This article contains spoilers.
Sorry To Bother You is an anti-capitalist “absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing”, says its director Boots Riley. If that’s not enough to make your mouth water, I don’t know what to tell you; Riley’s cocktail of these narrative themes and tools make it irresistible, especially when it comes to its scathing critiques of class politics and late capitalism. For the uninitiated, here’s a trailer to get you started on the tone.
For starters, this movie is steeped in commentary but that certainly won’t stop you from enjoying it. With characters named Cassius “Cash” Green (LaKeith Stanfield), Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) and Mr. _______ (Omari Hardwick), an in-universe TV show called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me”, and a monopolising corporation called “WorryFree”, you know you’re in for a wild ride.
It was first screened at Sundance in 2018, where Riley won the annual Sundance Institute Vanguard Award. The film was first written in 2012 and published as a book in 2014, and during that time the movie had “unfortunately” not become irrelevant, said Riley. Its politics are of the present, one which has not changed enough for the film’s message to become dated.
Sorry To Bother You follows Cassius, who starts work at a telemarketing centre to pay his bills. While the workers there begin to unionise under the guidance of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), Cassius suddenly finds himself able to access a magical “white voice” (more on that later) and is on a straight shot to becoming a “power caller”, a position of prestige within the company. He begins selling weapons of mass destruction and WorryFree’s slave labour after crossing the picket line for better pay.
Capitalism & Class Politics
Our modern understandings of class originate from the political theorist, Karl Marx. And if you’ve spent any time on campus I don’t have to tell you that his theories are still influencing politics today, you’ve all probably seen the Marxism conference posters. Marx believed that we could divide capitalist societies into groups, one of which being the working class, who are isolated from the rest of the groups in the hierarchy of capitalism as they are at the bottom.
Marx’s theory of alienated labour is particularly important to Sorry To Bother You’s anti-capitalist message. The idea of alienated labour can be both a psychological reality as well as a socio-political one and follows the idea of the essential desire to work and create collaboratively—a desire Marx thought was intrinsic to all human beings—being corrupted by capitalism. You can be removed from the products you make (e.g. in a clothing factory making clothes worth more than you can afford), or removed from your own labour, not being able to work on your own terms and being forced to work to survive (e.g. making money in an exploitative, underpaying job). These are all versions of alienation.
Riley says something to this effect in an interview on the film: “The new capitalism is ‘there is no capitalism here, what are you talking about?’ You know? It’s like, ‘this is not a workplace, this is a beanbag room, and I’m not your boss, I’m your friend who tells you what to do’.” Nowadays, capitalism not only alienates us from the products of our labour but also removes the simple pleasure of being able to complain about work and understand its unfair transactional nature. An alienation of our labour from our own profit.
[Sorry To Bother You] shows us a capitalism that promises us happiness through rampant consumption. Just get a job, then get sucked into the system and eventually lose your humanity. There is no way out. Have a nice day at work! (Touré)
STBY is wrapped up in class politics. The protagonist’s name phonetically resembles “Cash is Green”, and picket lines, protests and police brutality are common themes throughout. At WorryFree, workers sign on for a life of servitude in return for free housing, food, clothes and amenities. They are seen wearing factory clothing and hairnets even when in their bunks, stacked in rooms that are decorated garishly and advertised with an air of over-compensating the ease it takes to get in on the deal.
One term I had not come across until researching this film was “social thriller”, coined by Jordan Peele (dir. Get Out); a word that describes the kind of film which places a social system or idea as the villain. In Get Out, it’s racism. In Sorry To Bother You, it’s capitalism which is strictly and unequivocally the enemy; the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others is the demon the film is dealing with.
The Third Act
This is the part of the movie I definitely don’t want to spoil for you. If you have not watched it yet, and if anything I have said already has sounded even mildly interesting to you, go see it before you read the rest of this article. This is your final warning.
Just when you thought you’d gotten a grasp on the world set up in the first two acts of Sorry To Bother You, you get hit in the face with a whopper of a curveball. There are horse people. “Equisapiens”.
Sorry To Bother You does not shy away from vivid imagery; in some early scenes, Cassius and his desk are thrown into a customer’s living room while he’s on a telemarketing call. All of Detroit’s scenes are loaded with symbols and deeper meaning. So, are the equisapiens real in the fiction of Sorry To Bother You? Yes, and it matters for our analysis today that the role they take up in STBY’s body horror and class politics makes it such a powerful critique of hypercapitalism.
Concept art for the Equisapiens, by Bryan Metheney (www.brynnart.com)
The equisapiens are the solution to getting cheaper, more productive labour for WorryFree. They transform their workers into horse people to make them stronger and more efficient workers, robbing them of their humanity and making them appear monstrous and animalistic, and the scene where they are revealed transforms the movie entirely.
For Cassius, I needed to tie the idea of exploitation into something that he felt in his body when he saw it. Genetic manipulation gets to people’s sense of self. The idea of it being workhorses — I was looking for something that also had to do with the way that I feel capitalism is making us right now, which is to be more efficient monsters, right? If you take a shit without doing emails at the same time, you’re meant to feel unproductive. So why horses? We think of a horse as something that’s for work. It’s in our language — horsepower. (Boots Riley, The Vulture)
After one particularly horrifying scene, WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) explains to Cassius that the equisapiens are a logical progression of the ideologies and goals of his company.
“I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy”, says Lift when he’s explaining this to Cassius, “that I was doing this for no reason. This isn’t irrational”. Despite the obvious evil in forcibly turning people into equisapiens, the reveal of this news to the public causes WorryFree’s stock to rise. It’s bringing up a Frankenstein-esque conversation or question of “the real monster”, and our fingers should point to Lift.
Bodies in STBY are incredibly important to the meaning Riley was trying to convey. Detroit, as described by Kirsten Coleman (makeup artist), is “very political, […] she uses her entire body as a statement […] everything is a message”.
The message of the film too is that, if you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy, you have to sell your body and your dignity just to survive. “Selling your body” is a phrase often used to criticise sex workers, but if their work is considered “selling your body”, then so should any work which involves manual labour; working in a coal mine or construction site is equally selling your body.
To make its point abundantly clear, STBY turns this critique into a form of horror submerged in materialism – the horror of losing your identity and being transformed into one horse in a herd of labourers. To survive you must sell your body, and your labour. To succeed, you must surrender your morality and sense of personal, individual identity. Why do you think it’s Mr. _______ who’s at the top of the power caller hierarchy?
Politics of Race – “The White Voice”
To see this epic allegory about race is interesting. In America, we are constantly talking about race, even when we’re pretending that we’re not talking about race. (Touré)
Boots Riley and STBY do not shy away from race politics in this criticism of capitalism. Race cannot be separated from this film’s meaning and origin, nor from its purpose as a film. Magic realism itself is deeply intertwined in racial politics and narratives on these subjects.
The mechanism of the “white voice” is particularly interesting, that a character of colour in this film can find success by embodying whiteness, and (as in the movie) are able to sound “worry-free” to customers. White voices are not race-specific and are more to do with the kinds of personas and identities we must all portray to get ahead in a capitalist society. Cassius uses his white voice to sell labour, and Detroit also uses her British white voice (Lily James) to sell her art to a mostly-white crowd. It’s a customer-service voice. People of colour often have to “code-switch” to be successful in capitalist societies, sometimes creating the kind of crisis in identity that we watch Cassius endure. “It’s not about selling out,” writes Touré, “It’s about finding the personality that helps you advance.”
The movie takes many opportunities to critique the parts of black culture considered consumable within capitalism, most memorably the rap scene and the film’s frequent use of the “white voice” code-switching. The film is about “the theft and repossession of black bodies by white America, the dark reality of labour in capitalist society and the way in which these villainous forces are disguised”. By making these forces visibly monstrous, STBY unveils the marketed guises of capitalism.
One thing to take from the analysis of all of these symbols, this meaning, these texts and this film, is that it is allegorical and shows a prediction of the future of our capitalist culture if it is to continue on its current path.
WorryFree symbolises everything to do with Reaganomics, with de-regulated markets, privatised essential services, extortionate healthcare and student debt, income inequality and exploited working classes. The equisapiens are representative of everything to do with the ways our bodies are policed and horrified, transformed by our workplaces.
Detroit is named after a city which has been a hub of racialised poverty and working-class struggle. Salvador is named after a small country in Central America which, within the last 50 years, saw a civil war between a left-wing insurgency and death squads alongside a national military backed by the USA, brought about through severe repressive military rule and inequality. The aforementioned death squads killed over 30,000 people; El Salvador has still not fully recovered.
The message of Sorry To Bother You was not hopelessness. It ends with a bang, with people rising up and fighting for a different outcome, for a future worth living in. Sorry To Bother You is science-fiction, but not futuristic. It is about our present, about the choices we have today. It is magical-realism, but not completely fantastical. It is representative of the kinds of issues facing minorities and the working class, and especially in the places where those identities intersect. It is absurd, but not unimaginable, and it is dark, but not without hope. “So much of the world is hilarious,” says Riley, “but it’s no joke”.
Coming to the right side of the struggle says Boots Riley, “has to do with people understanding where their actual power is, but that starts with their view of themselves and where they stand in the world”.
I think that it is a happy ending, but it’s a different kind of happy ending. It’s one that says nobody gets out of this clean and there’s no way we can’t be affected by this world. But the point is you keep fighting. And that’s the happy ending. (Boots Riley, Thrillist)
To wind up, I’ll leave you with some extra reading and Sorry To Bother You’s incredible soundtrack by The Coup (as if this movie wasn’t perfect enough already). This is Riley’s band, just so you know.