Lakeith Stanfield Isn't Pretending: How The 'Sorry To Bother You' And 'Atlanta' Star Became 2018's Defining Actor

Being black in America has always been a surreal experience, defined by living in two worlds at once. It's something that's difficult for white people to understand, though black Americans have been trying to share this struggle for decades. Back in 1963, a young newspaper reporter named Shirley J. Scott wrote about her experiences as a black American.

"As an adult Negro, you live in two worlds: the white world where you make your living; the black world where you make your friends," she wrote.

With roots severed by the slave trade and cultures shunned by the white majority, black Americans have long struggled for a distinct identity and a way to bridge the two worlds. To communicate the black experience, filmmakers are turning to a magical realism approach: Afro-Surrealism. And if you've seen Sorry to Bother You, one of 2018's best movies, you have an idea what it is all about. And if you've been following the career of Lakeith Stanfield, you're certainly familiar with it.

Afro-Surrealism: Finding Definition in Absurdity

Afro-Surrealism isn't new, though is it seeing a massive resurgence. The term was coined in 1974 by author Amiri Baraka in the prologue to Henry Dumas' 1974 book Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Author D. Scot Miller penned his manifesto of the Afro-Surreal in 2008, defining the ten principles of the movement. The manifesto references Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved and Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man as two of the great Afro-Surrealist works; it champions emotion, fluidity, and excess as subversion.

The Afro-Surrealist should be "ambiguous as Prince, black as Fanon, literary as Reed, dandy as André Leon Tally", Miller says. "The Afro-Surrealist seeks definition in the absurdity of a "post-racial" world."

Enter Lakeith Stanfield: Prince of the Phantasmagoric

Who better fits the description of the Afro-Surrealist than Lakeith Stanfield, breakout star of Atlanta, Get Out, and Sorry to Bother You? He's an enigmatic rake who seems connected to another world, one slightly more magical than ours. He almost seems borne directly from Miller's manifesto, which also states "Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it."

Stanfield is uniquely suited to portray the strange characters he's been assigned. He seems to be in both worlds at once, straddling the barrier between reality and fantasy. His performances come across as effortless, with Stanfield disappearing completely into his roles.

"I think he's not acting. Acting is pretending," said Donald Glover, creator of Atlanta. "And Keith doesn't seem to pretend much."

“Get out!”

Stanfield's sincerity gives him an undeniable magnetism and sells the absurdist worlds he exists within. In Jordan Peele's horror film Get Out, he earns the audience's empathy as jazz musician Andre in the film's opening sequence. He's walking through an upscale suburban neighborhood looking for a party and is followed by a strange car. He talks to himself in the way many of us might, and his fear and dark humor feel genuine. "Not me. Not tonight," he reassures himself as he walks away from the headlights.

What does Andre fear? He's a black man by himself in a neighborhood that looks pretty typical of white suburbia. He's out of place, and knows he might not have allies if the person in the car means him harm. A part of his experience as a black man is isolation in white communities, which is juxtaposed brilliantly by his next appearance in the film.

The next time we see Andre, his chic Brooklyn style has been replaced by a tan suit and straw hat. Despite his bizarre outfit, Chris, Get Out's protagonist, sees him as the only other black man at a party full of rich white folks. He's so thrilled to see another person of color that he ignores Andre's attire and looks for camaraderie. Instead, Andre responds in a stiff, formal manner. His dialect has become distinctly Caucasian, a kind of news reporter cadence in his speech. Chris believed he had found someone else who could understand the weirdness of the party and ease his isolation.

Instead, he's found someone else wearing an Andre suit, Body Snatchers-style. Stanfield's stiffness and apparent discomfort in his own body are brutally evident in the performance. The real Andre regains control for only a moment and he screams a pained warning: "Get out!"

Darius: Atlanta’s Gateway to Freakville

While Get Out was a watershed moment for mainstream horror and popular black cinema, it's Stanfield's role as Darius on Atlanta that placed him firmly in Afro-Surrealism.

Glover once called Atlanta "Twin Peaks for black people", and the description is apt. At the center of Atlanta's weirdness is Darius, whose first appearance in the show includes him pointing a gun at protagonist Earn (Glover) before offering him a cookie. Darius is the show's weird heart, quipping about the mythology of "Florida Man" and waxing poetic about using rats as phones. Stanfield himself called Darius "all the fantastical elements of Atlanta condensed into one person — this gateway to Freakville."

Darius may be the gateway to Freakville, but his authenticity makes the viewer more open to the strange ideas it presents. In the second season's ode to horror and bad fathers, "Teddy Perkins", Darius finally steps into weirdness even he can't quip his way out of. Darius is the perfect protagonist for the episode, because his unusual way of looking at the world keeps him in a situation other people would have immediately escaped. Any of the show's other protagonists would have abandoned the mission (trying to get a piano from an eccentric millionaire) within minutes. Darius doesn't, instead taking in all the weirdness and processing it in his unique way. Even after viewing Perkins' morbid homemade shrine to harsh fathers, Darius still offers up deep universal truths. He tells Perkins, "You know, uh, not all great things come from great pain. Sometimes it's love. Not everything's a sacrifice."

Darius serves as a kind of Afro-Surrealist prophet, his wisdom as deep as his weirdness. He ponders both existential quandaries ("How would you know you were alive unless you knew you could die?") and bizarre conspiracy theories ("AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen's sex record"). He thinks outside the box in every instance, yet is grounded enough to serve as the series' moral compass.

Cash is Green

By contrast, Cassius Greene, Stanfield's character in Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, is an Afro-Surrealist everyman just trying to survive. He's as earnest as Darius, but is blind to the surreal world that lies beneath reality. His own morality is compromised by ambition, and Cassius learns the hard way that using humans as stepping stones will leave you with slippery footing.

Riley's film is practically a thesis on Afro-Surrealism, with Cassius as our flawed but relatable hero. In the dystopian future Riley presents, it's easy to see how Cassius can fall victim to crass commercialism. The world of Sorry to Bother You is extreme, satirizing American culture by presenting it as hyperbole. Everything is in excess, whether it's Cassius' girlfriend Detroit's statement earrings or the golden elevator that takes Cassius into the world of high-stakes telemarketing.

"Afro-Surrealists use excess as the only legitimate means of subversion, and hybridization as a form of disobedience," Miller's manifesto reads. "Afro-Surrealists distort reality for emotional impact."

In this distorted reality that's essentially a Philip K. Dick story by way of Spike Lee, viewers need a guide. Cassius works as our guide because of Stanfield's vulnerability; his realness centers us and helps make the world more digestible. Stanfield grounds us when we feel unmoored from reality. The viewer feels safe with him at the helm because he seems so at home in the bizarre.

"He makes certain choices that other actors wouldn't make because he's not thinking about his face, he's not thinking, 'This is how I perform.' He's thinking about just being in that situation," Riley said.

Another Perspective

Off-screen, Stanfield is just as remarkable. His Twitter feed is often a fascinating stream-of-consciousness, though he deletes his tweets after some time. His Instagram is currently empty, though in the past it has housed his freestyle rap, video projects, and more. He's an artist constantly on the move, defying all convention. He doesn't have the Bugs Bunny charisma of Will Smith or the movie star charm of George Clooney – Stanfield's mojo is entirely his own.

In an era where Trump rules via typo-laden tweets and Kanye West says 'slavery was a choice', it can be even more difficult to feel connected to American culture. As our world grows increasingly strange and divided, Stanfield provides us with a new kind of actor. His performances are unflinchingly honest in an art form based on deception. He connects audiences of all backgrounds with his vulnerability; he's delivering the human experience.

"I don't think anyone can ever fully understand what it's like to be black," Stanfield says about Atlanta, "but this will give people another perspective."

That perspective is necessary in a time that grows increasingly divisive. Stanfield's vulnerability and unique acting style make him both likable and easy to empathize with, regardless of the viewer's ethnicity or gender. He's tapped into something ancient, a human desire to understand and be understood, through whatever means work best.

For Stanfield, that means being 100% authentic, even when the world itself becomes strange satire. He makes the surreal into something real.


Sorry to Bother You is on Blu-ray and DVD now.