In Boots Riley’s cartoonish, anti-capitalist drug trip of a movie, Sorry to Bother You, the protagonist, a telemarketer named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is at a bar with friends when he discovers his “white voice.” The nasal, nebbishy caricature of whiteness (provided by David Cross) comes out of Cassius’ mouth like a bad dub on an anime bootleg, and it unsettles everyone at the table; his racial ventriloquism is, as Cassius’ friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) describes it, “some Puppet Master shit.” Riley’s version of Oakland, California, starts off grounded in reality, but Cash’s seamless code switching is one of the first increasingly outlandish signs that things are just off.
Sorry to Bother You is the latest in a wave of black-written, -directed, and -acted movies and TV shows to dip into the surreal, particularly when it concerns matters of racial performance. Atlanta and Get Out have also staked their claims in this resurgence of Afro-Surrealism.
The term Afro-Surreal was coined in the introduction to Henry Dumas’ book Ark of Bones and Other Stories by the writer and activist Amiri Baraka in 1974, who used it to describe Dumas’ “skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one … the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life.” In 2009, writer D. Scot Miller published his “Afrosurreal Manifesto” defining the genre in detail in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Linked in its dreamlike aesthetic to the larger Surrealist movement (popularly identified by the work of museum and college dorm wall superstars like Salvador Dalí and Man Ray), Afro-Surrealism was nevertheless its own separate beast, with deeper ties to the Négritude and, later, Black Arts movements. Both movements were incited by a desire on the part of black people to define their own identities, rights, and cultures in spite of the influence of colonialism and the injustices addressed by the civil rights and Black Power activism of the ’60s and ’70s.
“With Afro-Surreal, it allows us to address the absurdity head-on,” D. Scot Miller told Ytasha Womack in her book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. “Sometimes you have to be irreverent. Sometimes the situation is so absurd that the only way to address it is to be absurd.” Afro-Surrealism depicts the realities of contemporary black life through its intersections with the absurd and unlikely. It’s as fluid and true as a dream, though still open to interpretation—art that, in its fluidity, can transcend genre. Is it horror? Is it comedy? Is it a thriller? It’s every element of every genre that can be collaged into a picture of contemporary black life. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the works of Bob Kaufman, and the visual art of Kara Walker—all combine the real with the mystical or fantastical to create their portraits of blackness in America.
“It’s not about tapping into the subconscious,” Miller wrote in “Afrosurreal Manifesto”; instead, it’s about “bringing in the dream, the fantasy and the marvelous. While you’re asleep and awake you are manifesting. People have to be able to transform their living situation.” In the ’60s and ’70s, that “living situation” for black people in America was colored by the occurrence and aftermath of the civil rights movement. Now, as Afro-Surrealism has resurged, it’s the years of police brutality against black and brown bodies, and it’s our constant cultural conversations about racial appropriation, performance (i.e., code switching), and different kinds of racial masking (i.e., blackface, whiteface). “Black is in fashion,” a white man says about halfway through Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror-comedy Get Out. The line is laughably absurd, to think that blackness can be a wearable trend like floral rompers or acid-washed jeans (dear Lord, help us). And yet it’s perfectly appropriate within the logic of the movie, where the man is just one member of a cult of white people who literally auction off black bodies and inhabit them. It’s most definitely, to quote Salvador again, “some Puppet Master shit,” but even more unnerving because the roots of the horror lie in reality.
The auction of Get Out’s doomed protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is a blatant callback to slave auctions, and the white antagonists’ assumptions about Chris’ talents and abilities are taken from persisting racist stereotypes. Chris is fetishized, admired for his (assumed) sexual virility and natural athleticism, and envied for skills, like his photographer’s “eyes,” to which they might feel entitled. (We are left to imagine the terms under which a black woman would be auctioned, likely as a docile Mammy, fiery Sapphire, or sexualized Jezebel. The black female experience in Afro-Surrealism, as in many movements, is typically subordinated to the male.) More disturbing than the sale of these black bodies is the way that their white purchasers psychologically supplant their victims. These victims’ consciousnesses still exist, and they’re still aware, in whatever distant way, of what’s happening as they’re trapped in the Sunken Place, but they’re only substantial as the mask white people wear.
Frequent Atlanta director Hiro Murai describes the surreal tone of the show, created by and starring Donald Glover, as something akin to a “fever dream”: “We’re always looking for what we call ‘dream logic,’ something that feels right, but doesn’t necessarily have a logical throughline.” So when, in the fifth episode of the first season, we’re introduced to a Justin Bieber who is played by a black man, we’re meant to understand, within the dream logic of the show, that the Canadian pop star is, quite simply, black. No gestures or mentions are made toward the race-bent Bieber, but the very existence of black Bieber calls into question the privilege of white Bieber, whose transgressions and hijinks (including peeing into restaurant mop buckets) are easily forgiven and forgotten.
The race-swapped performances in Atlanta usually function as a marker of privilege but also as a means of survival. The appearance of a black student named Tobias in whiteface in Season 1’s “Value,” right after Van fails a drug test and loses her job, speaks to a black student’s poor prospects in the education system. Perhaps Tobias, sitting there eerily silent and still in the back of the classroom, imagines his borrowed whiteness will grant him the privilege of a better education, and thus a brighter future. After all, we’ve seen multiple times throughout the show how the education system fails the children, particularly children of color. Even Van’s boss, a school administrator, shrugs the matter off, saying, “The system isn’t made for these kids to succeed.”
Not unlike Tobias is the young, Patagonia-wearing, farmers market frequenter Harrison Booth, who makes an appearance in the following episode as the subject of a segment on the fictional Montague show. Though not literally in chalky whiteface like Tobias, Harrison wears a blond wig and acts the part of a “transracial” white man because he’s unwilling or unable to cope with the injustices of blackness and his own internalized racism: “I’ve always felt different,” he says in the segment. “I go to the stores, the movies, and just be thinking, ‘Why am I not getting the respect I deserve,’ and then it just hit me: I’m white and I’m 35.”
Even an exaggerated performance of blackness may be occasionally required, as in the “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta, which finds black protagonists Earn (Donald Glover) and Van (Zazie Beetz) trying to schmooze with people at a party whose white host quotes Malcolm X, performs slam poems about Jim Crow, and talks about the “plight of the contemporary black man.” Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), too, is expected to act the part of the violent thug in order to maintain his rap celebrity. And in Sorry to Bother You, Cassius must use his white voice until he’s called upon to literally perform his blackness in the form of an impromptu rap at a party hosted by the villainous, coked-up corporate exec Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). One may be called to present as black or as white, but the degree to which that blackness or whiteness is acted is important. It’s a racial Goldilocks conundrum: One must be careful not to be too white or too black. When Cassius first attempts his white voice, he doesn’t quite get it right. It’s white, but not white enough, and Cassius’ co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) admits that the voice itself is more an exaggerated notion of whiteness rather than anything real. The white voice isn’t what white people really sound like, Langston explains, but “what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” Even for white people, whiteness is a performance.
But the fact of the matter is that this performance places Cassius on the trajectory to financial success. In an interview with Pitchfork, Riley recalled his own job as a telemarketer and the fact that “there is no real white voice.” Riley said, “That’s also a performance … everything we’re doing is a performance. … The accepted performance of whiteness communicates that everything’s OK and financially all right.”
It’s no shocker that this new black Surrealism frequently broaches the topic of racial masking and racial performance as it relates to capitalism. Blackness in America is inextricably intertwined with socioeconomic status, and the American dream, that Gatsby-suited cliché of aspirational living and wealth, is a fantasy that panders and is more accessible to a privileged white majority. Neither Riley nor Donald Glover has any interest in subtlety in the naming of their black protagonists. “Cash” Green, Earn, Paper Boi—all refer to the wealth they pursue and the masks they don to pursue it. There’s even a kind of economics to Get Out, when Chris himself becomes the commodity to be sold, not unlike Cassius, the power caller, and Paper Boi, the rapper.
In the infamous “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, the eponymous star (captured in nightmarish whiteface by Glover) blatantly recalls Michael Jackson and his story of childhood abuse and celebrity. To say that particular 35-minute commercial-free exercise in horror served as a cautionary tale would be too glib, but Teddy also represents how a black man striving for success in a world that defines it by white standards may transform himself in order to adapt.
At first, Darius (Stanfield) is certain that Teddy’s sick brother Benny Hope is a figment of Teddy’s imagination, an alternate identity, and even when we see Benny in the flesh—or as close as we can get, with Benny’s body completely bandaged—the question of dual identities remains. Whether Teddy and Benny are separate or the same person, the fact remains that both are linked, even in their manner of death, and Teddy’s devout belief in sacrifice as the means to success seems to apply even to his identity. If Benny is Teddy’s black brother, or if Benny is Teddy’s black self, then either way Teddy must sacrifice him, and he attempts the deed.
The protagonists of the new black Surrealism must be similarly flexible and fluid in their performances and self-identification to have even a chance to survive in a society that disregards them. In Sorry to Bother You, Cassius does just that, making moral compromises to succeed, using his white voice to become a power caller, then humoring Steve Lift with a show of “n— shit,” and, when Lift’s nefarious plot is unveiled, crossing the picket line to join the resistance. Though Cassius’ girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), berates him for selling out, she too indulges some flexibility, being an artist-activist while still using her own (British!) brand of white voice to sell that same art.
The racial fluidity of these black characters—because it’s only a performance, and because it’s transparent to us as viewers—feels surreal because the falseness is played as truth. What’s more frightening than a mask worn out of context? A costume worn every day as skin, even though it’s not Halloween.
The past several years in our country’s history have been fodder for creative engines, particularly because reality feels more and more unreal. In 2016, at the Television Critics Association tour, Donald Glover discussed his choice to tackle the absurd in his show: “I feel like the absurdity of the world … is more interesting. I mean, like, Donald Trump is running for president right now. When I was 8, I saw him in a Pizza Hut commercial, like, that’s fucking weird.” Of course, Trump is only one piece of it. According to Riley, “there was Occupy. There is Black Lives Matter. All of these things are happening in the world: forces pushing people to make other choices, and art in the industry around it tries to respond to that.”
It’s a strange time to be black in America—surreal, really. The art tells us no different.