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How Boots Riley Used Steven Yeun To Unite Rather Than Divide (Spoilers)

How Boots Riley Used Steven Yeun To Unite Rather Than Divide (Spoilers)

In the end of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, the community heads to the Korean convenience store after burning down Sal’s Pizzeria to “clean house.” Sonny, the store owner, defends his store, and yells, “I no white! I black! You, me, same!” Coconut Sid tells ML that Sonny’s alright and Sonny extends his hand to ML, who leaves without shaking his hand.

As if the movie wasn’t prescient enough, tensions between Korean-Americans and African-Americans seemed to have reached a boiling point in 1992. Although there were Hispanic owned and African-American owned stores destroyed as well as Korean stores, the LA riots were framed as a Korean-black conflict.

The truth is that racial tensions in America are complex and are rooted in the nation’s founding and flourishing. One can’t discuss racial dynamics without bringing up the white elephant in the room and how that elephant has shaped all other dynamics outside itself. This is one of the reasons why Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You was so refreshing.

Riley illustrates tense racial dynamics through the white CEO in Steve Lift portrayed by Armie Hammer and through the Asian-American unionizer in Squeeze portrayed by Steven Yeun. Cash’s (Lakeith Stanfield) relationship with Lift is one of an employee and boss, and the racial dynamic is apparent when Lift expects and demands Cash to freestyle rap.

However, the relationship between Cash and Squeeze is different as they’re co-workers, who unionize against the corporation they work for. However, this becomes a point of conflict as Squeeze becomes antagonistic to Cash’s ascent up the corporate and socioeconomic ladder. And it’s further complicated when Squeeze shows romantic interest in Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who reciprocates when her and Cash break up temporarily.

While watching the film, I expected Squeeze to be the antagonist to Cash. To be frank, I expected this kind of tension based on the racial dynamic alone. The model minority myth seemed to be at play here, but ironically, with Squeeze being the ideal activist and Cash as the corporate lackey.

When Squeeze and Detroit hooked up briefly, it was conflicting because this would surely cause a rift between Squeeze and Cash, and the union in general, but it was also refreshing to see an Asian-American man as a romantically viable option.

To my (pleasant) surprise, Riley took a different route.

Squeeze began as a character who banded everyone together against a capitalistic and abusive corporation, and ended the same way. Riley didn’t really give Squeeze a character arc and I was thankful.

When Cash switched sides and backed up the union, he got back together with Detroit. There’s a quick shot of Squeeze as he looks at Cash and Detroit reunited, both where they belong, together against the corporation.

Squeeze doesn’t look sad or defeated, he’s content, happy even. As an Asian-American (although not exclusive), this one moment spoke deeply to his character. The fact that he was willing to sacrifice for the greater good despite his personal loss.

Even though Riley knew that the historical differences between Asian-Americans and African-Americans couldn’t be solved in one movie, he knew that in order to start, he had to show us the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is always going to be moving forward, together.

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