I watched this movie over the weekend with my husband and we were both left wanting more. There was so much context and subtext in this film that I know I need to watch it at least two more times to get the full picture. But it’s so profound that I really feel the need to sit and wrestle with it first.
There are plenty of spoiler free reviews about this mind-blowing movie, and this isn’t one of them. I went scouring the internet to find some critique and analysis of the film and, strangely enough, came up wanting. Somehow there are dozens of thinkpieces on “A Star Is Born” (which is the THIRD REMAKE of a film that came out in 1937 and tells a fairly predictable show biz story) but none on this amazing film. But one woman’s failed Google search is another woman’s blog post idea! FYI, this is going to be long.
Quick synopsis: LaKeith Stanfield (of Atlanta fame) plays Cassius Green. He lives in his uncle’s garage and is desperate to find a job to help his uncle, who is several months behind on the mortgage, from losing his home. Cassius gets a job as a telemarketer and shoots up the ranks using his white voice. Meanwhile, the other employees (including his best friend and a traveling union rep) attempt to go on strike and form a union to get better pay and benefits, and he crosses the picket line because the money he’s making is just too good. Of course he loses his friends and his girlfriend (a protest artist played by Tessa Thompson) as he gets rich and gains notoriety within the company. Then he finds out the company he’s working for is evil (not normal evil, but sci-fi dystopia evil) and has to figure out what side he’s on.
I’m going to make my points roughly in the order that the movie takes, so here goes.
The White Voice ™.
If you’re black (or any person of color), you probably know what this is. This movie made me think about how much code switching I do. Turns out I actually have 3 different voices. My natural voice is high pitched but sits in the middle of my range, quiet and slightly monotone, with a slight drawl and soft consonants. My White Voice (warmer tone, higher up in my register, more upbeat, faster paced, and with crisp enunciation) is for networking events, job interviews, and any time I have to deal with the bank or something like that. I developed my Lawyer Voice after entering practice and realizing that while men could talk like they were having a couple of beers at Hooters and still be taken seriously, I couldn’t. And my White Voice wasn’t quite doing the trick either. So my Lawyer Voice is slightly lower pitched and declarative with deliberate pacing.
This part of the movie drove home how much Black people have to perform for the white gaze. When you think about it, even the title There is also a poignant scene where Cassius is at a work party being pumped for information about “the hood” because since he’s black, surely he’s shot someone before or been in a gang or at least raps. His boss starts a chant and pretty soon the whole room is yelling “RAP! RAP! RAP! RAP!” I cringed so hard because we’ve all had some version of that moment. Cassius complies, is terrible, and then leans into minstrelsy by simply shouting “N***a shit! N***a shit! N**a, n***a, n***a shit!” At first he’s elated when people start to cheer for him, but as it turns into the audience shouting along with him you see the moment where his eyes dim and he realizes, These people only care about how I can entertain them. It was so hard to watch because it was just so damn real–look at what happened to Colin Kaepernick! The fact that he dared to use his fame to bring attention to black people getting murdered by the police caused him to lose his football career.
How physical comfort undermines resistance.
Cassius starts his job with the sole intention of making enough money to save his uncle’s home. Then he discovers that he can live a comfortable life. Soon enough, the accolades are rolling in and he begins to dream of advancing and becoming a Power Caller, one of the highest paid employees at the company. Cassius was down with the struggle when he was broke, but once he got a taste of money and power he turned his back on his friends. He gets really friendly with his white coworkers and lets them gas him up with celebratory high fives and dances every time he closes a sale. He moves out of his uncle garage and into a fancy downtown loft with expensive furniture.
When Cassius gets confronted by his girlfriend Detroit, his best friend, and the union organizer, Squeeze, he lashes out. He says that they’re hating, that he can support the strike from the sidelines, and that what he’s doing has nothing to do with what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure every black person who’s ever worked in corporate America has met a Cassius. If there is more than one black person at your mostly white job and you think you don’t know a Cassius, it’s probably you.
Capitalism is designed to dehumanize.
I don’t know how you made it this far if you are avoiding spoilers, but if that’s the case this is your ABSOLUTE LAST CHANCE TO BAIL. Everybody ready?Well after Cassius becomes a Power Caller he is faced with the ultimate test of complicity: the company he works for is a subsidiary of megacorp Worryfree , which is trying to create the perfect workers. At Worryfree, poor people can erase their debts for life in exchange for what is just slavery with better marketing. They wear generic factory uniforms, have living quarters that look like prison cells, and get three cafeteria meals a day along with a lifetime job at Worryfree.
But in case that message didn’t get through to you, there’s a huge twist. Cassius gets called in for a meeting with the CEO, who offers him cocaine adn says he needs to show him a video about a new opportunity. Cassius is clearly impaired and says he needs to go to the bathroom first. Well, he takes a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and runs into the room where some nightmarish looking half-human, half-horse creatures are being held. Have you ever heard the saying, “he’s such a workhorse”? The corporation is trying to create the perfect workers by genetically engineering a new species called “equisapiens”. There was some really good costuming and visual effects because they look realistic and creepy as hell. Had I seen this movie in the theater I probably would have jumped out of my seat!
Cassius’s boss tries to calm him down by showing him a video about how the equisapiens are stronger, faster, and (hopefully) more docile than humans. They will triple WorryFree’s profits. But WorryFree knows that the equisapiens will rebel, so they want an inside man to be the “MLK of horses”. They’re willing to pay Cassius $100,000 to turn into a horse for 5 years, and at the end he’ll receive the super secret reversal serum (which sounds made up and nonexistent if you ask me). He refuses to do so and goes on TV to expose them.
Throughout the film we see clips of a show called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!” where, surprise surprise, people get beat up on camera. Cassius goes on the show to reveal his video footage of the equisapiens, but they make him get pummeled on and dropped in a pool of excrement before they will show it. It’s a very scathing commentary on how media not only distracts us from the issues, but how reality tv in particular is desensitizing us to cruelty. Real life example: on MTV’s “How Far Is Tattoo Far?” people who have relationship issues tattoo each other to show their true feelings.
Despite the expose, WorryFree’s stock shoots through the roof and the Republican party praises the CEO for his innovation. Cassius and Detroit work with Squeeze to start a big protest to cause a distraction so they can break in and free the equisapiens. The scene turns brutal because the police and SWAT team show up and start spraying tear gas and beating people up, as they are wont to do.
Capitalism is a system, and systems are hard to destroy.
After the equisapiens are freed, things go back to normal. Cassius takes his original call center job back (now with better benefits!). He even moves back to his garage apartment which has been upgraded with the luxury furniture he bought during his stint as a Power Caller. He and Detroit are about to get cozy when Cassius sneezes. When he looks up, we see he has started to mutate into an equisapien. (That cocaine he took before the meeting wasn’t just cocaine!) Cut to credits.
But wait, there’s more! We get one more scene during the credits. The CEO is sitting on his couch in a bathrobe looking stressed. The doorbell rings; he limps over to his security camera and sees some equisapiens on the porch. The lead one bangs on the door and says “Open up motherfucker!” in CASSIUS’S VOICE. Oh snap! We smashcut to the door being broken down and an equisapien stomps through, roaring (neighing?) furiously. Then the movie ends for real.
A good ally is hard to find.
Now this is just my interpretation, but I thought it interesting that when the union organizer, Squeeze, is introduced to Cassius and Detroit, he and Cassius immediately size each other up as romantic rivals. It’s true that Detroit is clearly more woke than her boyfriend. But if you’re really trying to organize a movement, you need to win over the people who are on the fence. Instead of doing that, Squeeze starts flirting with Detroit. This is a symbolic illustration of how he seduces the workers and distracts them from the larger evils being perpetuated by the company. Throughout the movie, Squeeze seems to treat the creation of the union as just a job; he wants people to march in the street but doesn’t care about them individually. And once it’s over and the workers have negotiated a (paltry compared to what the company can afford) raise, and slightly better working conditions, he’s on to the next. Meanwhile, the equisapiens are still out there and there’s no indication that WorryFree isn’t still operating. Squeeze is off to the next city to stir shit up, and help people get just enough to keep them from rioting. Kinda seems like he’s not really on their side. . .?
That fucked me up. Like, you go through this emotional rollercoaster and the main character, who ends up doing the right thing and already didn’t make the revolutionary change he wanted, gets turned into a horse person. It’s equivalent to how Martin Luther King, Jr. fought his whole life for civil rights, but while he was alive they made only incremental gains…and he lost his life in the process. People who go against the system are basically sacrificial lambs. But it’s only through violent upheaval that real change is made.
Heavy, heavy stuff especially considering the Mexican internment camps, shootings of black and Jewish places of worship by white supremacists, and voter suppression happening as we head into election week. Resistance is painful but we can’t afford to turn a blind eye to injustice. No matter how much money you make, what title you earn, or what power they allow you to have. . . it can all be ripped away in an instant if you step out of line. And that’s not freedom, that’s just indentured servitude.