Sorry to Bother You has been making waves on the international film circuit recently. And it’s not hard to see why. In the Trump-era cultural landscape, the film’s messages – connecting race, exploitation and class struggle – resonate more than ever.
Set in an alternate version of present day Oakland, California, the film follows Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he gets a job at a call centre to support his uncle and pay his rent. It is in the call centre that he gets embroiled in industrial conflict as an activist attempts to unionise the call centre workers.
It is also here where Cash is taught the power of the ‘white voice’ – something played for laughs in the film, but which finds a very real parallel in the ‘code switching’ that many workers, especially African-Americans and ethnic minorities, are forced to do in their everyday lives to get by under capitalism.
Once the workers successfully manage to unionise and stage a strike during peak calling times, Cash is bribed with a promotion to the position of ‘power caller’ if he breaks the strike. This is a position that would pay much more, but which involves selling weapons of mass destruction and slave labour to massive corporations, as well as betraying his unionised comrades.
Unfortunately, Cash gives in to the temptation and takes the promotion. After this, the film takes further steps into absurdist territory.
A surreal system
We are shown, through Cash’s insights and experiences, the decadence of bourgeois culture, with frequent drug and alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, our protagonist’s black identity is completely erased, as he must always use his ‘white voice’ (provided by Patton Oswalt) and never his normal one.
As we follow Cash into the upper-echelons of capitalist industry, we meet the maniacal, cocaine-addled Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of the WorryFree corporation.
While Lift is an obvious parallel to the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, his parodic persona also represents the real desire of the capitalists to create an even more perfectly obedient workforce. His strategy to do this moves the film toward an utterly surreal – but powerful – conclusion, which carries the inhuman ideology of the capitalist class to its (il)logical conclusion.
In the climax to the film, class struggle reaches fever pitch. All the tools employed by the bosses to keep the exploited in their place are turned against them by a workers’ movement that embodies the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”.
Capitalism and art
The director, Boots Riley, is also the frontman of rap group The Coup, which has been unapologetically revolutionary in its output since the early 1990s, releasing songs with names as evocative as ‘Guillotine’ and ‘5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO’.
Riley draws many ideas in the film from the rich discography of his musical project, as well as incorporating its agitational intention and revolutionary tone.
Riley also channels his own experience as a revolutionary struggling to make a living from the capitalist culture industry into his cinematic debut.
A subplot in the film centres on Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a working-class woman and aspiring artist. This side-story reveals the indignity and crass commercialisation that art is subject to in a society run in the interests of capital. It draws attention to the insufficiency of art projects – even when they are loaded with anti-capitalist messages – to achieve social transformation; a prescient and poignant observation.
Capitalism, class, and race
Critics have rightfully drawn links between Sorry to Bother You and last year’s racial horror Get Out. Both deal with issues of race and power in modern day America.
But Riley’s feature is much more bold and agitational in its politics. It treats racial oppression primarily in its material – rather than psychological – dimension, addressing directly the conditions of American workers today.
The film stresses the importance of unionisation, and reveals the dystopian reality of class society as the exploiters attempt to dominate ever-more over the exploited.
And while many critics have focused on the film’s bleak subject matter, there is much in the film to be optimistic about. After all, it is a testament to the power of the organised working class and inter-racial solidarity.
What we should be taking away from Sorry to Bother You is not simply a gloomy outlook on the horrors of capitalism, but an optimistic glimpse of the possibilities that lie beyond it.
Sorry To Bother You is in cinemas from 7th December.