well, there’s enough provocative material in here to make for not just a fascinating period piece, but one that continues to raise questions about the racist underpinnings of American society. It’s ostensibly about an educated black man called Freeman (Lawrence Cook) who trains with the CIA and uses his experience to lead a guerrilla resistance to the government’s forces (the army and the cops, if not the whole of civil society), aiming at eventual freedom (or death). Like, say, some of the paintings of Kehinde Wiley, it aims to provoke discomfited recognition of racist stereotypes from white viewers, while eloquently providing its protagonists the means to undermine their oppressors/viewers. There’s barely a dull moment in the film, which is far more than just about Freeman or the occasional moments of action cinema (a heist, for example), as it is about taking the American (white) establishment head-on.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door film posterCREDITS
Director Ivan Dixon; Writers Melvin Clay and Sam Greenlee (based on the novel by Greenlee); Cinematographer Michael Hugo; Starring Lawrence Cook, Janet League, Paula Kelly; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 10 September 2018.


Chameleon Street (1989)

Watching this film, a winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990, is an odd experience. It’s such an interior film, dealing with a conman called Doug Street (the director Wendell B. Harris Jr.), who fits himself into all kinds of roles. The film attempts to get inside him, but he almost seems to control the film, being on screen for much of the time and having a voiceover narration as well, which often hijacks the action we’re seeing to try and spin it another way. And so we never really get a very stable sense of who he is as a person.

The film, though, is reminiscent of other films by black filmmakers which have fallen by the wayside: I think of Losing Ground (1982) which focuses on the black middle classes, and which only reappeared in 2017 after a restoration. This film also deals with an educated, literate black man, and perhaps it just didn’t fit into the kinds of genres film distributors were able to take on in the early-90s, when the filmmaking landscape seemed obsessed with gangsters and crime stories (it still is, to a certain extent). I also think of Sorry to Bother You (below), which is visually quite different but shares certain similarities in terms of its satirical edge and its depiction of a certain crisis of identity vis-à-vis the dominant (white) culture.

If it doesn’t always seem entirely successful, this is probably largely down to its low-budget lo-fi aesthetic, a first work from a filmmaker who should have been able to grow his career, but instead barely seems to have done anything else since (I only remember Wendell B. Harris from a small role as a federal agent in Out of Sight, directed by the winner of the previous year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). Needless to say, it deserves to be seen and discussed more widely.

Chameleon Street film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Wendell B. Harris Jr.; Cinematographer Daniel S. Noga; Starring Wendell B. Harris Jr.; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 14 September 2018.


Sorry to Bother You (2018)

This is a zany and in every sense thoroughly excessive film, which also manages to be starkly original. I think the “this year’s Get Out” claims are a little facile, though it does of course deal with some of the same ideas of living in a white man’s world, where that man is here excellently embodied by an expressive and (like everyone else) OTT Armie Hammer. The satire is still really smart, the way it positions modern Amazon-like gig economy capitalist wage labour into a form of slavery, confronted by union-organising workplaces, co-opted by the memeification of internet culture, and mixed into racial double consciousness on the part of its stooped, shuffling, unlikely protagonist Cassius (aka “Cash”, recalling the similarly on-the-nose “Freeman” character name of Spook, above). If I have a criticism, it does feel like it goes on a bit too long, and some of the scenes towards the end have slightly flabby pacing, but there are huge laughs throughout and plenty of very awkward content for those deeply invested in both capitalism’s systems of control and exploitation, and the structures of white privilege (in which respect, the scene where Cassius raps is pitched perfectly).

CREDITS
Director/Writer Boots Riley; Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Armie Hammer; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Academy 6, Pasadena, Friday 31 August 2018, and again at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 31 December 2018.

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