Boots Riley’s directorial and screenwriting debut Sorry to Bother You is the low-budget breakaway of the summer. An absurdist comedy with touches of magical realism and science fiction, it’s about a young black telemarketer named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who is struggling with his personal ethics as he learns that betraying his friends and adopting a “white voice” (provided by the ever-lurking comedy weirdo David Cross) will help him win out in a near-future bizarro capitalist dystopia. Picked up by prestige hitmaker Annapurna at Sundance in January 2018, Sorry to Bother You is a critical success that hit theaters at the right time as movie audiences are still riding the high of Jordan Peele’s racially frank horror satire Get Out, and indie studios are enjoying a windfall of Academy recognition and financial success.
The movie has its weak spots. Co-star Armie Hammer is poorly suited to satire; he’s so straitlaced, he recently got in a Twitter fight with a journalist who pointed out that he is “simply a beautiful, pedigreed white man.” And Stanfield, who steals his scenes in FX’s Atlanta by consistently undercutting expectations for logical movement, thought, and expression, is misused in such a straight-faced, sincere role. Watching them play foes is like watching an awkward network TV crossover. Beyond the synergy of their dual recent come-ups as indie darlings, it’s unclear why writer-director Boots Riley wanted to maneuver them into the same room.
Hammer’s bro-y tech CEO, whose grasping corporation, WorryFree, is a parody of WeWork living spaces and Amazon “productivity” standards, is a first draft of a postmodern villain. He loves cocaine and naked ladies, like all movie rich guys. He wears loose-fitting skirt-pants, as the requisite New Age-y element to ground him in that Silicon Valley false-enlightenment culture. We’ve seen far better satire along these lines recently, with Tilda Swinton’s Ivanka Trump-inspired agro-chemical tycoon in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Maria Bamford’s improbable, overlooked skewering of Elon Musk and Netflix, which she somehow executed in her Netflix show.
But Sorry to Bother You really shines in its B-plots, the aggravating events that needle Cassius’ conscience in tandem with the main conflict. His use of “white voice” makes his friends distrust him. His relationship with his principled, unbelievably cool artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, whose every entrance is an event, built around the audience’s need to read her earrings) is threatened by a hot labor organizer (Squeeze, played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) with the apparent means to go from town to town and just live his values. Cassius’ day-to-day anonymity is destroyed after he breaks a picket line and gets pegged in the forehead by a flung can of soda. The thrower, a winking white lady who shouts, “Have a cola and smile, bitch,” becomes a viral internet hero, and Cassius becomes her punchline.
The soda can moment is an obvious inversion of Kendall Jenner’s now infamous Pepsi commercial faux pas. In April 2017, Jenner appeared in one of the most poorly conceived ad ideas in living memory, resolving the tension at a laughably bland protest (picket signs had messages like “Join the conversation” and “Love”) by handing a cop a can of Pepsi. It was easy to see the blatant disrespect for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the historically unsubstantiated idea of the way police behave at a protest. Viewers were duly mortified and horrified, and the Twitter jokes were deservedly vicious.
But in Sorry to Bother You, the moment is more complicated. The police in this movie are almost irrelevant. When the protestor throws the bottle, she’s targeting a fellow wage slave who should be her ally, and he would if circumstances allowed him to simultaneously have principles and make enough money to support himself. As a black man, Cassius is struggling to succeed in a biased system that benefits her more than it does him, even as it benefits almost nobody. The moment blows up on YouTube and becomes profitable for the young woman — removing her from the labor struggle and nabbing her a cola commercial deal — in a way it probably would not have had the roles been switched. He’s the hero, so we root for him and against her.
But how hard, hypothetically, would it have been to write the movie the other way? Last March, Dayna Tortorici, writing for n+1 ahead of the Women’s Strike — an event with far less enthusiastic participation than the Women’s March just two months prior, largely because of confusing conversations about privilege — argued that when workers strike, we “invite one another to see how our work is interdependent, see the ways we are compelled to exploit one another.” Sorry to Bother You accepts that invitation, and openly considers how workers muddy the issue when they police each other’s virtue, instead of questioning the policies that try to turn them against each other.
Society has only recently started grappling with the way the internet fame machine is primed to create ethical confusion. It makes public personalities out of people who don’t want it, can’t handle it, or are only doing it because they don’t see other options. The internet used to be seen as a democratizing force, but it has given undue credence to heinous systems of thought and to total idiots like the monster bros of YouTube who egg their followers into coordinated harassment campaigns and shirk responsibility for any fallout, or the teenagers who upload a joke between friends and enjoy a few perks — free sneakers, 10 minutes with Ellen DeGeneres — and then become the victims of a swatting hoax for no apparent reason.
The ascendance of someone like Cardi B, who makes the whole process feel like a net positive, but is, in fact, a miracle, and the exception to a rule of internet celebrity that almost always steals ideas from young people, particularly young people of color, and leaves them with nothing to show for their creative work. What the internet looks like now is an option like any other in America — which is to say, not a very good one.
At one point in Sorry to Bother You, Squeeze tells an exasperated Cassius that he can’t blame people for ignoring the evils of WorryFree, a corporation that wants to popularize voluntary slavery as a way for workers to assuage their anxiety about the future by selling that future to someone else. At some point, a problem becomes so big and complicated that undoing it or even acknowledging it stops feeling like a choice, and people’s priorities turn to live inside it with as much peace of mind as possible.
In this film, at least, peace of mind in this context is defined by financial comfort, not physical comfort. People hurting for money in Riley’s dystopia appear on a game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, which involves getting beaten in exchange for cash. Cassius’ head wound from the soda can refuses to heal, but he accrues enough money to pay off his uncle’s debts, buy a sleek new car, and rent a chic downtown apartment. He wanders around dripping money and blood. Achieving financial stability is a painful process here, and it leaves scars.
Achieving financial stability is a painful process here, and it leaves scars
That trade-off should be familiar, given that the depravity of the game show is only negligibly more literal than the ones that are actually part of American culture. The thrill of shows like Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior is the thrill of watching someone smack teeth-first into a large piece of plastic in exchange for money and attention.
One of the more remarkable things that Sorry to Bother You accomplishes is a subtle but convincing argument that when it comes to the lived experience of a typical worker, there are not so many differences between the internet age and the preceding one. With a Coke can, Riley crystallizes an image of the superpower of capitalism, which is its deftness with misdirection. The same week Sorry to Bother You hit theaters, Katherine Cross wrote for The Verge about the still-unfolding “Plane Bae” controversy, in which two people flirting and possibly hooking up on an airplane were turned into a viral news item without their knowledge, resulting in a fun 15 minutes of fame for the man involved and relentless, slut-shaming judgment for the woman.
“The story’s charm disguises the invasion of privacy at its heart,” Cross said. “The way technology is both eroding our personal boundaries and coercing us in deleterious ways.”
Capitalism still has a place for telemarketers in cubicles, and it’s made room for the internet culture machine as well. Both mine a nearly infinite resource of human hearts and minds and make their money off cheap, plentiful resources: words and voices, warmth and charisma. The economy of personality promises that the only thing you have to monetize is something inherent in yourself — not a skill or a learned trade or even a talent, but an unquantifiable personal appeal — you can still have everything you’ve ever wanted.
And no matter who wins, someone is losing. Cassius helps exploit the labor of an anonymous woman who turns the tables and becomes famous by exploiting his image and his suffering at her hands. The film doesn’t even need its shocking twists about WorryFree’s victimized workforce. Sorry to Bother You is sufficiently radical long before those particular victims arrive, and it hits much closer to home when it’s smacking people in the face.