Boots Riley’s first film bursts with ideas and frenetic energy determined to express as many of them as possible. The film moves from genre to genre (dark comedy to science-fiction), idea to idea (the assumption of a white voice could have fuelled a movie on its own, let alone the later concepts of the film), tone to tone (the oscillation between comedy and something more serious sometimes results in tonal whiplash), visual gag to visual gag (telemarketers literally crashing into people’s homes when interrupting them, cheap TVs folding like origami into better ones, etc.).
It’s a resoundingly confident film, unified most by Riley’s stringent insistence on actual grassroots union activity, actual tangible challenging of the rich and improvement of the working class’ lot in life. Even when scenes are paced oddly, misfire their comedy, or when the third act nearly falls apart from its hapdash mismatched plots and tones, everything is unified under that impulse. He has a visual sense, with elements like the telemarketer calls crashing into the homes of who they’re interrupting emphasising the intrusiveness and working as great surprise flare-up moments for the drudgery of the job itself, and how composition-wise the protagonist is so often framed in boxes surrounded by other objects.
The well-placed cynicism of the film plays oddly in the third act, its focus on the psychopathy of the rich elite and how institutionally supported that psychopathy is at odds with the unbridled triumphant tone of the ending. The science-fiction swerve of the film makes its point about the strength of the working class well, but I feel the film – though from much purer and less compromised a position – fell into some of the same criticisms Riley made of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, in having an ending reductively triumphant and simplistic in the face of a nuanced and hard-fought struggle. Still, I get the intention as a kind of depiction of the victories actively resisting the yawning insistence that oppression is normal can gain.
It’s a very exciting first film and I look forward to seeing Riley develop his storytelling (if not visual sense, which already comes across as so developed) in future films. Three and a half horses and a babbling David Cross.