Sorry to Bother You. Directed and written by Boots Riley, starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Stephen Yeun. Significant Productions.
* * *
Warning: This review contains spoilers, though no big reveals.
Capitalism is an irrational system which refuses to see itself for what it is. Like an obnoxious trust fund kid slumming it at a dive bar, it cannot help but loudly declare how ingenious and deserving it is. Accepting its arguments for how things are and how they change is to accept the argument that there is some method underneath the layers of madness, that its opulence can somehow be separated from its exploitation, that it has something other than an ever-deepening inhumanity in its future. While our dreams are deemed irrational, capitalism’s degradations are justified as science.
To grasp the significance of Sorry to Bother You is, on some level, to grasp this truth about capitalism. Boots Riley has written and directed a film that is being celebrated by the far-left and mainstream critics alike. Those familiar with Riley’s musical and lyrical work with the Coup know that he is adept at combining his unabashed revolutionary politics with a skewed, cartoon-like worldview. The world of Sorry to Bother You is one much like the Coup’s 2012 album of the same name. Very few elements are out of place, and taken together they add up to something totally weird, and to a degree that is unsettling but engaging and hilarious.
When we are first introduced to this world, it is to see Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius “Cash” Green in a job interview at a call center run by a company called RegalView. Cash needs a job, and his desperation shows. He sits in front of the interviewing manager’s desk with a trophy and an “Employee of the Month” plaque.
The manager sees through Cash’s ruse. He purchased the trophy and the plaque before coming to the interview. And that’s why he is hired. To deceive is to “show initiative” in the world of call centers. Riley has personal experience with this. He worked in a call center himself in the mid-90s, interrupting unfortunate people on the other end of the line with pitches for products and services that most of them surely didn’t need. Keeping their attention meant getting creative. “It was me using my creativity for manipulative purposes,” he told to the East Bay Express. “Like an artist who could make a cultural imprint instead figures out what font makes you buy cereal.”
Riley has been interested in this relationship between aesthetics and political economy for some time. This is not just a question of what a work of art says but of how it says it, how a once-subversive pose or posture can be recuperated back into the logic of capital, used to prop it up. Take, for example, the lyrics from “You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siquieros to Andy Warhol),” off the Coup’s album Sorry to Bother You:
You, you are not a riot
You're an apologetic pad for the judge's gavel
You, you are not rebellion
You are a sitcom based on a torture chamber
You, you are not a riot
You are the fanfare for the king's drunken vomit
You, you are not rebellion
I got the invite to your party and I threw it away[i]
Which calls into question the very use and purpose of art. Why bother with it at all? Is to do so merely to fiddle with pictures and words while the world burns? Or is there something in a well-crafted song, poem, film, that can illuminate this same world in a way like no other part of the human experience?
Riley’s visual approach creates an Oakland that is at once recognizable and supremely strange. As he drives from home to work and back again, Cash observes homeless encampments next to ads for “Worry Free Living” – communal living that puts residents to work for lifetime contracts. It is jarring, but not altogether unfamiliar. In Riley’s film, even the abject horrors of homelessness, slavery and indentured servitude are re-spun as a kind of opportunity; not a far cry from what many liberal boosters of “innovation and disruption” are already arguing.[ii]
Transgression of geographic space repeats throughout the film, never allowing the audience (or any of the characters) to feel fully at ease where they are. Cash’s uncle (in whose garage he is living, played by Terry Crews) is about to lose his house. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a visual and performance artist whose work, among other things, draws connections between the plunder of Africa and modern exploitation. Co-worker and union organizer Squeeze (Stephen Yeun) has spent the past several years jumping from city to city organizing workplaces.
RegalView itself, however, is a spatial hub for most of the movie. When Cash first dons his headset, we see him transported into the living rooms or kitchens of his potential customers. The calling floor is dingy and depressing, but we catch glimpses from the world of the elite “power callers,” sleek, clean, effortlessly hip. Two worlds, right next to but mostly invisible to each other, the latter only in existence at the expense of the former. The tension between the two becomes apparent when another co-worker (Danny Glover) tells Cash to start calling using his “white voice.” And thus the nasally sounds of David Cross emerge from Cash’s mouth. He begins to make sales. A lot of sales. Just as the rest of the floor goes on strike to demand union recognition, Cash and his caucasian tones are sent upstairs and made into a power caller.
There is, in all of this, a profound sense of precarity and instability communicated that is at once hyper-absurd and yet – precisely because it is heightened and exaggerated – more an accurate depiction of the emotional and psychic turmoil that such an existence invokes. What Riley is achieving here is something very precise: a rendering of the anxieties and fractures of capitalism that is sprawling and epic but does not lose its human quality.
Cash’s arc in Sorry to Bother You is therefore one that takes him through the center of capital’s deep political and cultural sickness and then back again. The depravity of the rest of society is put in context. Toward the film’s end, as he searches for a way to expose Worry Free’s literally inhuman forms of exploitation, Cash gets desperate. He finagles his way onto a reality game show called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me” where, after being physically pummeled, he tells the world and begs viewers to call their representatives in congress. It doesn’t work. Worry Free’s stock soars and its CEO is praised in the most worshipful terms. Days later, meeting with Squeeze, a disheartened Cash is told that people tuned him out the minute he brought up calling Congress.
There was a time when a socialist filmmaker’s embrace of the surreal might not have appeared novel. Political filmmaking of the past few decades has been cut far more from the cloth of John Sayles or Ken Loach, favoring a strongly natural and realist approach. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with this oeuvre, but the attacks on the arts and arts education that characterized this same era have cut us from the full scope of the wonderful and expansive horizons of modernism, as well as the role that left-wing artists played in shaping it.
According to writers like Marshall Berman and Michael Löwy, a radical left affinity for the unreal goes back at least to the era of Marx himself. There is credence in this argument. Marx’s use of fantastical imagery in Capital and other works makes his descriptions of the bourgeoisie’s ability to destroy and remake the world in its own image quite vivid.
Throughout the 20th century, as capitalism continued to industrialize and dehumanize everything in its reach, there emerged a lineage of artistic and social movements that saw an embrace of non-realist aesthetics as part-and-parcel with the radical transformation of society: Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, Magic Realism, Situationism, showing up in strains of psychedelia, punk, hip-hop and graffiti art.
All of the above schools have vast differences, but their rejection of the realist outlook in favor of arrestingly un-real examination of a fractious modern existence places them, in Lowy’s view, in the broad category of what he calls “critical irrealism.” As he writes in his essay “The Current of Critical Irrealism”:
Adepts of the realist canon often seem to consider nonrealist art as a residual category, a dustbin of aesthetics into which one must dump all irrelevant, unimportant, or inferior works, disqualified by the lack of the most important requisite of accomplished art: “fidelity to real life.” This is a serious mistake, not only because it leaves out important works of art, but because it is blind to the capacity of critical irrealist art to help us understand and transform reality.
To look at the whole history of art and radicalism in the 20th century is to be introduced to the worlds of Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca, and of filmmakers like Maya Deren, Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard. These were artists who embraced the dreamlike or deconstructionist with the aim of urging the audience to part with their preconceived notions of “how the world is” and highlighting the chaos of modern life.
How exactly an artist manages to highlight this chaos is not simply a matter of preference. Depending on the setting and aim of a work of art, different methods will be more or less suitable. Those in the realist camp – from György Lukács on – often make a grievous error in their harsh criticisms of the irrealist pantheon from expressionism to situationism and onward. That is, to criticize works of art for not maintaining a linear, more rationalist outlook is to forget what capitalist society fundamentally is. Isaac Deutscher, in his criticisms of Orwell in 1955, writes:
Marxism is not at all rationalist in its philosophy: it does not assume that human beings are, as a rule, guided by rational motives and that they can be argued into socialism by reason […] The class struggle, as Marx describes it, is anything but a rational process […] But the authentic Marxist may claim to be mentally better prepared than the rationalist is for the manifestations of irrationality in human affairs […] He may feel upset or mortified by them, but he need not feel shaken in his Weltanschauung, while the rationalist is lost and helpless when the irrationality of the human existence suddenly stares him in the face. If he clings to his rationalism, reality eludes him. If he pursues reality and tries to grasp it, he must part with his rationalism.
Today there is no shortage of filmmakers and writers willing to slip between the real and fantastical. Michel Gondry’s magic realist work (The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has carved a unique niche for him as a filmmaker. David Lynch’s dark surrealism has made him one of the most acclaimed writer-directors working today, particularly since the revival of Twin Peaks. Their still-increasing popularity reveals many things, among them an identification with their broad irrealist stories among filmgoers, likely owing to their own experiences of late-neoliberal daily life.
To scroll through one’s newsfeed is to wander through a montage of the violent, the inhumane, the wicked and bizarre. In the span of seconds bounce from hunger strikes in immigrant detention centers to white supremacist congressional candidates into Bigfoot porn. Our structures of feeling are shaped by this overloaded montage of the random and decontextualized, well beyond the limits of social media. The radicalism of Sorry to Bother You lies not in Riley’s recognition or participation in this spectacle, nor even in his amplification of it, but in the interest in rubbing its fractured elements together, attenuating their contradictions and anxieties and seeing what fantastically hilarious horrors fall out. No widely distributed film in the English-speaking world has attempted to do that for at least a generation.
Back to the Known
There are countless metrics by which to measure a work of art’s success. One of them is the impact that it has on the world at large past reviews and Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Art by itself cannot transform anything; it has no agency of its own. But art is, in part, about human subjectivity, and the human beings who observe and engage with it do have agency.
A story Riley often tells is from his days as a young organizer in the Bay Area. Going door-to-door through the Double Rock housing projects in 1989, he was told that the night before, the police had gone on a rampage, brutalizing two young boys and arresting their mother. After residents gathered round in protest, the cops fired shots into the air. People scattered. At that moment, someone in the crowd invoked the famous Public Enemy song, chanting “Fight the power! Fight the power.” People stopped. They turned back. Says Riley: “By the end of the night, police cars were turned over, and those cops ran out of there without their guns.”
This is not altogether dissimilar to the ways that the Surrealists, Situationists and others like them would talk about art. They would likely have viewed the incident at Double Rock is an example of art being “liberated” from the confines of entertainment and amusement imposed upon it by the culture industry. When the rhythm of a work of art and the anarchy of the riot began to sync up.
Such moments are indeed prescient, perhaps even more so today when arresting aesthetics in the form of the “weird” or “quirky” are effortlessly integrated into marketing and public relations, putting us more at ease with the hall or mirrors than acknowledging its disorienting affects. The difference between aesthetics which obscure and those which uncover becomes more complicated, further entangled in questions of commerce and spectacle. Riley is without a doubt realistic in what a film can do by itself, but he is also not willing to sell his art short.
Already since Sorry to Bother You’s opening there have been several articles by writers of color celebrating the film’s irreverent portrayal of the “white voice” and the pressures of code-switching in professional and work life. Snoop Dogg and Black Thought from The Roots have bought out whole theaters and given away free tickets to the film, showing that it has enthusiastic support from some of hip-hop’s best-known. Will phrases and memes from the film begin to show up on placards at protests?
All of the above are encouraging signs, but four years after slogans from Mockingjay were scrawled across the walls of Ferguson, they are hardly unheard of or earth-shattering. Whether Sorry to Bother You – a far better work of art in terms of both aesthetics and politics – can go further, however that may look, has much to do with what is done with its signifiers and ideas. The potentials for this are widening at a rapid pace. As Michelle Goldberg – hardly a radical – wrote in her review of the film for the New York Times:
If you want to get a feel for the zeitgeist behind the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, the wave of unionizing in digital media, the striking teachers in red states, and the general broad seething fury about inequality that’s particularly pronounced among people who came of age amid the Great Recession, it’s a good place to start. It’s the kind of art we can expect as more and more members of the creative class find themselves living precariously, forced to spend inordinate energy worrying about their basic material needs.
If this is true, then it will not be merely because of the kind of story films like this can tell, but how they tell them. It is said that socialist organization keeps workers and poor people connected with their past of protest and rebellion. The addition of Sorry to Bother You into this moment may do something reconnect us with the movement’s obscured avant-gardism, its willingness to boldly reimagine the world.
Back in the present reality, our tragicomedy continues, bouncing between the goalposts of flagrant inequality, rekindled bigotries, political depravity, and empty-headed celebrity. Deodorant ads are off-kilter and “indie.” The violence of an imperial army is abstracted into a video game. Donald Trump forgets the difference between the words “would” and “wouldn’t.” And an “absurd” reality game show called Paid Off debuts on TruTV in which contestants compete to have their crushing student debt paid for them. Each episode ends with the host beseeching viewers to “call their representative.”
Squeeze might disagree about the efficacy of that. Boots Riley definitely does.
[i] Whether this is a fair assessment of Andy Warhol coming from a man who once tried to assassinate Leon Trotsky is another matter entirely, but the critique of degradation aestheticized is prescient.
[ii] For a truly breathtaking example of this kind of liberal apologia for technologized inequality, see Jamie Peck’s recent piece in Rolling Stone reviewing this July’s “neoliberal Coachella” of OZY Fest: “When questioned on economic inequality and the gig economy, the panelists rushed both to naturalize the shift toward neoliberalism and demonize those who would oppose it. ‘The biggest causes of inequality,’ said Pinker, perhaps worried the guillotine would soon come for him, ‘are revolutions, wars and plagues.’ ‘It’s like gravity, you can’t fight it,’ said Moe, noting cheerfully that the average person will soon have at least 15 different careers before they retire – ‘if they retire.’” Read the whole piece here: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/a-neoliberal-nightmare-at-ozy-fest-2018-702600/
An extended version of this review will be appearing in Red Wedge issue six. You can get a copy when you support our Patreon campaign.
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Alexander Billet is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Los Angeles. He is a founding editor of Red Wedge magazine, and has contributed to Jacobin, In These Times, TheNation.com, Chicago Review and other outlets. He blogs at Say It With Paving Stones…