Boots Riley’s directorial debut offers an outrageous take on modernity’s failures, but some may find its subject matter a little too familiar
* Contains spoilers
Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, was widely celebrated on its release in the US. Critics commended its handling of the complexities of late stage capitalism and race relations, as well as the film’s genre-blending of comedy and sci-fi. Now the film has landed across the pond into the UK’s screens: but how will British audiences connect with it?
Let’s set the scene: Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a struggling twenty-something living in an alternate-universe Oakland, California, with his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Just as his uncle threatens to kick him out of the garage in which they live, he secures a job at RegalView, a telemarketing company owned by the WorryFree corporation, but it’s only when an older colleague (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” that he starts raking in the commissions. Cash begins to rise through the company’s ranks, eventually rubbing shoulders with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the company’s untouchable CEO. Yet with status comes sacrifice – a darker business plot unfolds – and as his call-centre colleagues begin to unionise, he must decide between following his material dreams or standing by his values.
The socio-political commentary that the film provides is deeply unsettling; references to real-life current affairs are plentiful and unabashed. It soon becomes clear, for example, the Power Callers, who are the highest-ranking telemarketers of the company, sell a little more than just monthly home subscriptions. With the UK named as the world’s third-largest arms producer at the time of writing, beaten only by Russia and the United States, Riley does not hold back with his messaging. As we witness the devastating effects of this war economy in the Middle East, hearing characters boast of “[dropping] the bomb-ass sales pitch” is almost unbearable.
It is the film’s racial commentary, however, that has been most widely noted. You only need a basic understanding of sociology to notice the prison-industrial complex metaphor that Worryfree serves as. Comparisons to Jordan Peele’s 2016 debut Get Out (which, coincidentally, Stanfield also stars in) have almost been worn out by now: in both films, a young black man is faced with the challenges of navigating white supremacy, with the fight eventually descending into a battle for survival. Unlike Get Out however, Sorry to Bother You takes a wider focus, setting the workers’ oppression and protests alongside Cash’s personal turmoil and ambition. The resulting scenes of violence that ensue as police attempt to break up the crowd are all too familiar to the audience: protestors are assaulted and brutalised in scenes which could have been from Ferguson in 2014, or from the streets of London in the summer of 2011. By depicting this collective action and the violent response, Riley forces us to confront the realities of the world in which we live. He explains this further in an interview with Jacobin magazine:
‘In the world of film we’ve edited out all rebellion. We’re supposed to be showing representations of life, and whether the main characters in those worlds agree with it or not, there’s rebellion that’s happening in the world. It’s edited out. It’s replaced by other mundane things that aren’t really in our world, like noontime café dates.
(…) I’m sure that maybe some of those 10 percent [of viewers who dislike the movie] are saying they hate it because they politically disagree, but nobody’s walking out saying, “You know, I disagree with that strike stuff.”’
Sorry to Bother You’s satirical style offers nothing short of a damning critique of the ways in which capitalism and racism interact with one another. Cash aspires to reach the upper echelons of RegalView as a Power Caller, but finds a dire absence of people of colour in this space where his white voice must be used “at all times”. Among his high-ranking colleagues, he is scrutinised to the smallest detail and, at a party, is ordered to “RAP! RAP! RAP!” despite protestations that he is not a rapper. Seeing Cash as a form of entertainment rather than a colleague who deserves to be taken seriously is something that viewers from non-white backgrounds will be all too familiar with, as recent studies show that corporate racism is alive and well. Researchers have found that white job applicants receive an average of 36% more callbacks for job applications than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinx applicants. However, this is not simply an American issue. In the UK, a groundbreaking report released earlier this month found that 43% of those from a minority ethnic background had been overlooked for a work promotion.
With the odds stacked against him from the start, Cash’s conflict in the film signifies a deeper, and very real, social problem. His attempts of resistance are laughed off by CEO Lift, and the climax of the film wherein Cash reveals the sinister plot underway at Worryfree does not get the intended reaction from the general public. He is unhappy to play along with a system that tokenises him, yet cannot galvanise everyone around him. This reaction might remind viewers of the Occupy movement of the early 2010s, because despite an increased awareness of income equality and a wish to “drain the swamp” in modern political rhetoric, many of the actual goals of the movement remain unfulfilled. Although film as an artform grants us the power to envision “a better tomorrow”, Sorry to Bother You leaves us questioning what that “tomorrow” can be in the face of disillusionment and apathy.
Given the current state of affairs on both sides of the Atlantic, this radical message is one that needs to be heard. Get Out made nearly $13m in British cinemas and was one of the most talked-about films of 2016, despite white liberal complaints that it was too ostentatious in its delivery. It’s likely that Sorry to Bother You will face a similar response, yet given its deft handling of race, workers’ exploitation and the global arms trade, these critics will undoubtedly be in the minority. In the wake of historic mid-term elections that saw women and people of colour elected to the US House of Representatives and Senate in unprecedented numbers, perhaps the rebellion that Sorry to Bother You calls for is already underway.
Image: Google News / Sorry to Bother You