I’m still perplexed that Boots Riley was able to smuggle this anti capitalist film into Hollywood, lol.
So said my friend and ToM contributor Sean Keith, when we were musing on the movie Sorry to Bother You on Facebook. The film by long-time activist and rapper Boots Riley is that least likeliest of things: a darkly satirical and wildly inventive shot straight across the bow of postindustrial capitalism that’s surrealistic but also seems all too real. And it’s playing at a budget movie house near you, amazingly enough.
There is a whole story behind the circuitous genesis of Riley’s film, which I only understand very dimly. He wrote the screenplay years ago but couldn’t get it produced; his group, the Coup did a concept album around the same themes; Dave Eggers somehow got involved and the movie ended up at Sundance. I don’t know the details terribly well, but it’s still a wonder that a movie with these deeply radical politics actually got through the indie circuit to your local movieplex.
For those who have not seen it, Sorry to Bother You is a bizarre story about an African-American man who gets a job at a telemarketing firm and finds his way to massive professional success by using his “white voice”—a nasally cajoling sound voiced by David Cross—to sell wares and services over the phone. The story, of course, takes a wildly inventive and Swiftian turn before long. Spoilers abound ahead, so if you have not seen the movie, stop reading now.
Cassius (a seemingly clear reference to Muhammad Ali, and slavery) is a down-on-his-luck black man who lives in the garage of his uncle, played by the great Terry Crews. He has a bohemian girlfriend named Detroit, who fabulously wears a shirt that says “The Future Is Female Ejaculation.” She spins generic signs for a living, in a great visual gag, but also does radical visual and performance art as her true passion. When “Cash” scores a job at a telemarketing firm, his fortunes seem to be looking up. He finally has a semi-white-collar, albeit downscale and humiliating job to make himself a legitimate person—someone who can pay his rent.
The telemarketers are paid on commission, so it matters how many sales you make in any given amount of time—how many people you are able to persuade or bamboozle, or just get to listen to you in the first place. An old-timer, played by Danny Glover, gives Cash some good advice: if you wanna make money in this place, “use your ‘White Voice.’” Cash is puzzled. He says people say he already talks white. But the thing is, you can’t just be proper—you can’t just be “Will Smith white.” You have to be really white. David Cross or Patton Oswalt white.
Things proceed from there. Cash moves up the chain at RegalView (hilariously named because it sounds like a movie chain) by using his White Voice, and he’s both the prodigy and the Zelig of the company. Soon, he is invited to become a “PowerCaller,” in the foreboding nomenclature of RegalView. The bottom line is that Cash takes a prodigious salary to sweet-talk Russian oligarchs and Chinese bosses to take de facto slaves from a company called WorryFree.
This firm is actually the central motif of the film: a company that offers people total freedom from worries about housing, food, or healthcare, if they agree to sign lifetime contracts to work and live in giant dormitories, bunking two to a bed and wearing IKEA-esque blue-and-yellow uniforms. In other words, modern-day slavery. There is even an excrementitious MTV show, riffing on Cribs, called Spots, where the WorryFree slaves show the awesome pads they have in the slave dormitory.
In all the commentary of Sorry to Bother You, this element seems to have been thoroughly overlooked. Yes—the movie is about “race,” in the sense that blackness continues to be profoundly stigmatized in our culture and code-switching to a different identity and affectation has proven, material payoffs. It offers an emphatically pro-union message about organizing white-collar service workers that has almost never been seen in contemporary cinema. It employs a wide range of metaphors to speak to the idea of work as slavery, and the coercive conditions that postindustrial American capitalism imposes on people, i.e. “We’re all slaves.”
But the true emotional and moral grease trap of Sorry to Bother You is not the evil telemarketing firm that Cash works for, but WorryFree itself. The most horrifying and moving scene in the film is not any of the graphic and off-the-wall, sci-fi scenes that appear in the film’s third and final act. Cash’s uncle is under economic pressure to pay his mortgage and retain his home—a problem Cash is implicated in because of his inability to pay rent. In a cuttingly bleak moment, the uncle says he’s considering going with WorryFree as an option. In other words, because he is not able to pay the bills, retain his home, and keep his family afloat, he’s considering becoming a voluntary slave—the property and catspaw of someone else, forever, because there is no other option.
To me, this is the most soul-shaking and horrific aspect of the film, even more than the gonzo sci-fi twist that the film takes in its final twenty minutes. In the place of a just, social-democratic state that could support human dignity by ensuring everyone food, housing, and healthcare, you get an utterly dystopian regime of modern slavery that degrades humans to the status of livestock and farm equipment. That is the only plausible option available for the debt-ridden and desperate families who sign up to become the property of WorryFree. This is a reality that seems merely breaths away from happening, especially with a Trump-appointed Supreme Court.
Indeed, people just need an adept and agile sweet-talker to convince them that this is the solution to all their problems. In other words, Cassius. The ability to prey on people’s weakenesses and fears is an invaluable asset in capitalism as we know it today. And the neoliberal revolution of free choice and deregulation ultimately results in having the choice to freely decide to become a slave—someone’s property. This is the essence of Lochner, which is basically where we’re at today, especially after the Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision.
For what it’s worth, I find Sorry to Bother You especially intriguing because it’s about postindustrial labor—my own personal hobby horse—but not just “service” industry in the sense of education, healthcare, retail, food prep, and personal services, but in the very specific sense of work that involves affect and performativity and persuasion: sales, telemarketing, management, whatever. Of course, professions like teaching and social work are obviously about affect too, but I’m thinking about jobs that are more operationalized in the service of capital, which also draw on the intellect and in-the-moment ingenuity of the worker. The main character can inhabit a white voice and, even more, a white persona that has the ease and self-assurance to sell people on anything—encyclopedias, arms, slaves. It’s immanent in him and he has to perform it from moment to moment to create value for capital, which makes him valuable, even though he remains a disposable black man.
It was transformative for Boots Riley to bring an emphatically pro-labor message into the kind of sweated, persecuted, white-collar work like call centers or telemarketing, something that has almost never been seen in film or television. (A few sitcoms have nodded to it, like the Bob’s Burgers about the striking museum employees.) The union message of the film was unmistakably rousing and brave, and it’s surprising that any Hollywood producers or studios funded something like this.
Yet it’s also kind of interesting to think that the horizons of possibility for the activist telemarketers at RegalView—we deserve enough money to pay rent, we deserve enough money to go to the doctor—are still the minimum requirements of social democracy as it’s known in western Europe or Canada. In other words, not exactly a radical reimagining of society, even less than what the CIO was demanding back in the day. Riley is without question a militant at heart, and his wonderful film still hints at a much more searching criticism of racist capitalism as a structure. But the characters in the film can’t imagine much beyond the situation they’re in, except for better wages and healthcare—their somewhat successful protest results in slightly better conditions, but the whole sadistic and evil structure remains in place.
It’s fair to say that the film presents a dark and fatalistic understanding of our economic system, one that goes beyond the demands of union organizers or the quibbles of advocates of incremental reform. But it finds itself incapable of going all way, perhaps because the language of radicalism is just so foreign to the average American audience today. I wished that Riley would put forth something more visionary if he had the chance, but Sorry to Bother You still goes beyond the groundbreaking social critique of Get Out in wild and audacious ways. That the film cannot articulate a vision of better, radical, alternative world does not take away from the power and genius of what Boots Riley has accomplished.