An incredible scene in Sorry to Bother You occurs when the main character, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), gets into a shouting match with his friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler). They both work at the telemarketing firm RegalView, which operates a call center in a soulless basement office. Right after the disgruntled employees form a union, Cash accepts a lucrative promotion to “Power Caller,” winning him access to a golden elevator and higher status. Sal confronts Cash, accusing him of selling out and betraying his fellow workers. Tempers flare. Their confrontation symbolizes two possible responses to unfair labor conditions: selfish escape up the social ladder or solidarity with your coworkers.
But something surprising happens when the two characters face off. Instead of exchanging insults, Cash and Sal shout compliments. One wishes the other a great day, and the other responds by wishing him a great week; then one a great month, and the other a great year. Ever louder and angrier, the “argument” climaxes when they make plans to hang out later over drinks. Tone and body language conform to stereotypical expectations for a fight between two poor black men from Oakland, but their cordial words contradict their hostile gestures. The crowd of onlookers displays bewilderment. A strange feeling also seemed to come over the audience in the theater where I saw the film. Nobody knows what to do, onscreen or off, and that shared sensation is hilarious. Writer and director Boots Riley plays up the contrast between the way his characters want to have it out and the way their workplace forces them to behave: RegalView hides real antagonism beneath something more benign and profitable. Only an intervention by Langston (Danny Glover) breaks the spell and allows the film to continue.
Riley has described his project as a comedic social commentary composed in magical realist style. The atmosphere recalls Mike Judge’s classic satire Office Space (1999), a film about a corporate pawn who tries to escape the drudgery of cubicle life by undergoing hypnosis. The hypnotist’s voice lulls him into a carefree state of bliss, and that’s where he remains after the hypnotist dies suddenly of a heart attack. In Sorry to Bother You, another enchanting voice sets the plot in motion. “White voice,” the veteran employee Langston tells Cash, will guarantee you a better response from customers over the phone than your regular black voice. Langston gives a demonstration: an overdubbed white person’s voice magically emanates from his mouth. It expresses confidence, material security and good cheer. Sure enough, Cash discovers that his own white voice (David Cross) can make sale after sale. It’s his natural talent for white voice that gets him promoted into RegalView’s Power Caller elite.
Several of the film’s black characters use white voice. The mysterious Power Caller manager (Omari Hardwick) always uses it (Patton Oswalt), and Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) affects a British accent during an art performance. The point of white voice seems to be that we all perform our racial identities. Race is a social construct, and a profoundly unequal one at that. The separation of body from voice and the fungibility of all voices fit with the film’s critique of capitalism. Riley paints a magical realist picture of what Karl Marx called “alienated labor.” Call center workers at RegalView not only don’t own the products of their labor; they don’t even speak with their own voices. Their class position forces them to perform a race that isn’t theirs.
The film casts Marx’s commentary on the division of mental and manual labor in a surreal light. Magical realism relies on how fine a line the artist can walk between the literal world and the surreal dreamworld. Stray too far in either direction, and the work falls flat. Riley succeeds in pushing alienated labor so far into a dreamworld of disembodied voices and ventriloquized bodies because the real American workplace is so insane. For most people, everyday life is already a phantasmagoria.
The name RegalView might conjure up Regal Cinemas, a corporate chain that’s currently showing this film. It also evokes Mountain View, that sunny California city where Google and other Silicon Valley companies have built their headquarters. Midway through the film we meet Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the playboy CEO of the WorryFree corporation, RegalView’s main client. It’s hard not to think of Lyft when we hear his name, especially after learning that WorryFree employs slave laborers on lifetime contracts who live in prison-like conditions. Not exactly flexible workers in a sharing economy, WorryFree laborers nevertheless chose that job after seeing ads that promised them material security and freedom. They fell for the same lie that props up the gig economy. If you work just another shift, accept one more ride, you might finally earn enough to live.
Unlike most films today, especially comedies, this one centers on a labor struggle. That alone makes Sorry to Bother You subversive. But more than that, the film provides an actual lesson in subversion. A word whose Latin roots mean “turning from below,” subversion is a resistance tactic for people stuck in a deeply unequal power relationship. The lesson begins even before Cash’s promotion, when the labor organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) first approaches him about forming a union. Squeeze’s union of call center workers acts as the film’s collective hero. Union members block the RegalView entrance for days, making no demands for better wages but instead declaring total resistance. Their simple message is “Fuck you, RegalView.”
Detroit, Cash’s free-spirited artist girlfriend, takes the lesson to the next level. Her militant optimism contrasts with her partner’s existential angst. While she does join the union and participate in its overt protest, Detroit favors guerrilla action. Her radical art collective, Left Eye, tags walls and defaces billboards at night, making corporate advertisements say the opposite of what they intend. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Situationists dubbed this practice détournement. Literally “rerouting,” as in a detour, it involves making slight, humorous alterations to public words or images in order to expose the absurdity of a repressive society. Détournement has since become a favorite tool for artists such as Banksy and Pussy Riot.
Appropriately, Detroit has a day job as a sign twirler. A human billboard, she dances beside the road to advertise local businesses, turning their signs over and over. In case anyone missed the “meta” significance, Detroit eventually twirls a sign for a store called Signs. But she’s a human billboard in more ways than one. She wears flamboyant craft earrings that read “Murder, Murder, Murder; Kill, Kill, Kill,” and a t-shirt bearing the slogan, “The Future Is Female Ejaculation.” Detroit’s détournement of signs on her body, at work, in the art gallery and on billboards shows how to subvert a regime that’s too powerful to confront head-on. At no point in the film do her guerilla tactics conflict with the union’s traditional labor activism. She even has a fling with the organizer Squeeze. Riley wants us to see those two forms of resistance, labor organizing and guerrilla art, as complementary.
The lesson in subversion culminates in a three-stage sequence. First, as Cash tries to enter the blockaded RegalView building with his fellow Power Callers and a cordon of riot police, a striker throws a soda can (another corporate logo) that hits him in the forehead. (He sports a bloody head bandage for most of the remaining scenes.) A video of the incident goes viral, and what originally signified a striker’s act of resistance against a scab becomes an advertising gimmick. The soda company turns the image of its can hitting Cash’s afro into a marketing meme. Kids start wearing soda-can afros as Halloween costumes. The new spirit of capitalism assimilates everything.
Concepts and images get appropriated all the time, by the right and the left, capitalists and anti-capitalists. The theorist Judith Butler makes this point in her various studies of gender subversion. Take free speech, for example. Throughout American history, that concept has been appropriated and reappropriated countless times. Most recently, conservatives have turned free speech into a battering ram against campus liberals and the culture of “political correctness.” Butler urges us to treat concepts like free speech as neither tainted goods nor pure things whose meaning we could ever hope to restore. Instead, we should see them as sites of contestation.
Modern politics and culture involve a permanent contest of values. We fight to define ideas and practices against the will of our opponents, even when we know those definitions won’t last. Nothing’s fixed forever, and everything’s always at stake. That doesn’t mean we should surrender to some kind of post-truth nihilism. Instead, Butler thinks critics and activists must search for the breaking points of hegemonic discourse, those weak spots in the architecture of domination. There’s where you plant the dynamite. With all respect to Audre Lorde, the master’s tools may indeed dismantle the master’s house. The characters in Sorry to Bother You prove that every emancipation requires a resignification.
Accordingly, the third stage of the soda-can subversion “twirls the sign” one more time. The striking RegalView workers undermine the soda company’s ad campaign by donning soda-can afros themselves, now as a symbol of resistance. This ironic act parallels Cash’s own journey from telemarketing drone to Power Caller scab to anti-capitalist resister.
When the union demonstrates against corporate power, we experience another strange feeling. Now it’s in response to the brutality of the riot police as they protect corporate interests. This film is a comedy, but the air goes out of the theater the first time we see strikers violently beaten down by the cops. Violence pervades the film. Many instances of it just play in the background, like the popular TV show “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!” But sometimes, unnervingly, it jumps right off the screen. How should we reconcile such immediate violence with the highly mediated and symbolic world of advertising? Violent outbursts may provide a dose of reality, reminding us that beneath the sheen of capitalism’s dreamworld lies a coercive, dehumanizing system.
This film dwells on the themes of dehumanization and self-mortification in America’s racial capitalist regime. It explores the limits of human endurance today. As we ultimately learn, it even goes beyond those limits. One could interpret the film as a story about survival under disaster capitalism. All the characters live in precarious conditions, and they face outright coercion at the hands of the corporate-police complex. Detroit mortifies her own nearly naked body during an art performance, asking the public to throw various objects at her, including balloons filled with sheep’s blood (read: sacrificial lamb). The WorryFree corporation is a biopolitical enterprise that aims to control who lives and dies and in what existential form they labor. These themes remind me of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, in which bioengineering corporations try to maximize profit, fend off competitors and guerrilla resisters and wind up destroying humanity.
Dehumanization marks Cash himself, who’s always hunched over as if the atmosphere has pushed him down: an icon of oppression. He gets hit in the head with a soda can, bleeds for most of the film, trips and falls facedown while chasing someone, and so on. The name Cash Green signifies that, at first, this character’s most pressing concern is to get paid: his economic insecurity and desire for recognition motivate his decisions to work for RegalView, angle for a promotion and betray his coworkers. But the name may also allude to Cassius Clay, the birthname of Muhammad Ali. Like the heavyweight boxer, Cash Green struggles under the pressure of corporate power and endures mounting abuse along the way. Like Ali, Green develops a militant consciousness and tries to break free from existing society’s determinations. Both Cashes end up physically damaged by their occupations.
Sorry to Bother You is a dark comedy. It does end however with some rays of hope, and one last subversion. Right after his promotion, Cash had rented a swanky new apartment in the city. By the end of the film he neither can afford nor wants to keep it, because it symbolizes his past betrayal. So he moves the apartment’s modernist furnishings to his previous residence in his uncle’s garage. The new “apartment” looks absurdly chic.
Detroit’s there, too. We assume that she’s still active in the Left Eye collective. That name, Left Eye, may refer to the radical “third eye” that opens for those conscious of class exploitation and woke to racial oppression. But it could also refer to Riley’s own eye. In a recent interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, the director said that Detroit was the character most like himself. Riley has deep artistic and activist roots. For almost thirty years, he has been the front man of the Oakland hip hop band The Coup, which promotes radical political causes. And in 2011 he took part in Occupy Oakland, an experience that left a strong impression on this film.
RegalView’s telemarketing mantra may be “Stick to the Script (STTS),” but at every turn the film flips the script. Its style isn’t pedagogical, just performative. Riley shakes up our expectations about class and race in America, and the audience feels this subversive force whenever a scene causes a sense of estrangement, be it Cash and Sal angrily complimenting each other or the epiphany of white voice. Riley teaches by example. Subversion is a dangerous tool because it works. Progressive social movements shouldn’t abandon that tool out of any fidelity to dogmatic truth, morality or “civility.” Instead, always be twirling.