I’m a sucker for the sort of film that messes around with style, and especially for the kind of film that uses style to get away with saying things that you couldn’t in a serious social realist drama. Sorry To Bother You is so surreal and absurd, yet the truth of the subject matter has never been less subtle or more accurately told. Even if it does include horse-humans. Many films designed to make a statement do anything but in the long run, because you know what the message is going to be before you start. The film becomes part of the conversation rather than creating a new one.
Take Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake (2016), which caused questions to be asked in Parliament about the unfairness of the British welfare system. The conversation around it was fervid but centred around whether it was an accurate representation of the experience of poverty (spoiler: it is) and reduced it to a political statement. It became the sort of film you watch either to shout about what you think already, or to pick holes in.
But genre films have been sneaking this sort of thing past audiences for a long time. That’s not always a good thing: cinema audiences aren’t necessarily aware enough to get the point (see The Matrix). But there is a simple joy to be found in a film which slips things past people even if these things are blindingly, sledgehammer obvious.
Many reviews of Sorry to Bother You suggest it’s messy, ill-conceived, or self-contradictory. It’s not. It’s absolutely logical in where it goes, political like nothing else I’ve seen and a delight on every level. Sorry To Bother You is very, very funny, set in the future, and hides a horrific premise, so I guess that means it’s a Horror Sci-fi Comedy.
We’re introduced to Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), as he is interviewed for a telemarketing job with a company called Regalview. He blatantly lies about his experience and qualifications and is caught out immediately by the slimy manager, who tells him that he’s got the job anyway because they hire literally anyone and he’s clearly got ambition. This is true; Cassius does have ambition, and it’s illustrated throughout the film. Even in his name Cassius is pronounced “Cashus”, so his name is the truism, cash is green, and everyone calls him Cash.
Cash hustles, because Cash is poor. He lives in his uncle’s garage, which has a faulty door that keeps opening just when he’s about to have sex, and he can’t even afford to pay the rent here. He drives a battered old car that has clearly been cobbled together from parts of other cars; you can still see the serial number scrawled in chalk on his second-hand windscreen and the doors are a different colour to the body. Every day he calculates the exact amount of gas he needs to get to work and back in pocket change.
People who have never been poor can’t really comprehend how much hard work it is. How much enterprise, thought and effort you have to put into just surviving. How you have to count every penny, devise workarounds and continuously hustle. It doesn’t actually matter if your hustles go to plan or not, because their ingenuity has barely any impact on whether you get out of the poverty trap.
Cash’s entry-level job as a telemarketer selling obsolete things no one wants—encyclopedias— doesn’t go well initially because Cash is, well, a bit green. Everything about the job sucks. No one is paid enough. The bosses are terrible: manager Anderson doesn’t give a toss about any of it, team leader Johnny is probably a serial killer and HR rep Diana DeBauchery is deceitful, self-interested and sleazy, in both an “I’m not your boss, I’m your friend” way, and a “throws herself at the guy with the promotion” way—especially because he is black, because you know her white girl mind thinks of him as an exotic fruit.
The director Boots Riley sets a beautiful sequence where Cash rings people and literally crashes right into their homes, in the middle of what they’re doing, whether they’re sitting alone having their breakfast or sitting on the toilet. These visual similes, aside from being very funny (and a wonderful homage to Riley’s inspiration, Michel Gondry), get across just how intrusive it is for the people on the end of the line and how disorienting it is for the new telemarketer, still burdened with ideas of dignity and common decency. Cash tries to stick to the script (STTS, written on the walls of Regalview), but he can’t do it.
His breakthrough comes when his veteran colleague Langston (Danny Glover) explains where he’s going wrong. He needs a “White Voice”. Langston demonstrates a young middle-class white guy’s voice coming out of his mouth. Cash baulks. He could never do that. And then he does. Spectacularly.
And when Cash finds his White Voice (the voice of David Cross, and it’s never less than hilarious when he opens his mouth and David Cross’s voice comes out), Cash turns out to be gold. Suddenly he’s selling shedloads, and his success begins to change things for him. He’s good at this, and the bosses shower him with praise. So, while his mate Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and his awesome way-out-of-his-league artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are getting involved in organising a union at Regalview to demand better pay and conditions, along with shop floor firebrand Squeeze (Steven Yeun), Cash is becoming increasingly focused on his work. Cash’s White Voice is a ticket to success. The day after he reluctantly joins in with strike action, the bosses tell him he’s being promoted. Now he’s a Power Caller. Now he works for Steve Lift.
Boots Riley’s 2012 album, Sorry to Bother You, as part of hip-hop collective The Coup, features a cast of characters who overlap with those in this film—there is a guy called Cassius Green and a privileged fratboy douche called Steve. But mostly, the whole thing is a furious, hilarious call to full-on revolt, the sort that aims to reclaim revolution from right-wing assholes and multinational CEOs. Sellouts, silver spoons and squeamish liberals are all lined up in the crosshairs. It’s one of the cleverest, funniest, angriest albums I’ve heard in years and it’s also packed with “banging tunes,” as white Brits of a certain age are embarrassingly prone to say.
Both the album and film are furious and playful. Like horror, comedy is one of the genres that can, if done right, have real teeth. Both deal with the absurd, both provoke extreme emotion. Laughs and screams are closer to each other than we think. And Riley’s day-glo dystopia is horrific and hilarious in equal measure.
Cash lives in a world where everyone’s favourite show is called I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me. The main innovation in labour is WorryFree, a program where people willingly sell their lives to their work. They move into corporate dorms that look like prison cells and work long shifts for nothing other than their cheap blue and yellow uniforms, crowded beds and hideous-looking food. Cassius’s uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) is short enough of cash that he’s seriously considering WorryFree Living. Like so many people, Cash is under pressure to save his own finances and his family’s.
As a Power Caller, Cash is suddenly vaulted up into a world where he’s above all that. This new existence is completely ridiculous and absurd. There’s a gold plated lift with an access code with hundreds of digits, the elevator voice (Rosario Dawson) tells him it hopes he hasn’t masturbated today because he needs to be sharp and that 35% of men who wear pink shirts start a franchise. Then it is revealed that he’s expected to sell WorryFree slave labour to multinational corporations and unscrupulous governments.
There’s a running joke where Cash asks, “Wait, you mean I’m actually supposed to be [doing something utterly odious] for you?”. The authority figure goes “yup”, and this is really pretty funny on a fundamental level…until it isn’t because it’s sort of true. At some point, Western governments realised that the best way to get away with atrocity is not to deny you’re doing it. No, you own it: you just talk about it as if it’s OK. Like when the US government started putting small children in concentration camps recently, the tactic was not to deny it but to get annoyed about calling them “concentration camps” as if the language used to describe them was what made it not OK. The appalling thing is that this seems to have worked, because the US government is still putting small children in concentration camps and no-one with any authority appears to be doing a single thing about it. This tactic works until, hopefully, it doesn’t, and the perpetrators might at some point be brought to account.
In its absurd, brightly coloured world, Sorry to Bother You portrays a place one step removed from that. It shows the people’s world; ordinary decent people who don’t see indentured slave labourers, they see numbers on Excel spreadsheets. Cash’s scruples extend precisely as far as seeing what his salary will be. He struggles! He lives in a carport! He pinches pennies in spectacularly creative ways! And here he is, being offered financial security, even after telling his bosses to go f*ck themselves if they think he’s going to rat on the union. Bosses who grin throughout his obscene ranting then tell him he’s being promoted.
Cash is promoted because he is good at what he does, but he’s not the only person with a White Voice. What about Langston? Even Detroit has a White Voice (although we don’t find that out until later and in a different context). Cash is good at the job, but that is not the reason that he’s elevated. He’s advanced partly because he’s been identified as able to be turned, and it’s a management tactic to prevent organisation by splitting the floor. Cash is green, you see.
Even as Cash makes bank, the shop floor organising goes to the next level; there’s strike action. Cash has to cross the picket line and become a traitor. All Cash gets for being a scab—apart from losing Detroit and all his friends, is a full soda can chucked at his head by a demonstrator. This moment is caught on video and goes viral, giving him unwelcome social media notoriety and a bandage that he wears on his head for the rest of the movie.
Cash’s new mentor is a fabulously dressed and perfectly groomed black guy whose name is bleeped out of the soundtrack (Omari Hardwick) and who, in the voice of Patton Oswalt, advises Cash that up here it’s White Voice Only. That man’s namelessness is pretty chilling. He’s redacted from everyone’s hearing, which is scary, partly because the company can do that in the first place, and partly because he’s a cartoon of a black guy, so given over to the company’s narrative that even his identity is gone. It’s only when he says his one line in his own voice that he gives you an idea of what he really is, and that’s someone just like Cash, a man looking out for an opportunity.
The reason they want Cassius is that they wish for a tame black guy on their side. They want one who’s willing to sell out. Mr [REDACTED] might have qualified, but he’s already sold out, so they need a new one. It becomes apparent when Cash gets invited to a party at the home of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), a hybrid of all the very worst inspirational billionaire assholes; part Steve Jobs, part Elon Musk, part Jeff Bezos. In an excruciating scene, Lift orders Cash to rap, and the direction that scene goes is painful and hilarious and is a perfect indicator of what Lift wants: he wants someone to perform blackness when he needs it.
And when we find out Lift’s plan, we realise we don’t know the half of it because Cash discovers, in the weirdest left turn of the film, that Lift is planning on turning WorryFree workers into mutant horse people— Equisapiens—and that he is going to turn Cash into one too. His plan is then to make Cash a sort of tame liberator for them, but not really a liberator, the kind of inspirational figure who gets them some concessions and rights but crucially keeps them pacified. And Lift calls that an “Equisapien Martin Luther King”.
Boots Riley isn’t afraid to make sour offhand references in the script to the kind of black people white people like (Langston describes the White Voice as “not Will Smith white” for example). Riley isn’t afraid, full stop. He’s not afraid to be spiky and difficult. He’s not afraid to say painfully honest things about capitalism and what it does to you and how it exploits you. He’s not afraid to show his disdain of the way working-class people and black people get told to perform who they are.
Class is partly a performance. That’s what the whole White Voice thing is really a metaphor for. In the UK, we have the assumption that class is something you are born into, that it’s in your blood. If you’re reading this and you’re British and you scoff at that; consider the way that people act like you kicked a puppy when you point out how morally abhorrent it is that royalty exists. Or that someone had the power to end British democracy simply because they were born into that position.
If you think class is in the blood, it’s only one step away from treating the workers as a different species. Never forget that until the Second World War, it was taught as a fundamental truth of science on both sides of the Atlantic that black people and white people were different species. This was used to justify slavery. This is part of white history. Making the wealthy a different species is an underlying part of transhumanist ideology, but what if they revert to making poor people a different species? What if they actually make true what they believed all along?
Cash has to play white to succeed, and that means he’s got to talk white.
Your voice, the language you use, is the central point of how you present your identity. How you look might inspire judgement, but it’s your voice that hammers down what people think of you. It’s the moment that you open your mouth that forever confirms whether or not you’ll be accepted in any social grouping, in whatever class (consider especially how much of a struggle it is for trans people). Your use of grammar, your rhythm, all of it, it holds you down. It’s why it’s so hard to take working-class characters seriously in movies when posh people play them.
Langston: “You’ve got it wrong. I’m not talking about sounding all nasal. It’s, like, sounding like you don’t have a care. You got your bills paid, you’re happy about your future, and you’re about ready to jump in your Ferrari out there after you get off this call. Put some real breath in there. Breezy, like, I don’t really need this one. You’ve never been fired, only laid off. It’s not really a white voice. It’s what they wish they sounded like. So it’s like what they think they’re supposed to sound like. Like this young blood. [Speaks with the voice of a young, middle-class white man] Heyyy, Mr Kramer, this is Langston from Regalview. I didn’t catch you at the wrong time, did I?”
But it only gets you so far. Because people assume that class is innate, and while you can play the part of another class, you’ll probably never be one of them. All that Cash achieves by selling out is proving that he can play white enough to be safe for the bosses, succeed at his morally void work, and play black in a non-threatening way when he is asked to.
And yet somehow Mr [REDACTED] is still himself; he’s not a dupe. He chose this, and we can see that in the one instance in the film where he’s not using his White Voice, the moment when he tells Cassius that when people like them are presented with opportunities, they have to take that opportunity, and not f*ck it up. You might compromise your identity by selling out, but it is a choice. You don’t cease to be you. You make a deal.
WorryFree is the Left Eye movement’s main target, a loose conglomeration of activist groups who paint a black stripe under their left eye (a nod to the outspoken and tragic Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, from the ’90s RnB group TLC). When she isn’t working as a street corner sign twirler, Detroit keeps busy defacing WorryFree ads and organising labour activism with Squeeze and co. How any sole human being can have the time to do all that is pretty amazing, but then Detroit really is amazing.
Detroit is the film’s moral heart, and after Cash, the character with the most screen time. She hates Cash’s White Voice. But what’s interesting is that when we finally see her gallery opening, we discover that she has a White Voice of her own, and it’s the whitest voice imaginable as it belongs to Downton Abbey’s Lily James; honey-sweet and impeccably posh.
But somehow Detroit wears it lightly. She knows that the hustle is nonsense; she knows that it’s a performance, and she’s a performance artist. She understands. Her performance art is framed as a bit ridiculous because it’s performance art and performance art knows it’s ridiculous, but she knows it’s ridiculous, and it’s also kind of great. Wearing a bikini made from black leather gloves (where the glove/thong is giving the audience the finger), Detroit quotes The Last Dragon (1985), a movie almost as bonkers as Sorry to Bother You. She reads a scene where the character turns her back on selling out, while allowing herself, Marina Abramovic-style, to be pelted with empty bullet casings, dead mobile phones and balloons full of blood.
And Cash doesn’t get it. The whole spectacle makes him so uncomfortable that he interrupts the performance. And that means that Detroit’s art succeeds because it makes him uncomfortable.
Detroit’s art also works because it is not a pose. It is the real deal. She is actually out there on the streets, putting herself on the line in solidarity with her fellow workers. She’s got to hustle, but she’s wearing it lightly, which is an interesting contrast with Mr [REDACTED]: both she and Cassius’ Faustian mentor are making deals and using their White Voices, and for both of them the White Voice is a tool for navigating the world of white people. It’s how they wear it that differs.
That’s a lovely thing about this film. It recognises that sometimes you have to play the game, but that in the end, doing the right thing by the people with you on the ground is what matters. Detroit might have a White Voice, but she is not a sellout. It’s in her that we see the right way to get by in a world where it is impossible to be perfect.
Detroit makes her own jewellery; spectacular, flamboyant earrings that say “MURDER MURDER MURDER/KILL KILL KILL” or which look like tiny models of electric chairs. She’s never going to be as rich as a Power Caller, but she’s a success as a human being, and she’s a fighter. She stands on the front line.
Because of its absurdity, Sorry to Bother You is probably the most realistic film about capitalism and work and selling out. It is about what you sacrifice to succeed and how the wealthy look at the rest of us. And for that to work, it has to carry it all the way through to the end.
And what an end it is. Cassius makes Steve Lift’s Equisapiens plot public by going on I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me and showing the video he captured of the horse people on live TV. The stock market surges in Steve’s favour because white, rich people are the worst. The striking telemarketers get a few concessions, but they’re still going to have to go to work, and while they may not have the long faces, they are as much workhorses as the hybrids. Steve Lift remains a billionaire (although he might, the film hints, be subject to a very final and personal form of revenge a short time after the credits roll). And Cassius and his friends still have jobs. Because as much as Regalview is complicit in the subjugation of humanity, and these folks are its enemy, the system still exists, and it needs its employees just as much as they need to eat. Cash (the object) is still green, but Cash (the protagonist) is not. The real victory is in Cassius’ heart. He finds his voice. He finds his courage.
And the fight is going to go on. Winning one battle doesn’t fix a regime; it’s more complicated than that, just as it is in real life.