Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, the definition of a manic pixie dream girl is: “[A girl or woman that] exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.  MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up.”
In Boots Riley’s film, Sorry To Bother You, it can be said the character Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, falls into the manic pixie dream girl trope. However, Riley takes her character and subverts what is expected of the typical MPDG.
Sorry to Bother You, Riley’s first foray into film, stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green, a guy who is out looking for a job in an alternate version of Oakland, California, where there aren’t many jobs to go around. He finds a spot at Regal View, a telemarketing call center where he can work his way up into being promoted to the coveted position of “Power Caller.” There, Green is taught by Danny Glover’s character, Langston, that if he talks in a “white voice” he will make way more sales, which equals more commission for Cash. Eventually, Cash gets his girlfriend, Detroit, a job at the same office. She takes a more laid-back approach to the job as Cash rises in the ranks.
Detroit is a free-loving artist who is fighting against the capitalist regime of Worry Free, a company that sells indentured servitude to those in financial straits, with the promise of housing and food in exchange for work. She is Cash’s girlfriend, but her real passion is her art, which is political and often saying something about the alternate Oakland they live in (while also foreshadowing the plot.)
A manic pixie dream girl is often quirky, eccentric, and flighty. She is a character that’s entire being is in service to the male character. She is there to usher his emotional development into a better person while her down development takes a back burner. She is also usually white. Detroit, being black, is a massive subversion to the trope. Black women in cinema are often not depicted as magical, quirky, carefree, flighty beings. Often black women are relegated to playing racist stereotypes, like the sassy best friend or the angry black girl.
Detroit has all the physical attributes of what you would expect from an MPDG: the weird sign twirling job, her big, plot-foreshadowing earrings, and her brightly colored hair. However, her relationship with Cash is very different from what is typically seen; Boots Riley wrote Detroit to be supportive of Cash but not to the detriment of her own beliefs.
When the employees of Regel View decide it was time to have fair wages and proper employee benefits, Detroit rose up with without hesitation. While Cash, who is close to attaining his goal of becoming a “Power Caller,” is leery of going against corporate. Eventually, he is promoted and decides it is not in his best interest to be seen picketing, and essentially becomes what they are fighting against. At this point, it would be well within the MPDG trope for her to rise up and help Cash come back to his friends. Not Detroit. She takes his new capitalist outlook as an affront and decides to leave him.
Detroit does not take on Cash’s emotional burden on herself; she leaves him to either come to his senses or to fall to the wolves, continuing the subversion of a trope that is often about women suffering for the benefit of men. Detroit says no, his life choices will not stop her from reaching her goals as an activist and artist.
Boots Riley’s subversion of the MPDG trope with Detroit continues in her artwork. At one point in the film, she has an interactive art show where she is on stage while people throw objects at her body. Cash runs to the front demanding for the show to stop. Detroit tells him she does not need him to save her. She tells him she is in control of the situation and continues the show. Her agency over her body and what happens to it is symbolic of how often we see women in film without that kind of control, this continues with her sexuality and even in the way she protests. Detroit is her own person, and throughout the film, we are reminded of that fact.
Tessa Thompson plays Detroit wonderfully; she lights up the screen in every scene she is in. The portrayal of Detroit is honest, funny, and ethereal. She takes the MPDG vibe of Detroit and gives her depth, strength, and a hint of Black Girl Magic.
Seeing a film with Black people in a magical realist setting while combating the dangers of capitalism and white people is the definition of refreshing. Nothing can prepare you for the fantastic performances, the comedy, and the incredible set designs and camera work in Sorry To Bother You.
Boots Riley subverts not only the manic pixie dream girl but what one thinks magical realism should look like in a movie. Sorry To Bother You is not just a film about code-switching and upward mobility in a corporate structure. It is a film that comments on the dangers of capitalism and how one could lose themselves trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Jazmine Joyner is a Southern California based writer, whose work has appeared in /Film, Women Write About Comics, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and Ms En Scene. You can follow her great cinematic adventure on Twitter @Jazmine_Joyner.
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