Sorry To Bother You Is the Anti-Capitalist Black Comedy We’ve Been Waiting For

Boots Riley’s new film shows how black liberation and labor politics are enmeshed. And it’s funny.

Lauren Michele Jackson

Occupational fatalities remain a grave problem in the United States. Yet the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that approximately ten times more Americans die per year from occupational diseases. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Con­trary to con­tem­po­rary debates about so-called iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, black lib­er­a­tion and labor pol­i­tics are quite enmeshed. In W.E.B. Du Bois’s less­er-read tome, the 1935 Black Recon­struc­tion in Amer­i­ca, he con­ceives of slave fugi­tiv­i­ty in terms of a gen­er­al strike against slav­ery”— slaves were also work­ers, and their inter­fer­ence with the nor­mal­ized, inhu­mane hum of South­ern prof­its was a stop­page and protest against unten­able labor con­di­tions. The whole move was not dra­mat­ic or hys­ter­i­cal,” Du Bois wrote, rather it was like the great unbro­ken swell of the ocean before it dash­es on the reefs.” In Boots Riley’s new film Sor­ry to Both­er You, also a sto­ry of work­ers and white cap­i­tal­ists, the exploit­ed rise and crash and recal­i­brate the terms of their labor, though dra­ma and hys­te­ria are not out of the question.

For Riley, who both wrote and directed the film, U.S. class politics originated on the plantation.

For Riley, who both wrote and direct­ed the film, U.S. class pol­i­tics orig­i­nat­ed on the plan­ta­tion. Slav­ery per­vades the film’s real­i­ty, a ver­sion of Oak­land, Calif., in a world and time just slight­ly askew of ours. Back­ground adver­tise­ments pro­mote the mer­its of Wor­ryFree, a com­pa­ny offer­ing food and hous­ing in exchange for life­time labor con­tracts. In a tele­vi­sion inter­view, WorryFree’s CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Ham­mer), rebuffs the obvi­ous con­no­ta­tion— Wor­ryFree is not enslav­ing any­one, but trans­form­ing life” instead. (The film also invokes all the euphemisms sur­round­ing the so-called gig economy.”)

More point­ed­ly, Detroit (Tes­sa Thomp­son), an artist-slash-activist-slash-sign twirler and girl­friend of tele­mar­keter Cas­sius Green (Lakei­th Stan­field), tells Cas­sius, Cap­i­tal­ism began by steal­ing labor from Africans.” Cas­sius isn’t lis­ten­ing, though, trans­fixed by the in-focus blunt in her hand as they stand togeth­er in a half-emp­ty, makeshift gallery space. He’s exhaust­ed, pre­oc­cu­pied by a very 21st-cen­tu­ry (but also eter­nal) prob­lem of cap­i­tal. He’s just been pro­mot­ed, an achieve­ment that alle­vi­ates his mate­r­i­al con­cerns while intro­duc­ing cer­tain eth­i­cal dilem­mas. As per the Bad Boy Enter­tain­ment refrain: mo’ mon­ey, mo’ prob­lems. Cas­sius’ prob­lem? He might be work­ing in the inter­ests of slav­ery. Wor­ryFree is his employer’s biggest client.

The film opens on one of those reg­u­lar sites of work­place indig­ni­ties: the job inter­view. Cas­sius needs a job and will lie to get it. I’m a sales­man at heart,” he claims, more tru­ly than he knows. Oth­er, more ver­i­fi­able lies are caught — the num­ber for a restau­rant list­ed in his sup­posed employ­ment his­to­ry belongs to his friend Sal­va­tor, who already works at Regalview — but the inter­view­er doesn’t care so long as Cas­sius can read well enough to fol­low the firm’s mantra: Stick to the script, S.T.T.S. for short.

At first, shilling ran­dom doo­dads over the phone proves more dif­fi­cult than that. Plat­i­tudes like build a bridge” or make any prob­lem a sell­ing point” fail spec­tac­u­lar­ly on calls that trans­port him into the receiver’s per­son­al space, a clever cin­e­mat­ic con­ven­tion that might also be hap­pen­ing for real: a din­ing room while a cou­ple eats break­fast, a liv­ing room while a cou­ple has sex, the home of an elder­ly woman whose prob­lem turns out to be a dying hus­band. Most every­one hangs up short­ly after Cas­sius utters his new mot­to, Sor­ry to both­er you.” A cowork­er, Dan­ny Glover’s Langston, offers a tip: Cas­sius should use [his] white voice.” Make it the real deal,” says Langston. Not what white peo­ple sound like so much as what they wished they sound­ed like.” Wealthy, priv­i­leged, breezy.”

Cas­sius suc­ceds, sum­mon­ing a voice that is much more than the prop­er” gram­mar and high nasal car­i­ca­ture com­mon to comedic imi­ta­tions of white speech. His white voice is David Cross, man­i­fest­ed as an exag­ger­a­tion but also lit­er­al­iza­tion of the respectabil­i­ty imposed on black folks. Cas­sius ascends to the rank of a spe­cial class called pow­er caller,” a name that, when spo­ken, rings sim­i­lar to col­lar,” con­jur­ing those col­or-coor­di­nat­ed sym­bols of classed employment.

Cas­sius can turn on the voice at will, like a par­lor trick, much to Detroit’s cha­grin. The sync­ing doesn’t feel quite exact, a mis­match that ampli­fies the uneasi­ness of wit­ness­ing a cross-racial ven­tril­o­quist. Cross speak­ing out of Stanfield’s mouth grows less hilar­i­ous as the film goes on. Pro­mot­ed to the glass-walled top-floor office of a pow­er caller, Cas­sius is instruct­ed to use his white voice at all times.” Even­tu­al­ly, his abil­i­ty to codeswitch is impaired. He greets a wak­ing Detroit in the voice while the two are in bed and she balks. He didn’t even real­ize” he’d been using it.

Though sen­sa­tion­al, the voice mere­ly exem­pli­fies how the racial imag­i­na­tion feeds on the hos­til­i­ties of class endem­ic to the Amer­i­can work­place. In a floor meet­ing, super­vi­sors coöpt famil­ial lan­guage to describe pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ships (“team mem­bers,” et al.), but fum­ble Cas­sius’ sug­ges­tion that such affin­i­ty could mean an increase in pay. Diana DeBauch­ery, played by the delight­ful­ly dis­com­fort­ing Kate Berlant, turns his inquiry about ben­e­fits into an abstrac­tion: What is cap­i­tal?” An employ­ee named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) orga­nizes a union­iza­tion effort. Cas­sius, ini­tial­ly on board, retreats upon encoun­ter­ing the uncom­fort­able truth that one can’t be of The Peo­ple and col­lect large sums of mon­ey at the same time. He is injured cross­ing the pick­et line, a bright red head wound that won’t heal.

Though already the film has been posit­ed as the next Get Out,” a thin­ly guised euphemism for smart, comed­ical­ly dra­mat­ic sto­ries about race, Sor­ry to Both­er You unique­ly gen­er­ates its absur­di­ties from accept­ed eco­nom­ic fact. Riley’s film beau­ti­ful­ly, hys­ter­i­cal­ly demon­strates the way sys­tems can wedge them­selves between peo­ple in ways not unre­lat­ed, but also not reducible, to those inter­per­son­al acts of prej­u­dice com­mon­ly called microag­gres­sions.” The strange­ness of the fic­tions we put our faith in is cause to wor­ry. Cor­po­ra­tions are evil. (And if a geeky gazil­lion­aire CEO offers a swirling plate of coke, do not snort it.)

Lau­ren Michele Jack­son teach­es in the depart­ments of Eng­lish and African Amer­i­can stud­ies at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of the forth­com­ing book White Negroes: When Corn­rows Were in Vogue … and Oth­er Thoughts on Cul­tur­al Appropriation.
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