Moving Beyond the US: #BlackLivesMatter and Decolonization

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun painted a memorial to George Floyd on the remainder of a destroyed wall in Binnish, Idlib (Syria’s northwest).
Source: RepublicWorld

George Floyd’s murder revived the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but also the #AllLivesMatter hashtag and its various offshoots. Thus, when I saw a photo of a Lebanese protester holding a sign that said #LebaneseLivesMatter on Twitter, the first thing I thought was just how unaware of the global conversation this person is. In fact, I retweeted the photo with the caption: “READ THE ROOM.”

Given the conversation on the poor judgement of some people—many of whom are well-intentioned—in trying to advocate for all lives and not just Black lives, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the image. But it lingered in my memory. It is undeniable that such a poster in the U.S. would be out of tune; that said, thinking about #BlackLivesMatter, a primarily U.S. movement, concurrently with other global issues is essential to understanding and thus dismantling U.S./white hegemony — which in and of itself is a global and not a U.S.-only issue.

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War (1975–90), which has been now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With inflation soaring and nearly 50% of Lebanese living under the poverty line, people hit the streets to demand their rights. I tried putting myself in their shoes: they’re watching social media explode with overwhelming support for #BlackLivesMatter, triggered, in their eyes as people unaware of the U.S. context, by the murder of one man, while thousands and thousands of people starved in Lebanon without anyone flinching.

I do not say this to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement, or to dismiss that George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue in the United States and around the world. Anti-Black racism exists in Lebanon too. Lebanon, and the Arab world at large, are notorious for their unjust, racist kafala system—amongst many other symptoms of deep-seated racism, such as Western beauty standards, lack of representation of people of color in the media, and the like. But the issue, for those who claim that “Lebanese Lives Matter”, is about the lack of media attention— they are not denying anti-Black racism.

Social media is dominated by U.S. voices and perspectives. For instance, the country with most Twitter users is the U.S. at 64 million, followed by Japan at 48 million, and Russia at 24 million, even though the U.S. clearly isn’t the most populated country in the world. Thus, what goes viral on social media and other media outlets is often dictated by trends in the U.S. As such, people in Lebanon, and elsewhere, may see the Black Lives Matter movement as hegemonic vis-à-vis their struggles: while the whole world is talking about George Floyd and Black lives, no one seems to care about Lebanon.

(responses against Lebanese Lives Matter)

Appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or slogan for other social justice movements dilutes people’s attention; it is a sort of hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is important to note that the intention of the Lebanese people, or any oppressed group, is not malicious; their intentions are very different from those of racist Americans who advocate for #AllLivesMatter.

What we are witnessing—outside the U.S., in Lebanon and elsewhere—is a process by which the lives of minorities in the U.S. matter to the world more than non-U.S. lives, let alone lives of minorities outside the U.S. The reason the world cares about George Floyd now more than we ever did about Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Venezuela—the list can go on forever—is because of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony inextricable from the systemic hold of white superiority and supremacy on the entire globe.

What we have here, therefore, is white supremacy benefitting the U.S.-turned-global fight against Black racism and police brutality. This may not seem like a problem, but the fight against racism cannot happen without global solidarity against U.S. hegemony. In a recent interview, Black activist Angela Davis “hop[ed] that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.” She also pointed in the direction of Brazil, saying “if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. . . . I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil.”

Davis recognizes, in pointing to Palestine and Brazil even as the Black community in the U.S. and its allies are in revolt, the importance of solidarity in dismantling transnational systems of oppression that know no borders. She gestures to the reality that one cannot selectively fight against oppression, for these systems are massive, interconnected, and inertial, requiring large amounts of force to disassemble them.

In this vein, it is also my wish that those who have now garnered a platform due to these systemic structures that privilege Western voices over non-Western ones—especially on social media—shed light on injustices that inflict much of the world now, not just the U.S. and the West. I hope that those people with influence remind those who are now so passionately protesting racist legacies—from statues to names of places and institutions—also speak up against injustices in other parts of the world in the future, as they arise.

On June 23rd of this year, Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was murdered by the Israeli police; he was shot and left to bleed for one and a half hours. He was accused of attempting “to ram his car into border guards” despite it being the day of his sister’s wedding. Like George Floyd, Ahmed Erekat, an unarmed Palestinian man, was assumed to be violent and left to die. But unlike Floyd’s murder, Erekat’s murder didn’t elicit a global outcry. Why is that? Where are the reading suggestions about the Palestinian struggle? Where are the “go educate yourselves” posts? Where are the “check your privilege” articles? 

This plea to talk about all forms of injustice, not those only occurring in the West, should not be seen as a means of hijacking the Black moment or the Black cause (which, admittedly, is often the unintended consequence of hashtags like #LebaneseLivesMatter or #PalestinianLivesMatter). Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle against white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. The white hegemonic structures killing Black people in the U.S. are the same structures allowing Israel to annex Palestine. From this standpoint, it becomes imperative that we engage in a more nuanced and dynamic form of solidarity, else we would be, in our struggle for justice, still perpetrating the structures we are fighting against. 

If we only talk about George Floyd and Black lives, we will not dismantle the system that murdered him.

The Mountains Are Melting: A Discussion about Climate Change in Nepal

By Rastra Raj Bhandari

My first real awareness of climate change was at the age of 19 as an aid worker in the foothills of Mt. Everest after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. During my stay, I noticed that my hotel staff left the guests behind and hiked uphill for 2 hours every night seeking shelter over the fear of a potential glacial flooding, triggered by the recent earthquake.

My newfound curiosity about climate change gradually turned into a dedicated passion and career aspiration. To further a career in this field and make a difference, I did internships with the World Wildlife Fund working on projects ranging from conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and scaling climate finance in Fiji to representing the U.A.E in climate negotiations as a youth diplomat. I was initially anti-corporation as I saw them as only a part of the problem. But after working on the environmental divisions of a corporate firm, I had my perspective changed. I understood how closely linked all different stakeholders are, and that the private and the public sector are often working together in trying to combat climate change. Over my university years, my outlook on climate change expanded from naive, sophomoric activism to an appreciation for the depth of the problem.

It felt great to be around the drivers of climate finance and policy at such a young age. At the same time, I acknowledge that I was disappointed with how slow things were and how powerless I felt. However my experiences strengthened my aspiration to build a career in the field of climate change. Growing up, I used to travel with my father, who studied insects for a living. Some of my fondest memories are of hiking in the Himalayas and camping in the wilderness as a boy scout. I felt that I needed to act considering the future generation would never have the opportunity to experience nature like I did. Perhaps even in my generation many people have not had that chance yet. This was a powerful revelation, the one that prompted me to explore how people view nature and in particular climate change in present day.

Studying at a global university like NYU had its benefits as well as drawbacks. While I traveled the world and understood the global nature of climate change, I knew I was losing touch with the impacts of climate change in Nepal. Still, I looked back to my time at Everest and what must be happening with melting in the Himalayas. What surprised me was that there was very little I could learn about it, given that it’s rarely talked about. Conversations on melting glaciers are dominated by Antarctica and Greenland – while extremely important, they are not the only large ice-reserves in the world. Organizations like ICIMOD are doing incredible work in understanding glacial melting in the Himalayas, but their work was often limited to the science. While I respect science, I questioned what could happen if we channeled the money that goes into climate research towards solving climate change.

The lack of resources to understand what was happening in my country frustrated me. I could not find a single book that explored melting in the Himalayas and portrayed the human story of climate change. Why is climate change such an abstract concept of science and equations when it should be about the people living there? That prompted me to learn more – my mentors thought I should ditch my corporate summer plans and go back to Nepal and write a book that not only studies the impacts of glacial flooding to downstream communities but also explores the geopolitics of the Himalayas as a paradigm for the appropriate policies to address climate change.

The Himalayas are not just an aesthetically beautiful mountain range. They stretchs over 8 countries and contain the world’s largest volume of glacier ice and perennial snow outside of the polar regions. The melting of the Himalayas puts a quarter of the world’s population at risk from water scarcity and it endangers downstream communities from adverse climate induced disasters.

Presently, increased atmospheric warming and changing precipitation patterns are causing glaciers in the high Himalayas to retreat at an unprecedented scale. Alarmingly, there has been a 27% decline in glacial volume in the Himalayas in the past several decades. The resulting meltwater is accumulating to form glacial lakes which could potentially be tapped to produce hydropower but are also extremely vulnerable to bursting and causing downstream flooding, often triggered by large avalanches or earthquakes.

The most recent study by ICIMOD released in 2019 suggests that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, the Himalayas could lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2100. Under such circumstances, temperatures in the Himalayas can increase up to 4.4. Degrees Celsius by 2100 causing radical disruptions to food and water supplies, and mass population displacement. China, India and Pakistan need to join hands to solve this crisis, this is a major political discourse that should be happening but is not.

But what could I do to help?

Over the summer, I set off on a motorbike from the border to India riding along the Koshi river – one of the largest rivers in South Asia – upwards towards the source of the river in the mountains. My destination was the infamous Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake – one of the most vulnerable glacial lakes in the world. After 12 days of walking along the traditional walking route used by ancestral Tibetans moving into Nepal, I ended in the foothills of Mt. Gaurishankar – next to a massive 1.7km2 lake, which did not exist several decades ago. The lake is one of the only 3 lakes where the government has created an artificial outlet to drain water gradually and contain the crisis. Standing in front of this lake was a powerful feeling that I cannot fully express in words. It was difficult to comprehend that a lake this beautiful would be the cause of devastation for human society. That was when I fully realized the power of water.

Over generations, water has played an important role in shaping human civilization. From the ice-age to floodings to droughts. From culture to religion, water plays a central character more often than not. Anecdotes, personal stories, fables – water has played a role to play in shaping human civilization.

I am going to tell you the human story of glacial flooding in Nepal. Before I begin sharing these stories, in no way am I arguing that the local people are right. What I am trying to do is to share what they have to say about climate change.

According to traditional beliefs, there used to be a big garden in the Himalayas for yaks to herd. Then one day, god came to the dream of the Sherpa people, and told them to take their yaks away. Some people didn’t agree and the next day, many yaks were killed because the mountain suddenly melted to form a lake. Among the older generation, it was common to hear that environmental disasters were happening because we are upsetting the mountain gods, a classic ‘act of good’ – common in other societal beliefs as well. Some locals were upset with the recent influx of workers from the South of Nepal to work on the reconstruction efforts after the earthquake as they were unaware and unaccustomed to respecting local norms. For instance, I was told that urinating and defecating near the water sources are the causes for flooding.

I spent a few days over the summer with a wonderful host-mother, Janmu Sherpa. She runs a small tea house along the river bank – she is positive, full of energy, and has 11 pet goats that she looks after. Like many of her age in the mountains, she believes in fatalism – a belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. She also knows that glacial floods are very unpredictable, just like earthquakes. All Nepalese know that there might be an earthquake again – but none of us know when it will actually hit. So does that mean we stop living ? No, we keep it in the back of our minds and move on. What else can you do when you have so many other priorities? Let fate decide, she said.

Simply put, there are too many other things for people to worry about when climate change is classified as part of the “uncertainties.” At the same time, although the Himalayas disappearing by 2100 seems close, it is very long term for people who struggle to put food in their plates every night.

For instance, I interacted with several tour guides who were there to scope a potential trek. Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake is formed next to Tashi Labtsa Pass – a treacherous mountainous pass which famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, acknowledged to be one of the hardest passes to cross in the world. Tashi Labtsa is special because for those daring adventurers who can cross it, it provides an alternate route to the over commercialized route to Everest. And with more melting in this section, some tour guides believed the pass will open up and be more accessible. One of them, who chose to remain anonymous said, “Climate is definitely changing! When we used to take tours a decade ago we had to walk in snow for many days. Today, there is barely any snow in the routes. For instance, Everest Base Camp was very difficult to reach because of the weather, and very few people went there. Look at today, it doesn’t snow at all, and even children go to base camp! It’s much warmer but we don’t complain as we are getting more work.”

Then, the most surprising of stories! There was an overwhelming majority of people who thought that glacial flooding was a hoax, primarily created by the Japanese. According to local beliefs, the Himalayas are full of rare gems and minerals; and foreigners (particularly Japanese people) have for a while attempted to find excuses to mine the Himalayas to find them. The Japanese were pioneers in glacial research and were the first ones to discover the threats of glacial flooding in the region. They were, however, not particularly well received, and at one point, there was news of local sherpas threatening the Japanese scientists for sensationalizing the threats of glacial flooding. During my 3 months stay in the mountains, it was common to hear discourse on the inefficiency of the government. For instance, “Why is the government interested in spending millions of dollars to mitigate climate change when the government has never invested in schools, health-posts and roads in the mountains?” There was large mis-trust over the intent of the government.

After hearing these stories, I wanted to know if the youth felt the same way. That was hard to do because there are simply no young people in the mountains. Most of the Nepalese youth are either studying in India, Australia or the U.S. or working primarily in the Gulf and raising remittance for the Nepalese Economy.

I traveled to the nearest big city and conducted a survey among 250 university students and a similar survey among the same demographics in Kathmandu – the capital city of Nepal, to make a comparative analysis. I learned about their awareness and perceptions of climate change, and I estimated their willingness to pay to protect the Himalayas and the lives that depend on the mountains. Awareness was based off their knowledge about glacial flooding while perception was based on their attitude towards climate change and priorities. In doing this, I found that perception of the environment is directly correlated to an increased valuation of the environment while simply knowing about climate change has no effect.

Indifference towards climate change might occur because someone is not directly affected by it or because they have other priorities. Regardless, this revelation has a message for policy makers around the world. How do you incorporate climate policies in an environment where climate change is not as big of a priority in the minds of local people?

But, there’s also the question of why we expect people to make individual sacrifices when the top 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions.

The mountains are melting fast with people who are unable to stop it neither adapt to having to put the problem off their minds to continue to survive. Alongside a massive shift in the responsibilities of the top 100 companies, there also needs to be a shift in our global consciousness. We will not simply be losing the Himalayas in less than 100 years, which should be sad enough, but rivers will run right through the lives of real people, almost 1.4 billion of them.

Photograph by Rastra Raj Bhandari

Doris Salcedo’s “Plegaria Muda”

“Plegaria Muda”:  An Anti-Memorial for Young People Who Experience Daily Violence and Trauma

        The teacher pulls the blinds down, covers the small glass window on the door with black paper, and twists the lock shut. The lights are off. The class stands together against the corner of the room closest to the door. One student wonders whether black paper would really fool a shooter into thinking a classroom is empty. Another is secretly relieved to be at the centre of a huddle of bodies. But this is only a drill, a regularity in North America since the Columbine shooting in 1999, and it will be over soon. The same cannot be said for youth who experience regular violence in their country or community.

        In her work, “Plegaria Muda,” which loosely translates as ‘silent prayer’, Doris Salcedo brings together gang violence experienced by youth in Los Angeles, and violence experienced by youth living in the rural parts of Colombia. Whether the victim is a student crouched in a classroom, or a teenager hiding from the Colombian army, the sound of a shooter’s footsteps leaves them powerless to do anything but say a silent prayer. These experiences result in trauma and loss that may look the same to an outsider. The number of victims in each scenario is overwhelming. Salcedo confronts the desensitization that occurs when there are so many victims by creating an anti-memorial.

Traditional memorialization is not empathetic because it converts victims into numbers and representations of a circumstance that is over, a move that leads society to forget the individuality of those who have suffered. When a viewer has not actually experienced the circumstances being represented, memorials become distant and easy to walk away from. But it is much harder to turn away from a human story. Salcedo’s work mourns these victims, but it also creates a deep discomfort with the idea of collectivising their experiences, insisting that we remember each of them singularly, and dig for the humanity in familiar images of tragedy.

        “Plegaria Muda” is made up of a series of hand-crafted tables, one resting normally on the ground with the other placed on top on its back. Between the two tables, there is a layer of soil with seeds of grass planted, which grow up through the wood over time. The immediate impression is that of a graveyard, with coffins buried in a transparent ground. The viewer cannot step over the graves but must walk half-sunk among them. However, there is another image that gets screened onto the viewer’s imagination as she walks through the space. Each sculpture also looks like one desk piled on top of another for a long school break. The viewer can either imagine herself in a graveyard or an empty classroom. Like in her other works, Salcedo does not pair the tables with chairs. The table is then stripped of its function, and the absence of the chair creates a question of what else is missing. Where is the student who sits there? While desks bring youth, education and potential to mind, coffins connote the end of those potentials. In the imaginary space between the desk and the coffin, there is the nameless, faceless child buried in the soil.  

The number of graves is overwhelming, and as the viewer meanders through them, the path becomes less clear and the journey across the room more convoluted. At first the coffins may seem like identical replicas representing a massive tragedy, and in one sense they are meant to portray a magnitude of suffering. However, the desks are not identical. Each one is hand-crafted, and while they look similar they are actually in various shades of colour mixed by Salcedo’s team. In the face of senseless violence, it is easy to become desensitized to individual suffering, but her work insists on maintaining nuance.

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” in Berlin uses coffin imagery to overwhelm the viewer, and may seem similar to Salcedo’s work. It is also a kind of maze that the viewer is plunged into and must navigate. Upon entrance, the coffins begin waist-high, and from the outside it seems that they are all this height. Then they rise as you walk towards the middle of the work, creating the feeling that you are sinking. Each grave in the memorial is the same, aside from their differing heights. Once the viewer understands the message of the work, it is easy to walk away because there is not much else to look at, there is no individual detail on any of the graves, and the story that is being told creates a single sweeping narrative. There is no human story, no nuance. The victims are converted into their circumstance, one that the viewer understands fleetingly while she sinks, and then sets aside.

The Berlin Memorial tries to put the viewer into the metaphorical state of the victim, sinking into inescapable sky-less entrapment. But putting the viewer “into the victim’s shoes” is not how empathy works. Salcedo’s work comparatively urges you to stop and look at the differences and details, reminding you that each coffin contains an individual. The initial image that her work creates is familiar — you are in a graveyard. Once you are drawn in and comfortable, the differences between each table become apparent. It is much harder to walk away from a piece that challenges you to discover the hints of humanity in an otherwise desensitizing experience. To pay attention is a true act of empathy, and it’s one that her work demands in juxtaposition with the traditional memorial.

        “Plegaria Muda” was born out of Salcedo’s realization that the victims and perpetrators of gang violence share socioeconomic circumstances that result in a lack of empathy from broader society: the victims are faceless gangsters, who bring violence onto themselves. In an interview with art historian Tim Marlowe, Salcedo states, “These young men, before they were physically killed they were socially killed because they were living in marginal areas… and we don’t mourn them because we think they are gangsters … We ought to mourn every single life.” Salcedo also visited mass graves in Colombia and interviewed the mothers of young men who had gone missing. By putting these two tragedies in conversation, the work points out their similarities and problematizes the ways we think about the “other” in relation to violence. Youth in parts of L.A. have been deemed unworthy of help or empathy; they are imagined as an island apart from the America that society pays attention to. Similarly, Colombian youth are marginalized because they come from a country that has a history of violence so people have become numb to their tragedies. The work accuses society of thinking of them as incapable or inherently violent, and refusing to pay attention to their potential.

        The grass that grows through each piece has a double meaning similar to the tables themselves. It reminds the viewer of tenacity and strength. Salcedo calls each blade a miracle. It seems so unlikely that a delicate plant could find its way to the light through such heavy and unyielding material. Yet Salcedo points out that it also resembles the grass that grows around the walls of a ruin. While disenfranchised groups of people survive trauma every day and somehow continue living, that does not negate the loss of those who do not survive. North American youth in affluent neighbourhoods may be bored or made nervous by lock-down drills. Violence does not often creep into their backyards, but society empathizes with their fear. The potential in young people who are less privileged is destroyed every day, and Salcedo’s work demands at the very least, a restless discomfort with that fact.

“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) 2016” Nasher Sculpture Center, 2016. (Youtube)
“Doris Salcedo on A Flor de Peil and Plegaria Muda,” whitecube.com, 2012.
“Plegaria Muda,”Grynsztein, Madeline and Rodrigues-Widholm Julie. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2015.
“Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda, 2008-10,” Brinson, Katherine. guggenheim.org, 2015
“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda at MUAC,” Vernissage TV, 2011. (Youtube)


Dismantling Detroit: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You

detroit

I’ll admit that I was at first dazzled by the strange combination of ethereal bangles and beads and the NeonEjaculate artistic flair of curb-stomping stubbornness that is the lead, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in the film Sorry to Bother You. She flits about like a fairy in a concrete jungle as she twirls a sign and looks every bit the part of a spirited and innocent being. This has led to complaints of her validity as a fully fleshed out female character.

I believe this speaks to laziness in the analysis of the critics. In spite of her screw you! jewelry and lip glitter that is designed to attract and distract, I hate to break it to you: Detroit is imperfect. It’s that imperfection that shatters the rose glass that typically surrounds a female character accused of being a manic pixie dream girl, or whatever combination of adjectives one might use to describe a female character that is simply too good, too quirky, and too alluring to be true. Many articles written recently appear to have forgotten that we are witnessing two leads in this story, not a lead and his lady. What about the perils of Detroit-ism? We can learn from her conflict, as her double consciousness is every bit as fascinating as Cash’s. While it is easy to be distracted by Tessa Thompson’s beauty, Boots Riley has truly created a character worthy of analysis beyond her obvious qualities. Detroit is more than a girlfriend, she is more than an activist, and she certainly deserves more than flaccid acknowledgment in reviews focusing upon what we can only glean from Cassius, her co-star (Lakeith Stanfield).

Her narrative is seemingly in parallel with Cassius’ because they are complete opposites. While Cassius is actively seeking to better himself by selling his soul using his body, Detroit is attempting to sell her body to be used as a canvas for socio-political activism with her soul intact. I would argue that their narratives are not in fact in parallel, but that their struggles meet somewhere along the way at that perpendicular point of weakness: that point where integrity is sacrificed in the art of getting by.

Both characters choose a path that is safe for them. Cassius seeks security through physical wealth. Detroit falls behind her wall of impenetrable womanhood as she barks an obscure recited film quote to a crowd of consumers while being pelted by cell phones, bullet casings, and water balloons. She wears her performance in her daily life. She knows that her armor is her identity and, although she might appear to be in bodily danger running from the police, the film still shows her being supported and encouraged by her peers and other characters. She is largely in a sanctuary of aesthetics and justice. I struggle to see the risk she is taking as the film presents her escape after tagging a building in protest and she’s grinning like a mad woman. Obviously incarceration for a black woman in the real world is something that inspires anxiety and can lead to great harm, but upon examining this microcosm of the film, the message about Detroit appears very different. She receives validation and appears to face very little adversity in the film, which in this strange universe implies to me that her activism is something she feels safe and comfortable in. In her attempts to remain in this world without confronting the grey areas of artistic activism, she is not so different from Cassius. While the apparent moral high ground splashes her with the paint of a manic pixie dream girl, in reality, she’s possibly as problematic as Cassius. We ignore this fact because she is cast in a moral light. Rather than being definitively on one side of morality along with Squeeze (Steven Yeun), the selfless rabble-rouser, I believe that Detroit falls somewhere between Squeeze and Cassius, which is ironic given her attraction to both. Detroit is paradoxical and hypocritical: and that’s exactly why she’s human.

Cassius lashes out at one point in the movie and states that Detroit’s work is purchased by rich white people. This line stands out to me because before Detroit’s performance on stage, her tone and manner appear similar, at least to my ears, to that of Cassius when using his “white voice”. This white voice is even more contrived in this instance as she’s using a British accent. Although hidden behind a layer of seemingly good intent, she’s certainly every bit as charming, gracious, and upbeat as Cassius is when selling a better life to his customers. She schmoozes along with the best of them. She is performing in order to pander to an audience. Without them, this particular performance piece is useless.

Detroit is strong and unapologetic, but she’s also desirable. For these reasons some critics have compared her to a manic pixie dream girl. At first, I felt similarly disappointed. She completes a love story by reuniting with Cassius in the end, and her story completes Cassius’s narrative journey, not her own. However, there is an element of the narrative giving the middle finger to convention in its very basis. So, is it a happy ending enveloped in irony? Upon further thought, perhaps both Detroit and Cassius have experienced an Icarus-like humbling together, as true leads side by side, which says to me that Detroit most certainly holds her own as a flawed character facing her own journey of self-discovery.

On some level, it appears that Detroit recognizes her own stereotype. Upon being asked how she and Cassius can remain a couple when she’s the pop art and he’s the minimalism, she expresses admiration for his simplicity. She recognizes that art and persona is, to an extent, a mask for herself and other artists. She learns this lesson through battle under stage lights and returning to a version of the simplicity which both she and Cassius started with. Although they both return, Detroit has slain a dragon in her own right. While critics might condemn her character to a stereotype, I would argue that Sorry To Bother You is not presenting a one dimensional dream girl, but a detrimentally human one—detrimental not to Detroit as representative of a real woman, for she is that and then some— but to film goers’ assumptions that life-like contradiction in a female character must be obvious upon first glance.

 

 

Written by Lillian Snortland

Image from the film Sorry to Bother You (2018), dir. by Boots Riley