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“Ha, nice earrings.”
Often in film, great fashion goes unremarked on by the characters. (Take, for instance, Ocean’s 8, where absolutely no one asks Cate Blanchett where she gets her suits.) Not in Sorry to Bother You, a new satire from director Boots Riley. Almost as soon as the movie begins, the protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) gives a compliment about the earrings worn by his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). With a flourish, she reveals the giant structures dangling from her lobes. On one side they say, “Murder, Murder, Murder” and the other “Kill, Kill, Kill” in a cartoonish font with a pink and yellow color scheme. “Nice earrings” feels like an understatement.
Everything is heightened in Sorry to Bother You, which takes place in present-day-but-not Oakland and charts Cassius’s journey from lowly telemarketer to wealthy “power caller,” a feat he achieves by using his “white voice” and ignoring the fact that he’s basically selling slave labor. Detroit is an artist, who challenges Cassius at every turn. In disguise, she battles Worryfree (the nefarious company that looms over the entire plot) as part of the covert activist organization known as Left Eye. Her gallery show features a performance piece where she stands, nearly naked, and asks the audience to throw cellphones and balloons full of animal blood at her while she recites a speech from the Berry Gordy-produced ’80s flick The Last Dragon.
Her style is as audacious as her actions. In fact, it’s hard to separate the two. But even though her wardrobe is full of statement pieces (like “The Future Is Female Ejaculation” shirt from Otherwild), her earrings make the biggest statements of all. There are ones with men in electric chairs, as well as others that quote Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” about the 1963 death of a black bartender after she was hit by a drunken wealthy white man. Another pair reads, “Tell Homeland Security We Are The Bomb,” a line from Riley’s band The Coup. Yet another cribs from Prince’s “Partyup,” with “You’re Gonna Have To Fight Your Own Damn War.”
All this language was in Riley’s script. Costume designer Deirdra Elizabeth Govan just had to figure out how to turn it into jewelry. “It brought me back to the days of door knockers,” Govan says. “It brought me back to those oversized earrings of the ’80s which, you know, everyone wore.”
Govan had just assisted with the costume designing for Netflix’s Roxanne Roxanne, about rapper Roxanne Shante in the ’80s. So she was already exploring that milieu. But Detroit’s look is also a mix of personal references. “Detroit’s character really came from my influences of living in New York, going to art and design school, Pratt and Parsons,” Govan says. “I pretty much kind of was a little bit punked out back then, and I had classmates who had this unique sensibility. The base of it is Afropunk-Afrofuturism.”
In addition, Govan adds that Detroit was inspired by someone Riley knew. “I don’t necessarily know that they had any earrings that were statement-oriented, but I do know they were a very strong visual reference for him in his life experience,” she says.
Making the earrings ended up being a collaborative process that included other people on the production team. To develop the typeface, Govan and Riley worked with production designer Jason Kisvarday and J. Otto Seibold, a children’s book illustrator and friend of the director. Together, they settled on a font that mixes bubble-letter exuberance with more severe edges.
“It was actually irreverent; that’s what I loved. It didn’t follow the rules,” Govan says. “It looks hand-drawn. It looks like you were drawing with the side of a marker.”
Once Govan had designs, she went to a local Oakland-based laser-cutting printer to develop them in acrylic. Though the earrings are substantial, they had to be light so as to not stretch out earlobes. “I literally had to weigh the earrings,” she says, noting that they ended up being about an ounce. For the electric-chair pair, Govan sought the counsel of a 3-D unit that was on set to do a Claymation sequence in the film.
When the earrings were in hand, then outfits had to be built around them. “It was a very delicate balance because the earrings could not overpower the look, and the look could not overpower the earrings,” Govan says. “There had to be a balance and a tone, and that is not an easy thing to manage. It’s two celebrities. One can’t outshine the other.”
The earrings are not always entirely legible on screen. Sometimes they fade into Thompson’s dyed curls. With the Hattie Carroll ones (reading, “Bury The Rag Deep In Your Face”), she wears an outfit for a sign-twirling gig: a graphic button-down featuring toy soldiers, a loose tie, and vintage pants to which Govan added a side seam.
When Detroit struts out wearing the electric-chair set, another character quips, “I didn’t know you made earrings of your ex-boyfriends.” Govan wanted to thoroughly highlight the boldness of Detroit’s choice in that scene. “That was a very radical move, so I thought, okay, radicalism,” Govan says. “I wanted to bring in some leather, some constructed leather.”
Detroit is the social conscience of a film that’s incredibly socially conscious: She refuses to be blind to injustice, like Worryfree’s exploitation and takes every opportunity she has to combat it. Riley told Vogue Detroit is “someone who is always trying to make a statement, she’s using every inch of her body, every inch of every wall around her, to talk about what’s going on.”
In a decision that’s slightly ironic considering Sorry to Bother You is a movie that highlights the ills of capitalism, Annapurna Pictures has been quick to capitalize on interest in the earrings. They are some of the items available in an online store along with a soda koozie and T-shirts. Govan’s reaction to the products is mixed. “I knew going to into this ... I knew there was a possibility that looks could be replicated and what not,” she says. “And I had to accept that. It’s not always fair, but it’s a trade-off.”
She is happy, however, that the public is enjoying the works made by her and other artists on the film, she says. At this moment, the “Tell Homeland Security” earrings are sold out.
A producer sent Govan the Sorry to Bother You script, with one attached phrase, “Kill it.” That’s perhaps why Govan speculates that she responds to the “Murder Murder Murder Kill Kill Kill” earrings, ones that have been prominently featured in the marketing.
“In language it’s like ‘I murdered that piece’ or ‘I killed it,’” Govan says. “For me, I did. And that’s what encapsulates the movie for me. I gave it everything I had. I think my every day is like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to kill it all day every day.’”
The earrings also serve as a pretty good metaphor for Riley’s vision: They are bold and violent but also unsettlingly whimsical. Nice earrings? You bet.