Riley: Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s debut film, Sorry to Bother You, is so flamboyant and anarchic in its semi-science-fictional vision that it’s quite hard to condense it to a regular plot synopsis. Simplifying the plot considerably, it essentially revolves around Cassius Green, a telemarketer played by Lakeith Stanfield, and his girlfriend Detroit, an artist, played by Tessa Thompson. Early in the film, Cassius gets a job at a telemarketing company called RegalView, only to quickly discover that he is not very good at making sales, and isn’t earning nearly enough on commission to be able to afford to move out of his uncle’s garage. Two possible solutions quickly present themselves, however, both of which shape much of the rest of the film. On the one hand, Cassius’ coworker Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun, and his friend Salvador, played by Jermaine Fowler, mobilise the RegalView employees, and organise a strike that lasts for weeks or months, forcing their corporate overlords to hire a riot squad each time that they want to bring their remaining workers in through the picket line. The majority of these non-striking workers come from the exclusive “upper floors” of the company, light years away from the telemarketing department and regular employees.
On the other hand, an older colleague, Langston, played by Danny Glover, tells Cassius that he can boost his sales by adopting a white voice whenever he makes a call. This pays dividends immediately, with the result that Langston is promoted to the top floor at the very moment at which the strike mobilises, turning him from a striker to a scab in the space of one day. While Cassius’ sales are part of what qualify him for the top floor, his main asset is his white voice, since the top floor is reserved for those people – white people included – who have mastered the art of speaking white. As Langston reminds Cassius, speaking white isn’t simply a matter of impersonating white people, but of sounding assured, sounding like you have a future, and speaking like white people wished they sounded like, or what they think they’re supposed to sound like. In other words, white voice is presented as a fantasy, while passing for white is a process that is extended to encompass the majority of white people as well, much as those employees who have made it to the top floor of RegalView have managed to make this fantasy sound just plausible enough to be compelling to clients.
While this upward mobility initially provides Cassius and Detroit with enough capital to move into an apartment of their own, it quickly causes a rift between them, partly because Detroit’s own art practice becomes more radical during this time. As she is preparing her latest show – discussed in more detail in a moment – Cassius lands RegalView’s biggest client, a collective organisation known as WorryFree, led by a charismatic corporate executive styled as Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer. In the opening act of the film, WorryFree is presented as a utopian alternative to RegalView, a vision of collective ownership and practical socialism that has the potential to deplete the corporate workplace in name of a new model of labour and society. As it turns out, howeber, WorryFree is more or less in the business of outsourcing slave labour, and turns to Cassius’ renowned white voice to assist them with this task. In the final and trippiest part of the film, it turns out that Steve Lift has turned to biological augmentation to assist with that task, pioneering a new human-horse cross-species – known as equisapiens – that retain most of the cognitive capacity of humans but with more strength and sturdiness when it comes to manual labour.
As that plot summary might suggest, Sorry to Bother You is extremely ambitious, and deliberately shaggy when it comes to its semi-science-fictional universe, resisting any one single vision of blackness, or any one allegory of what blackness can and should be. Like BlackKlansman and Get Out, there’s a strong prescience here that the black male voice, once the driving force of Civil Rights, has somehow been exhausted and eviscerated in its capacity to drive social change in and of itself. Yet Sorry to Bother You arguably goes further than either of those two films in its provocative suggestion that the black male voice is the key mechanism through which American capitalism is and always has been mediated, with the critical caveat that this black voice needs to be subsumed into and contained by the white male voice to act as this political and economic motor engine. More specifically, Riley suggests that the black male voice has typically been the site to which all the excesses and contradictions of capitalism are relegated, only for those excesses and contradictions to be magically resolved through white appropriations of black male culture. Not only does this mean that the black male voice was always a problematic vehicle for Civil Rights when abstracted from a broader social collective – precisely the collective that Black Lives Matter seeks to reinstate – but it also means that the film has to find a way to displace the almost automatic deference to the black male voice as main arbiter and mediator of black activism.
First and foremost, Riley displaces the black male voice as a site of mediation and capitalist convergence by suffusing the film, as a whole, with a divergence, a messiness and an unkempt irreverence that refuses to ever conform to one overarching artistic vision. Much of it exudes an amateur, home movie quality, but not in the sense of suggesting incompetence so much as overcompetence, as if Riley is brokering a diverse skill set, and diverse collective of contributors, that precludes the film conforming exclusively to any one of their voices. As the plot summary above might suggest, that produces a narrative that is almost too overdetermined, intricate and involved for a film, and more akin to the science fiction conceit of a funk album, a trashy paperback, a graphic novel, or some other medium more associated with serial experience and attachment. Put another way, Sorry to Bother You proliferates into so many other media than cinema that it often seems like a mere instalment in a bigger and more amorphous serial universe, an orientation that translates into the unusual way in which space and time are represented within the film’s world itself.
From the very outset, apparently self-contained spaces continually give way to picaresquely contiguous spaces, both in Cassius’ personal life – his bedroom turns out to be open to the entire neighbourhood when the garage door unexpectedly opens – and in his professional life, since the telemarketing job is nothing if not an experience of continuous contiguity that only the most manicured white voice can allow him to survive. At the same time, Riley continually sequesters spaces within other spaces, and opts for unusual and disorienting patterns of natural and artificial light, with the result that every space feels ultra-connected to every other space, but also somewhat notional and hypothetical on its own terms. Nowhere is that clearer than in any early sequence in which Cassius drives through a cross-section of neighbourhoods in Oakland, where the film is set. Not quite continuous enough to suggest a single trip, but not quite discrete enough to be easily subsumed into a montage sequence either, these disparate urban backdrops all feel connected and isolated at the same time, part of a broader urban fabric but also oddly self-contained and free-floating, an experience that is only intensified by the many dreamlike car outings that comprise the film.
Beyond a certain point, those weird thresholds between spaces start to break down the distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic space, as does the soundscape that accompanies them. Bolstered by fades that occur at strange and unexpected moments, Riley draws upon his musical background to revel in the precise nexus between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, with many scenes occurring against dissonant or picaresque sonic accompaniments that are impossible to attribute to the events taking place, but impossible to attribute to a soundtrack in the regular sense, so oddly do they offset the ostensible tone of what is unfolding before us. At moments, the soundscape, helmed partly by Riley and partly by tUnE-yArDs, is more akin to the tunings for a funk jam than a sustained score in itself, just as the unkempt collective atmosphere of the film, and its insistence on the extravagance of the Afrofuturist imagination, is more aligned with funk than any other black musical genre – or, rather, understands funk as expansive and panoramic enough to generate and cultivate every other black musical genre. Nowhere is that nexus between diegetic and non-diegetic sound clearer than in Cassius’ white voice itself, since it is quite unclear whether Stanfield is articulating this voice himself, whether the voice has been superimposed over the scene, or whether Stanfield has articulated the voice himself at some other time and place and Riley has then superimposed it over the scene after the fact.
Taken collectively, these stylistic traits all suggest that black experience can only be properly addressed through off-realism, since realism, as a cinematic register, tends to be defined by default as a white category of experience. At the same time, the corporate world also necessitates an off-realist register, since its claims to dictate realism are in many ways its most powerful asset, as RegalView’s efforts to control its strikers makes so clear. By graduating to the top floor, Cassius becomes a reality modifier, selling a version of what constitutes realism as much as any one product or service. In that sense, the off-comedy of Sorry to Bother You often recalls the Comedy Central series Corporate, especially in the atonal rapidity with which it shifts from one space and scene to the next. Combining the off-realism of black America and the off-realism of corporate America, Riley thus builds an Afrofuturist critique of capitalism realism that resists, above all, the co-option of the black male voice as a tool of corporate control. Nowhere is that clearer than in the combined RegalView and WorryFree Christmas party, where Cassius is only permitted to return to his black voice for the sake of rapping, albeit rapping reduced to its crudest corporate imperatives – a refrain of “nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga shit” that gets the (predominantly white) crowd pumped up enough to maximize their sales during the next financial quarter.
If Sorry to Bother You is deeply sceptical about the capacity of the black male voice to generate change in and of itself, and outside of a broader collective imperative, then it is equally sceptical about the power of gangsta rap to effect social change, or even extricate itself from the very conditions it is supposedly critiquing, without embracing the collective funk ethos that suffuses the film as a whole. More generally, by displacing the black male voice as the epicentre of modern Civil Rights, Riley renders a whole series of resistance options redundant in turn, with the result that the film often plays as a panorama of different types of false consciousness, and the temptations of false consciousness. First, Riley undercuts 60s radicalism in a scene in which Cassius criticizes his landlord Sergio (Terry Crews) for being “the man,” only for Sergio to blithely remind him that he is his uncle. Second, Riley undercuts gangsta radicalism in a scene in which Cassius briefly explores a “ballin shit” VIP section at a local funk nightclub (the only gangsta creeps into the score), only to leave immediately after being jostled and discomforted the moment he arrives. Third, Riley undercuts the rhetoric of black individualism and upward mobility through a ridiculous montage scene in which Cassius and Salvador exchange endless high fives after putting through an early sale. Finally, Riley undercuts sport and masculine fraternity as a vehicle for Civil Rights, with Cassius noting, somewhat peremptorily, that all the local football team really do “is work at a furniture store in the day…and play football at night.”
None of those options are dismissed lightly, and at no point does the film dismiss the plethora of efforts that the black community has made to gain power and visibility. Nevertheless, they are all contained by the advice given by Diane DeBauchery, played by Kate Berlant, a new manager at RegalView who reminds the employees that money isn’t important, since it is social capital, social media and the ability to act as a point of mediation that really counts in the digital era. In effect, she acts as the mouthpiece for the corporate world that the film presents, which seeks to assure black people that actual rights aren’t important, since the black male voice is in the privileged position of already mediating all the rights that white people currently enjoy. It’s the affective logic of slavery – black people don’t need anything because they are the privileged point at which white people get everything – so it’s not surprising that WorryFree, and the corporate ethos that it represents, is gradually presented as the true descendant of slavery in the neoliberal world.
In such an environment, Riley finally suggests, the only option is collective action and a return to – or a revival of – black forms of collectivity that have been somewhat displaced by the fixation on the black male voice to the exclusion of all else, and the corresponding way in which gangsta rap has tended to eclipse or absorb the vast range of other black sounds, both those made in the past and those made in the present. To that end, Riley doesn’t merely depict but enacts the collective funk ethos that is the film’s version of Marxism, creating a work that feels as much like an aesthetic manifesto as a self-contained piece of art in itself. Among other things, that means that Sorry to Bother You contains and enjoins other works of art, most notably Detroit’s practice, which plays as a direct counterpoint to Diane DeBauchery’s speech. Whereas Diane asks black folk to enjoy being a site of mediation, Detroit performatively turns mediation into a burden, by way of an art work in which the audience are required to throw a variety of objects at her face, from sacks of pig blood, to bottles of “Soula” Cola, whose advertising campaign depends partly upon mobilizing Civil Rights rhetoric for the sake of profit. Similarly, where RegalView and Worry Free reduce black expression to the endless refrain of “nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga shit,” Detroit adopts a more expansive and diasporic vision of blackness, lining her gallery walls with a series of large-scale maps of Africa, each of which is adorned in a different way, but each of which is internally different as well, resisting any one clear vision, and any one clear medium, in order to resist the oppressive mediatory role foisted upon blackness by a corporate sphere whose interests directly oppose those of black rights and determinations.
As Detroit’s art practice makes clear, collective action not only involves political action, but challenging the boundaries of what realism and reality can and should enail – collectivism as reality augmentation. That project is both depicted and enacted in the closing act of the film, which focuses on two key events within the broader swathe of Riley’s semi-science-fictional universe. On the one hand, the RegalView protests escalate, and turn into a full-blown unionization, eventually growing so pronounced that they block the upper floor workers from entering the building. On the other hand, WorryFree CEO Steve Lift confides to Cassius that he has pioneered a species known as equisapiens that combine a modified human intelligence with the musculature of a horse, in order to make slave labour even more effective. Not surprisingly, these horses emphasise stereotypical African-American features – noses, lips, phallus size – and are clearly designed to abstract black existence into two key entitles: a point of mediation through which the agenda of the corporation can be perpetuated indefinitely, and a labour force that can be mobilized with minimal resistance.
To that end, Lift offers Cassius the promotion of a lifetime, and the highest possible honour for a black man who has subsumed his own tongue into a white voice. Since the equisapiens may collectivise and revolt, Lift argues, they need a Civil Rights leader of their own, ideally one modelled on Martin Luther King Jr., who can contain their grievances and liaise with corporate. This is the final threshold offered to Cassius, who, Lift cautions, will be required to transform into an equisapien for five years, but will be reversed back to full human status as soon as the job is done. In the most traumatic way, the black male voice, and the spectacle of black male virility, has been co-opted by the forces of neo-slavery, producing a bizarrely comic sequence in which Cassius tries to divest himself of even the most residual of black masculinist features, and gradually suspects that Lift might have already infected him with the equisapien compound. In one particularly surreal scene, Cassius asks Detroit to make sure that his genitals haven’t got any bigger, since that is one of the first indications of the equisapien transformation, as, all of a sudden, the indices of self-sufficient black masculinity turn out to be inimical to the black advancement they were once aligned with.
Both of those strands come together in the final storming of the RegalView strike. At first it appears as if the company – which appear to have brought in the National Guard – have succeeded, only for the equisapiens to get loose and destroy them, before reminding Cassius to stay vigilant if he is going to maintain his connection to the wider black community. There’s no doubt that this part of the film verges on the ridiculous, but it feels intentional, as if the prospect of being paid more, unionizing, or even slightly changing corporate conditions, requires a disruption to the reality principle of the film, just as it required the strikers to think in terms of science fiction as much as direct political action. Like the premise of a funk concept album, the vision here is too anarchic and preposterous to be reined into white notions of realism and decorum, just as the film refuses to end on a note that conveniently contains its collective ambience within the singularity of Riley’s voice either. At first, the final scene seems to be Cassius and Tessa standing in front of his house and observing that “we are a part of something important – changing the world,” only for Cassius to suddenly discover a horse’s nose sprouting before the credits abruptly roll. That’s not the end, however, since Riley now cuts to Cassius as a full equisapien, storming Lift’s house, in what feels more like an out-take or a blooper than a part of the film we’ve seen.
By ending in such a dissonant and disjunctive manner, Riley divests the film of any residual realism that it might have exuded, as well as suggesting that the science fiction absurdism of the equisapien narrative and the more urgent injunctions of the strike narrative are incapable of being extricated from each other. If Cassius is woke enough to resist RegalView and WorryFree, then he is already in some sense an equisapien, or has realized that he is seen as an equisapien, meaning that it finally feels immaterial whether or not the last section is a dream sequence, a hypothesis, an out-take or a direct narrative continuation. Like the anarchic outros on some of the best funk albums, then, Sorry to Bother You doesn’t end so much as bleed into and bother the world that it both enacts and depicts, making for one of the most revolutionary visions of what blackness can and should entail that we’ve seen this century, and a blueprint for black collective action both against and for the future.
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