Monsters and Mass Politics

Chas Walker

“What time is it on the clock of the world?” revolutionary thinker Grace Lee Boggs often urged people to ask themselves. These days, a thermometer and barometer might also prove useful for such assessments. Dramatic and deadly heatwaves underline the urgency of the climate movement, which—along with a renewed union wave and the historic demonstrations for Black lives in the summer of 2020—has encountered a political system that seems incapable of an adequate response, let alone a transformative one.

Has enough pressure been applied? What about the counter-pressures? How does it all end? Two recent popular movies, Sorry to Bother You (2018) and Don’t Look Up (2021), ask many of the same questions, and they both turn to monsters to provide an answer. When the Equisapiens of Sorry to Bother You storm billionaire antagonist Steve Lift’s gated mansion—their own Bastille—and the Bronteroc that appear in the denouement of Don’t Look Up literally eat the rich (starting with the head of the head of state), they join a long tradition of fantasy creatures used to punish the wicked for their misdeeds.

Such monsters are worth considering for longer than their brief time onscreen. As political theorist Jane Anna Gordon and philosopher Lewis R. Gordon write in Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age, monsters often appear in the wake of disasters in order to demonstrate something. Their significance is evident in the Latin verb whose root they share: monere—to advise, warn, admonish. When monsters arrive, a reckoning is at hand.

The monsters in Sorry to Bother You and Don’t Look Up emerge as the product of each film’s disaster: the (re)enslavement of humanity and total planetary extinction, respectively. Each monster serves to confront and to punish the main villains, who had until that moment faced no consequences for the harm they caused to others.

In both films, the encounter is minimal: the screen instantly cuts to black, and the clear implication is that the monsters have killed the antagonists. They are, in a sense, the guillotine. Yet reading these two monsters together with the films’ narrative arcs reveals divergent visions for the potential of human agency, the value of collective action, and of the boundaries of the politically possible.

In Don’t Look Up, the Bronteroc represent a closed system: they are the end result of process whose outcomes are predetermined, fated by falling stars (dis-asters) like Comet DiBiasky, an unavoidable causal chain that computer algorithms can predict with pinpoint accuracy. Despite portraying ordinary people with sympathy, Don’t Look Up makes their efforts to shape the future seem irrelevant. Its monster demonstrates their powerlessness.

The Equisapiens in Sorry to Bother You, in contrast, signify an opening for humanity: a future which remains contested, in which people can still create something new together, in line with Frantz Fanon’s famous challenge in The Wretched of the Earth to those who were to overthrow colonial domination: the challenge of setting afoot a new humanity. Sorry to Bother You believes in the capacity of ordinary people to both transform and be transformed. Its monster signifies their potential.

These movies’ respective villains—Peter Isherwood of Don’t Look Up’s Bash Industries and Steve Lift of Sorry to Bother You’s WorryFree—are amalgamations of figures like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, expert dispensers of faux-utopian visions. Like their real-world counterparts, they are fawned over by cheerleading pundits, catered to by toadying politicians, hailed for their ostensible genius despite (or even owing to) their corrosive disregard for others.

For these men, everything and everyone can be reduced to instruments or raw material, a set of data points, a means to an end. The planet is permanently disposable, its people endlessly exploitable. Their depravity is also their brilliance as capitalists: the lower they sink, the higher their stock prices fly and the more government contracts they secure. “This isn’t irrational,” Lift neatly explains to Cassius during their first meeting. In the logic of capital, he is not wrong.

In each film, the heroes try to stop the machinations of the elite, appealing to the media to expose their misdeeds. When the truth comes out, they think, surely someone will do something about it. But there is no such someone. Instead, the heroes, though they gain viral attention, are reduced to memes—and so become Cassandras, blessed with prophetic visions but cursed to be disbelieved.

As for the billionaires, the world fails to recognize their monstrosity, and so these stories require another monster to bring them down. The Equisapiens and the Bronteroc achieve what the protagonists could not: the end of the billionaires. But, at least in the case of Don’t Look Up’s Bronteroc, it is too little, too late.

As a looming comet threatens the earth with destruction in director Adam McKay’s barely veiled climate change allegory, its main characters wrestle with an array of powerful forces, as well as the gravitational pull of despair. They struggle to get decisionmakers and the general public to take the dangers seriously: the rock becomes $140 trillion worth of “treasures from heaven,” precious minerals that must be captured for private gain, cloaked in the guise of public purpose: jobs.

In their efforts to get authorities to change course, the protagonists frequently point out that Bash Industries’s half-baked plan suffers from a lack of peer review. They interpret this as a scientific problem, but the film itself is at least smart enough to understand it as a political one: the orientation to power. As slogan, “Don’t look up!” is as much about the ruling class’s efforts to divert attention from itself as from the comet. Those at the very top, by definition, are without peers; those at the bottom can do little about it.

The film shows us a public which oscillates between apathy and outrage. When restaurant workers and patrons hear DiBiasky declare that the comet will be allowed hit the earth to line the pockets of the rich, a full-scale riot breaks out. She is hauled into a cop car, and her advisor Dr. Mindy berates her: “What do you suggest we do? An online petition?… Get a mob and hold up picket signs? You want to overthrow the government?”

Mindy takes these to be unserious responses. Yet the film seems to reject such a cynical view of collective action, showing his attempts to influence U.S. policy from the inside as naïve, if not outright complicit with wrongdoing. Both his scientific integrity and his marriage are compromised by his choices, until he eventually reconsiders and joins in efforts to mobilize the public to pressure the world’s governments to act.

Yet the film swings back in its morality play: protests, direct actions, and pop music concerts in the end all come across as tragically pointless, failing to register. The decision of a coalition of world governments to attempt to knock the comet off-course does not owe to public outcry, but instead only results from their exclusion from the comet-mining deal. They, too, fail—and the disaster cannot be averted.

While Don’t Look Up powerfully satirizes the ruling elite’s complicity with the climate crisis, the film seems resigned to an ironic cynicism about confronting them. “The truth is way more depressing,” Ph.D student Kate DiBiasky tells a group of skaters in response to their conspiracy theories. “They are not even smart enough to be as evil as you give them credit for.” This attitude should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the contemporary elite: how can we possibly be losing to these buffoons?

The main characters gather for a symbolic Thanksgiving, searching for meaning in their final hours. “At least we tried,” one of them says to collective nods. “Oh, did we try.” The scene is moving, but it exemplifies what Jonathan M. Smucker has called the left’s “story of the righteous few.” We lost, but we can be satisfied in knowing we were right. The futility that recurs throughout the film’s narrative leaves its heroes with little comfort beyond a feeling of their own noble superiority.

A new world cannot be brought forth when everyone dies choking on the ashes of the old. Instead, on a distant alien planet 22,740 years in the future, the dinosaur-like monsters in Don’t Look Up deliver vengeance from beyond humanity’s mass grave. Those responsible for the death of billions are finally punished, but it almost does not matter—for we are in the realm of the post-human. The Bronteroc’s squawking is the sound of defeat. As if nature were healing itself, it enters as guillotine when all other possibilities of human action have been foreclosed. Justice beyond the poetic remains elusive.

The characters in director Boots Riley’s debut feature Sorry to Bother You face similar dilemmas in confronting the powerful, as a small-scale skirmish to unionize RegalView, their telemarketing shop, develops into a larger battle with the Amazon-like megacorporation WorryFree over the future of humanity. With guerilla graffiti campaigns, TV appearances, picketing, and more, the film’s protagonists attempt to mobilize the public against the company’s lifetime prison-camp slave labor contracts, and its biogenetic engineering of human beings into a more efficient, durable, and docile labor force: the Equisapiens.

These monsters are remixed centaurs, a group of enchatteled proletarians shackled in stalls in Steve Lift’s basement. They are endowed—ahem—with features from the anti-Black imagination of their creator and enslaver: strength, endurance, virility, animality. The prefix of their name at once indicates their horse-ness and their symbolic equivalence with human beings.

As in Don’t Look Up, the protagonists here grapple with the challenge of getting other people to take action—and again confront the prevalence of futility. Reflecting near the end of the film, union salt Squeeze observes, “Most people knew that calling their congressman wasn’t going to do shit. If you get shown a problem but you have no idea how to control that problem, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”

But rather than telling another story about the defeat of collective action, Sorry to Bother You suggests that building power and developing solidarity with others is a key mechanism for change and a vital antidote to despair. When no one else is willing to intervene, Cassius frees the Equisapiens from their bondage; this effort bears fruit when they return the favor during the RegalView strike and free him from the clutches of the police.

After linking forces to defeat the cops, the scabs, and the company, it appears that the workers and horse-people have won. Several storylines are tied up in a neat bow: Cassius is forgiven for having once crossed the picket line, his romance with love interest Detroit is rekindled, and his family’s financial woes are over; the union is positioned for future collective bargaining wins, and other workers may be inspired to organize by their example.

But this happy ending is a head-fake, its sunny disposition out of place with the rest of the film. From the job actions and captive audience meetings at RegalView to the militarized battle for control of the streets and billboards of Oakland, the texture of the conflicts is convincingly real. No pollyannaish resolution is sufficient: the stakes are far higher than increased union density in the telemarketing industry. The world’s prior equilibrium has been disrupted, and there is no going back—but it is unclear how to go forward.

Sympathetic characters like Cassius are rarely permitted to become punishers. To employ the guillotine—and depart from the script—he must become an Equisapien. All at once, Cassius notices something has changed. “It looks like the sun is about to explode,” he says as the equifying serum takes effect. Visualizing an exploding star, he is transformed into a monster—and made capable of going further than what a more predictable narrative would allow. He and his fellow Equisapiens nearly knock the doors off the hinges on their way to dispatch Steve Lift.

The Equisapiens and the Bronteroc serve as a warning about—and yes, to—the billionaires. The villains die under circumstances almost entirely of their own making. But more importantly, these monsters alert us, the viewers, to the dangerous economic and political dynamics which bring billionaires into being in the first place and place the reins of the world in their hands.

We are not responsible for a rock suddenly falling out of the sky,” the Gordons wrote in 2009. “But we are responsible for the social conditions by which that rock could be transformed into a disaster.” The implication is that we must therefore take responsibility for transforming those conditions.

The swift, sharp violence of Bronteroc and the Equisapiens express the frustrations of millions, of the shared sense of the ineffectiveness of politics as we know it, of watching the pursuit of profit take priority not only over basic democratic principles and questions of human dignity, but also humanity’s very survival. Yet the two films’ approaches to questions of human agency and the role of mass politics remain in tension, and their monsters embody two different visions of political possibility.

Don’t Look Up’s pessimism is understandable but unfortunate. Its monster enters because organizing and mass politics are, in the film, doomed to fail. The deaths of the last surviving billionaires are merely a punchline, closing the book firmly on the last chapter of human history. The Equisapiens in Sorry to Bother You open a new one; they represent the conviction that organizing and mass politics can win. They stand both for and with a humanity that is alive with potential, emboldened and audacious, and capable of beginning anew.

Such a process, as decolonial thinking remind us, may violently upend the current order, throwing into relief the original violence used to establish and maintain it. What had been unimaginable becomes real, as in Et Les Chiens Se Taisent (And the Dogs Were Silent), Aimé Cesaire’s poem-play on the Haitian Revolution:

And suddenly shouts lit up the silence;
We had attacked, we the slaves; we, the dung underfoot, we the animals with patient hooves…
Then was the assault made on the master’s house.
They were firing from the windows.
We broke in the doors.
The master’s room was wide open. The master’s room was brilliantly lighted, and the master was there, very calm…and our people stopped dead…it was the master…I went in. “It’s you,” he said, very calm.
It was I, even I, and I told him so, the good slave, the faithful slave, the slave of slaves, and suddenly his eyes were like two cockroaches, frightened in the rainy season…I struck, and the blood spurted; that is the only baptism that I remember today.

The Equisapiens, in both word and substance, are human beings transformed. They emerge from both trauma and struggle, cattle-ized and catalyzed, no more of patient hoof. They—and Sorry to Bother You itself—prod viewers to consider what holds us back from remaking the world. As Detroit says about her own sculpture in the film: “Maybe the artist is being literal.” ♦



Chas Walker worked for many years as a union organizer in Rhode Island. He is currently a doctoral student in political science at Boston University.

Consider supporting Protean Magazine on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!