Written by Vera Ting
First off, here’s a warning for some upcoming spoilers to this film, if you haven’t seen it yet!
2018 has come and gone, and with this year’s award season already in full swing, it seemed fitting to talk about this year’s most underrated film: Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You. The film critiques several timeless socio economic problems that remain relevant now, despite Riley beginning the script back in 2011, the film masterfully commentates through the career journey of Cassius “Cash” Green, who goes from making cold calls in the basement of RegalView Telemarketing to the top as a Power Caller using his “white voice.”
Cassius begins the film jobless and living in the garage of his uncle’s house. He soon begins to climb the corporate ladder at RegalView once he discovers his “white voice,” which is a surreal voice dub by Arrested Development’s David Cross. Another caller in the film who uses the “white voice,” known only as Mr. Blank, is voice dubbed by Patton Oswalt. The voice dubs serve as a smart, visual critique on code-switching. The term code-switching originally came from the linguistic act of switching between languages. However, in recent years, code-switching has come to mean an act of assimilation, in which someone changes their behavior based on their audience. The behavior in question, though natural, is often viewed as foreign and unprofessional. For many people of color this goes beyond simply putting on a professional tone, and becomes an act of defense against discrimination. In order to gain respect, or even just safety, people of color are often forced to act in a way acceptable to white standards. Cassius’s success by using the “white voice” shows how prevalent this issue remains. It represents how whiteness continues to be a measure for the amount of success possible to achieve.
In an interview with The Guardian, Riley discusses his experience with telemarketing, and mentions how real the “white voice,” is:
“Yeah. Nobody ever talked about it, but you’d know what to do. You’d try to obscure the fact that you’re black, just on the very basic level of trying to make someone feel like you’re like them, and on the more racist level of someone being OK giving you their credit card information.”
Later in the film, when Cassius becomes a Power Caller, he begins to sell labor for the company through their ‘Worry Free’ program, which contracts its workers for lifelong manual labor in return for room and board. As a result, Cassius continues on his morally questionable journey as he basically trades slaves.
The film goes beyond just commentary on racial discourse though. By becoming a Power Caller, Cassius turns on his friends, who begin to organize for labor rights against RegalView. He meets the sociopathic CEO of Worry Free, Steve Lift, and continues further down the rabbit hole when he attends an outrageous, drug-and-sex fueled party at Lift’s mansion. Lift, who is played by Golden Globe nominated Armie Hammer, is a disturbingly close portrait to the many CEOs in Silicon Valley, who have been reported to lead similar secretive, dark lives.
The commentary does not end there though. As the film escalates into its finale, Cassius finally smarts up, and joins his friends as rioting finally breaks out in the world. As stated before, although the movie serves up incredible accuracy to modern concerns, the screenplay for it was finished long before Trump was elected:
“Our economic system hasn’t changed, so that same critique that the movie puts out there could’ve applied at any point during my lifetime at least,” Riley says to writer Vann R. Newkirk II. “In fact, I had to take things out of the script because once Trump came in office, he made my movie a little too on the nose.”
Sorry To Bother You has been called a dystopian film, yet Riley does not seem to fully agree with this. The film is very much seated in a present reality of inequalities.
“Most of these movies that have a dystopian reality, in most of them nobody is fighting back unless you have, like, special powers,” Riley says, continuing that, “They erase rebellion even though rebellions for most of our lifetimes and way beyond have been an ongoing part of reality. Think about how hard that has to be to keep that out of movies for this long … At the very least, writers have been censoring themselves.”
The film leaves a viewer the optimistic sense that the power of political activism and protest can make a difference. Despite people often feeling their voice is ignored in the largest political decisions, history and Riley show that rebellion is one constant of life.
Another note to touch on is the way the film accurately depicts the power of the meme. In its scarily accurate, hyper-depiction of the world, reality shows and memes continue providing entertainment in the background to the masses. Cassius, after having a coke can thrown at his head and someone catching it on camera, uses his temporary fame as a meme to share the truth about Worry Free on the film world’s most popular show: I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me. In his view on the film, Alexis C. Madrigal states, “Against that backdrop, Sorry to Bother You wants you to smash oppressors, organize your coworkers, confront the degradations of the economy head on. The memes will be there, but they aren’t the engine, they’re the exhaust.”
Madrigal puts it aptly that the film has a way of pointing out the power memes can have: from co-opting popular culture for big business gains (like the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner) to actually holding up a mirror to society’s falsehoods.
The film is another in a rising age of Afro-surrealism, despite its almost outrageous tone, what is most significant about the film is how real it can get. At one point, the film’s biggest twist comes as a scientific discovery that people are being turned into half-horse, half-human beings. These “equisapiens” truly tip the movie over the edge into dystopian horror, yet the movie’s protesting voice remains and demands attention be paid to the real socio-economic problems going on. The film continues to create an Afro-surrealist blend of reality and hyper-reality. Especially for African Americans, Terri Francis, director of the Black Film Center/Archive at the University of Indiana, states, “Just about any black person is an Afro-surrealist because you have to be able to imagine something more than what is right in front of you,” explains Francis. “You need to have that sixth sense to be able to understand white people and where you’re safe. You also have to imagine another world beyond this one, where you are just a normal person living your life.”
With all the different topics that the film manages to express within its limited runtime, and the several articles out there that explore all these points in depth, the film serves as an example of how a story can be both representative of a specific audience, yet still resonate beyond that to an even larger audience. With many films now being scrutinized for how diverse they are, the film is a lesson in how to blend the stories and realities of specific people, and still connect to a broader group that relates to issues everyone must face. Hollywood does not need racial quotas, in which background characters of useless minority depiction are used. It needs to tell more stories about all different kinds of people, walks of life, and situations. Not only has this been shown to make more money for the box office, but it also connects with people more than is realised.