July 26, 2018
Directed by Boots Riley
Reviewed by Chad Pinot
After generating buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, self-described communist Boots Riley’s debut film “Sorry to Bother You” is garnering critical praise and filling theaters.
Set and filmed in Oakland, California in a not-so-distant present, the film tracks Cassius “Cash” Green, something of an anti-hero, as he navigates the corporate world amidst the Bay Area’s immense housing crisis. Months behind on his rent, but fortunately still housed unlike people in the blocks of real-life tent cities shown the film, “Cash” takes a low-level job at a telemarketing firm.
He struggles at first, seemingly lost and out of place, but quickly begins to climb the ladder due to his ability to speak in a “white voice” as a salesman. When being taught the trick by an older employee (Danny Glover), Cassius says “but I already sound white”. Glover’s character replies: “You gotta sound like you’ve got your bills paid, rent on time, not a care in the world. Be the person they want to be.”
Cassius is promoted into a new role (selling something more sinister than travel DVDs) and is quickly seduced by the life provided: a nice apartment, money to pay back debts to family, nice clothes, and “success” amidst a growing labor insurrection in which he finds himself on the wrong side.
With this comes an identity crisis. Cash is criticized by his girlfriend for how his new life is changing him, leaving his more authentic past behind as her own artistic career revolves around “selling art to rich people”. There seems to be no real way out, or no true moral choice to stay afloat.
All this occurs against a backdrop of growing influence of “WorryFree” (read: Amazon). Many seem to be choosing WorryFree’s guarantee of lifetime employment, food, and housing (in tiny bunk beds in crowded rooms. In lieu of automation, WorryFree is pursuing other means to boost productivity and profits. Their CEO echoes today’s common sense techie-ism of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — but with a more sinister tint — “This isn’t slavery”.
The dire state of society is all too obvious and the impotency is palpable. Cassius leaks something significant later in the film, something that is quickly forgotten while other forms of resistance are reduced to internet memes. Another character says “When people see something bad but see no way they can help, they try to forget about it.” But there is something to do about it, and collective militant labor action seems to be the only solution provided by the film.
Riley is quick to dismiss the film as embodying anything unique about the Trump era and he frequently reminds interviewers that the screenplay was first published in the literary magazine McSweeney’s in 2012. “We’re in the same economic system, which is why it was relevant then and is now.”, Riley wrote on Twitter.
And the film emerges from a long career of radical art. Riley was MC in a rap group, The Coup, a blend of Bay Area hip-hop, funk, and revolutionary politics (the most notable track entitled Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO). The track “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” off of the 1994 album “Genocide and Juice” weaves racism, police brutality, poverty, and gentrification in a fast-paced, biting critique like we see in Sorry to Bother You. While developing a devoted underground following and some critical praise, The Coup never reached the levels of mainstream notoriety we are beginning to see for Boots Riley now.
It’s somewhat surprising and unprecedented that such a frankly anti-capitalist film has received so much positive press and widespread acclaim from the media class. It’s hard to think of a film as politically important and radical as Sorry to Bother You generating Oscar buzz in quite some time. And why has this film, rather than the Coup’s five albums suddenly burst into the mainstream?
In many ways, the contradictions present today are too much for the ruling class to ignore. Like Obama early last week parroting Bernie Sanders’s talking points or the recent doting press for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York Times to “Medicare for All” becoming a household phrase, the sense that the system is broken is quickly moving from radical platitude to liberal consensus.
But to those in power, that might still be permissible if the impotency felt by many is channeled into support for the Democratic Party. One can imagine a viewer cheering the labor insurrection in Sorry to Bother You while being forced to think support for Democrats is the only answer to post-Janus state of labor.
If the dystopian but all-too-real urgency of Sorry to Bother You can tell us anything, it’s that now is not the time for moderation: the choice is either corporate slavery or organized struggle. It’s telling that there is little mention of any politicians in the film, and maybe that’s because they are more-or-less irrelevant to the characters depicted — life itself is already unbearably overwhelming. And yet the viewer leaves the theater energized. At least for now, the fact that a film so on-the-nose is filling theaters is cause enough for hope.