Spoilers for Sorry to Bother You ahead
The inevitable arrival of the 4th of July brings with it an equally inevitable insistence on celebrating the heroics of the great and noble men who brought this “great” country of ours to the forefront of international prominence. Every single year, a new line of impressionable youngsters is trained to believe in a group of heroes who could do no wrong as they brought down the greatest empire in the world and created a new nation in God’s image. This kind of hero worship is not only immoral, it’s one-sided. It convinces us that the Founding Fathers are worth remembering because they had no flaws of their own. In turn, this indoctrinates anyone who’s willing to listen into believing that the image they should aspire to in life is that of the white man.
But the cold, hard truth is that that’s not the America we know anymore. Today, we champion diversity and welcome viewpoints from all walks of life. The problem is that there are still plenty who think that American now is the same America of 1776, and, as such, are willing to ensure that it stays that way. Our current reality is one in which the so-called “American Dream,” the popular belief that ambition and a strong work ethic can and will pay off in droves for those who are willing to exercise both to the fullest extent, is still egregiously used to misdirect people into believing in a financial fantasy. Day by day, the ingrained myth that is American capitalism allows those with financial power to strip those who feed their success of any kind of voice or identity. Subservients are tasked with remaining cogs in a machine that benefits very few. So the question is, why should we celebrate the past this weekend when there’s so much wrong with the present that it has created? And with that in mind, I can’t think of a film that actively probes this question, and has more fun doing it, better than Sorry to Bother You (2018).
White Voice as Financial Success as White Supremacy
Boots Riley’s satirical denouncement of capitalism engages with the factors that allow it to thrive while also demonstrating how easily it’s able to quell the revolutionary movements intent on dismantling it. The film centers around Cassius “Cash” Green (LaKeith Stanfield), a young African American man who has recently taken up a job as a telemarketer at RegalView. Thanks to some learned wisdom from his seasoned co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), Cash quickly discovers a lucrative secret to rising through the ranks of his profession while his co-workers struggle to make end’s meet and eventually decide to form a labor union to combat corporate oppression at the hands of their employer. The secret in question: using a “white voice.”
According to Langston, a white voice is not as simple as changing the inflection of one’s voice: “It’s sounding like you don’t have a care. Got your bills paid. You’re happy about your future. You’re about ready to jump in your Ferrari out there after you get off this call.” In short, a white voice is meant to reflect what his clients “think they’re supposed to sound like.” Within the context of the film, it’s necessary for those who employ it to assume the presence of someone who embodies success, which, in turn, refers to an embodiment of the callous and insensitive attitudes that America’s minorities are met with as a result of capitalism. In essence, it is the voluntary performance of white privilege and, to a certain extent, white supremacy.
Sorry to Bother You pokes fun at the absurdities of code-switching in over-dubbing Stanfield’s lines with the voice of white actor David Cross. The act itself is, as expected, absolutely hilarious in its shock value, at least for the first few times you hear it. As time passes, however, it reveals the extent to which the socially-constructed dichotomy between black and white America has tilted the scales in favor of the latter, especially in a contemporary setting. More often than not, Sorry to Bother You’s social commentary is reliant on its manipulation of the elements of white culture that many take for granted, the elements that many don’t realize make all the difference in what society does and does not tolerate. In assuming the appearance of a white person, Cash embraces the very indifference with which capitalism views those of other races, an action the film deliberately paints in a humorous light in order to question the ideologies behind it.
Indifference is Ignorance is Bliss
Not only does success in a capitalist society invite indifference, but its appeal just as easily invites ignorance toward those who suffer as a result of power being placed in the hands of the few. People often choose to live carefree with little to no sense of true history outside of what is mainly glorified, and, consequently, they actively forget the plethora of laws and social structures that were established in order for them to succeed in life, and for others not to.
Similar processes are played out in Sorry to Bother You after Cash becomes a “Power Caller” for RegalView and begins to sell labor from WorryFree, a corporation that secures jobs, good food, and housing for people willing to sign lifetime employment contracts. With his wealth and upper class lifestyle, Cash begins to alienate his union friends and his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist, because his attraction toward material gain results in a newfound inability to truly engage with the exploitation they are still trying to overcome. This is well demonstrated when Detroit attempts to explain the significance of her latest art piece, a meditation on the exploitation of African slaves, and he almost immediately tunes her out and shifts his focus to the joint in her hand.
His ignorance toward his friends’ exploitation is due to his gradual transformation into the kind of figure embodied by his white voice, which promotes a materialistic, emotionally bankrupt type of success, and which he is required to use at all times while working as a Power Caller. It’s only in the instances in which he is coerced out of using it that he is re-subjected to bouts of racial objectification. This is well demonstrated when he is invited to a party by WorryFree’s corrupt CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), during which he is demoralized when the mostly white attendees force him to rap for them; he eventually gives in to their demands by repeatedly shouting the same racial slur to a musical beat while Lift’s guests ignorantly repeat him. This is paralleled in a later sequence when, in an attempt to expose the true nature of WorryFree’s practices, Cash willingly subjects himself to public humiliation on a game show entitled I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me.
These experiences cause him to question how society really views him and others who look like him, and he develops a regretful demeanor that is shunned by his fellow Power Callers, especially fellow white voice user, Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick), whose real name is deliberately bleeped out. The very presence of Mr. _____ is palpable because the persona created through his white voice is one who only exists to please his employers while simultaneously doing damage to those he had to walk over in order to get to where he is in the corporate world. That he encourages a black co-worker not to worry about the potential for future damage only amplifies how removed from his true identity he has become. Mr. _____ becomes the soulless mirror through which Cash comes to understand what kind of person he himself will become should he choose to fully embrace a capitalist lifestyle.
The Reformers Become the Reformed
While capitalism has the ability to downplay the suffering of the lower class, it equally thrives on finding ways to eradicate dissent on the part of those who seek reform, especially in the consumer culture we currently find ourselves in. Sometimes the only way to stop a revolution is to claim it as one’s own, and with such easy access to the kinds of commodities that people are eager to get at themselves, co-opting the very idea of rebellion is as second nature as furthering material status.
This is a notion that Sorry to Bother You gleefully sends up, especially when Cash begins to cross the picket line amidst the chaotic strike against RegalView. In the process, a woman protester throws a can of soda at his head. This action is caught on video, which becomes a viral Internet meme, turning the woman into an overnight celebrity and spokesperson for the soda company. In this instance, a genuine act of rebellion against the elite is manipulated by the elite to draw the perpetrator away from the movement and into their ranks. The act itself is stripped of its purpose and meaning, and the woman is severed from any kind of beliefs she may have previously had.
The film’s own exploitation of capitalism as a commodifier of rebellion is taken to extremes in the film’s third act, when Cash discovers Lift’s true plan to turn his workers into “Equisapiens,” human-horse hybrids designed to increase productivity at the cost of their lives. Lift proposes that Cash become one himself while under the employment of WorryFree, inspiring revolution among the others while reporting everything to Lift, thereby ensuring that their rebellious thoughts never become reality. Given the sudden shift in tone it takes at this point in the narrative, Sorry to Bother You uses this revelation as a reasonable conclusion to what can only be seen as capitalists cheapening the efforts of the oppressed by using their power to muddy the meaning behind their movement for fair treatment. That Cash’s subsequent call for action against WorryFree from the media in the wake of his rejection of Lift’s proposal falls completely on deaf ears and only boosts the company’s labor profits only augments the film’s negative feelings regarding the myth of American capitalism even further.
Sorry to Bother You ultimately speaks to the unfair advantages that the country’s power structures award to those with the resources to control others, as Lift’s easy access to the media allows his opinion to be the only one that matters in the eyes of the unsuspecting and easily impressed public. Moreover, it reveals the extent to which the American Dream has any true validity. It postulates how the promise of success and fulfillment as promoted by the American Dream more often than not leads to the undoing of the individual. Interestingly, in its revealing of the American Dream as merely a facade, Sorry to Bother You wisely questions whether or not anything can really be done to undo a system that has been accepted and in action for centuries. In that sense, the story of Sorry to Bother You is the story of America. And it’s a story that hasn’t been finished yet. It doesn’t offer a solution of its own, but rather grounds its censuring of capitalism and racism in its humorous, no-holds-barred, and all together on-the-nose portrayal of the resulting issues.