Race Still Matters

Sorry To Bother You, directed by Boots Reilly (2018.)

Like last summer’s widely lauded Get Out, Sorry To Bother You, the first film by hip-hop activist Boots Riley, is a rollicking bad time, every bit as fun as it is disturbing. And that’s surely the main reason that, like Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, it is doing well with audiences that don’t generally seek out left-wing multicultural art. Although less narratively “tight” than Get Out,
Sorry To Bother You shares its fondness for a polemical surrealism that reminds audiences of the potential for double-consciousness in black humour. Yet despite the obvious parallels between the two films, Sorry To Bother You ends up communicating a substantially different political message than its predecessor.

Tired of struggling to get by living in his uncle’s garage, protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Standfield) goes to work for RegalView, a firm that specializes in cold-calling potential customers. At first, he does poorly, as a clever sequence in which he is suddenly plopped into different people’s homes trying to close a deal demonstrates. But then Langston (Danny Glover), an older gentleman working next to him. explains that Cash doesn’t sound white enough, proceeding to demonstrate the difference between his regular speaking voice and the one he uses during calls. Soon Cash is outdoing his mentor, racking up sale after sale to the delight of his white supervisor.

After participating in a work stoppage organized by Squeeze (Steve Yeun), an Asian union organizer who has befriended him, Cash is called into his supervisor’s office expecting to be disciplined. To his surprise, he gets promoted instead. Starting the next morning, he will leave behind the ground-floor call centre where he has been working and take the special elevator up to the secure environment where the firm’s “power callers” ply their trade, selling a different order of product – and possibly their own souls – to elite customers around the world.

From this point on, Cash is torn between delight at making enough money to live largely – and pay off his uncle’s mortgage – and the feeling that he has betrayed his former colleagues, including his conceptual artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and longtime friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler), when they go on strike. At one point, as security is escorting Cash through their picket line, a striker throws a can of soda that strikes him in the forehead. The blood seeping through the bandage provides the image for the film’s promotional materials, suggesting that the wound it covers signifies existential as well as physical damage. Soon, a clip of the can striking him becomes a viral sensation on the internet, reminding audiences how rapidly the local can become global these days.

While news travels at lightning speed, however, labour conditions obey a different logic. Although we see television coverage of the strike, its underlying significance doesn’t seem to connect with people outside the San Francisco Bay Area as readily as the viral video does. Like the top-rated show I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me that the film’s characters always seem to be watching, the clip satisfies the needs of the rich and powerful by making suffering into a spectacle for the consumption of atomized individuals instead of using it to promote solidarity between them.

Not coincidentally, power callers like Cash have been convincing major corporations to dispense with their traditional workforces in favour of the indentured labour provided by WorryFree, a shady corporation presided over by smooth-talking CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). While he insists that it is unfair to imply a similarity between his product and slavery, the guerrilla information campaign waged by activist group Left Eye suggests otherwise.

Lift turns out to make a great villain, culminating in the revelation – as the story abandons all pretence of conventional realism for the magic sort – that WorryFree has perfected a human-horse hybrid, the equisapien, that will make its workforce even more productive than competitors. Invited to attend one of Lift’s notorious parties, Cash finds himself in an ever-deepening moral quandary, as he is offered a vast sum of money if he will agree to serve as WorryFree’s “inside man” within the equisapien population.

Without giving the rest of the plot away, it is clear by this point that Sorry To Bother You turns on the conflict between a twentieth-century understanding of workers’ rights and a twenty-first-century alternative that looks an awful lot like the nineteenth century before the international labour movement transformed industrial societies like the United States. As Lift deftly points out, a lot of people are so tired of struggling to get by, in a system that is increasingly stacked against what Occupy Wall Street famously referred to as the 99%, that they are willing to give up freedom for security. Whereas people once became slaves, serfs, or indentured service because they had no choice, now they do so voluntarily.

It’s a viscerally resonant allegory, for two reasons. First, the nearly two decades since September 11th, 2001 have demonstrated that fear of terrorism and technological progress can fuse in extremely troubling ways. Second, almost everyone has to navigate a consumer society that constantly asks us to make decisions that rarely do much to improve our lives. There are only so many times that you can answer questions like “Paper or plastic?” before you start to go dead inside.

What’s fascinating about this aspect of Sorry To Bother You is the degree to which its focus on organized labor complicates its depiction of race Despite his deep ties to the Oakland rap scene and the care with which he represents its multicultural reality, Riley does not demand that audiences submit to the sort of identity politics currently circulating among the social justice set. Significantly, after Langston explains the necessity of adopting a white voice while making calls he goes on to make a distinction between that salesman’s banter and the way actually existing white people talk in their everyday lives.

Black, brown, and yellow people need to work harder to project whiteness over the phone, but it doesn’t come naturally to anyone. As Langston aptly remarks, cold-callers must persuade prospective customers that they aren’t calling out of self-interest, but merely to extend help out of the goodness of their hearts. In other words, they must communicate the impression that they are entirely free of worries.

This lesson in the importance of whiteness is particularly interesting in light of the role that the WorryFree corporation plays in the plot. Although we see Cash’s uncle considering WorryFree’s offer – he fears that he is about to lose his home – the people featured in the advertisements for the corporation are all white. In extolling the virtues of letting someone else run your life, they are meant to convey the air of insouciance that Langston describes. But their acknowledgement of the burdens they left behind is a little too forceful. In manically extolling the virtues of their new life, they end up destabilizing the once-taken-for-granted connection between whiteness and privilege.

As in Get Out, black bodies support a privilege that is inextricably bound up with whiteness. And they implicitly serve as the prototype for everyone who is forced to function as a beast of burden in American society, as Lift’s description of equisapiens indicates. But the physical traits of those horse-human hybrids complicates the racialization of servitude. The film’s final third suggests the need for a radical transformation of identity politics. Because when the equisapiens rise up to challenge their “masters”, they cannot afford to be divided by superficial considerations like colour.

In other words, whereas Get Out underscores the parasitic relationship between white and black culture, Sorry To Bother You direct audience’s attention to the one between men like Steve Lift and the workers whose surplus labour make them rich and powerful. Race still matters, but the conflicts surrounding it are not necessarily the ones that matter most. Despite the fact that Sorry To Bother You was percolating in Boots Riley’s mind years before Get Out was made, the timing of its release makes it seem like an important corrective to the American tendency to see the world in terms of black and white.

In this regard, it is particularly significant that the abortive love triangle in the film features two characters of African descent and its sole Asian. On one level, this simply testifies to the realism of Sorry To Bother You’s magic-free portions. Twenty-first century California is a place where traditional fixations feel disappointingly simplistic and “mixed” relationships are becoming the norm rather than the exception. But this portion of the story also subtly reminds audiences that not every conflict in American society can be traced back to whiteness.

Sorry To Bother You is by no means a perfect film. Its latter stages feel skeletal and rushed. The surrealism is sometimes overdone. And the story’s allegorical dimension occasionally collapses under its own weight. However, because Riley and his cast remember how important it is to delight as well as instruct, those flaws almost seem like strengths. The mere fact that it is playing in multiplexes across the country confirms its political effectiveness. Because no matter how precise your messaging is, the only way it will be truly successful is if it connects with a large audience.

Although films by explicitly left-wing artists were a staple of postwar European and Latin American cinema, they have long struggled to find traction in the United States. While Middle America’s longstanding lack of intellectual curiosity is surely to blame, so are the filmmakers themselves. Regarding attempts to reach a mainstream audience as ideologically suspect, they have tended to marginalize both the form and content of their work. Sorry to Bother You highlights the limitations of this devotion to purity, without ever becoming annoyingly tendentious. It testifies to the need for a labour movement led by ordinary workers while making audiences laugh uproariously in the process. In a world where notions of the popular are increasingly problematic, there’s something refreshing about progressive art that aspires to become mass culture.

Screenshot courtesy of Sorry To Bother You/Significant Productions. All Rights Reserved.