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. 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 coopt 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.)