Art History at the Movies! “Sorry to Bother You” by Boots Riley

Wow, what a film. Also, vague spoilers.

Let’s talk about the character Detroit, who is kind of a composite of multiple real life contemporary artists. For example, her name calls to mind Judy Chicago. If you read Chicago’s biography, her motivations to make art almost match Detroit’s own artistic goals.

I remembered other artists as Detroit engages in some performance art where she allows people to throw items at her. Seeing this reminded me of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) (not the only one who noticed) and Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974).  In fact, Tessa Thompson, the actress playing Detroit, directly references Abramović in an interview with Newsweek.  She also talks about Kerry James Marshall’s influence on Detroit’s body of work.

Cut Piece by Yoko Ono


You can listen to Abramović explain what happened to her in Rhythm 0.

All three have a lot in common with each other. They all feature women wearing very little clothing, making themselves still, and putting themselves in potentially dangerous environments. If you listen to Abramović’s recollections of Rhythm 0, she got hurt in the process. In fact, Detroit’s performance piece is almost tame compared to Rhythm and Piece, but I digress. The exhibit itself also acts as foreshadowing to what happens to Cassius Green later in the film. Director Boots Riley uses other artworks as foreshadowing tools in this movie.

While in Green and Detroit’s world, Contemporary Art with all its experimental ideas and activism go hand in hand. In mogul Steve Lift’s home, Classically influenced architecture and traditional paintings dominate the scenes. To elaborate, we see murals of well heeled people hunting with dogs, portraits of unformed men, horses, and Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. These artworks make their appearance as Lift tells Green of his goals, which portends the horror that is the movie’s plot twist. In fact, the way they slightly hid a certain portion of Fuseli’s painting is absolute genius.

Henry Fuseli (Public Domain) 1790-9 1

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By the way, does anyone know who made the art in Cassius Green’s apartment?

Update 1/25-1/26/19:  Rewrote and updated my original update and clarified my writing.

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