Boots Riley, a musician and communist activist, has gotten into film making at a late age, and it shows. Unlike the Cohen brothers, for example, who can say anything they want but haven’t quite figured out what they want to say, Riley knows exactly what he wants to say, but doesn’t quite have the cinematic vocabulary to put it all into a movie. For the most part, that’s OK. If you think of it as a series of anti-capitalist gags, some of which work, and some of which fall flat, rather than a coherent whole, Sorry to Bother is almost a miracle, a pro-union, pro-working-class, pro-solidarity film that sees upward mobility as a moral failure, and rebellion as necessary for our very survival.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the movie’s aesthetic failings. They dilute Riley’s otherwise terrific message, and allow people who want to pretend the film isn’t about capitalism to pretend the film isn’t about capitalism. Because Riley can never quite hit upon that one image that sums up his Marxist view of the world, in the end, Sorry to Bother you becomes more about the morality of “selling out” — something which few workers even have the option of trying — than about capitalism itself. The film’s final surreal twist — which I suspect was much stronger and more offensive in the script’s first draft — never quite works. David Lynch could have pulled it off. I just don’t think Boots Riley has the cinematic experience for so ambitious a poetic device.
I have yet to decide if Sorry to Bother You’s central conceit, telemarketing , which is obviously dated — do they even have telemarketers anymore — works as a metaphor for capitalism, or just straight up fails. Boot’s Riley, who’s 47-years-old and part of my generation, like me, remembers that back in the 1990s, telemarketing was the one job you could get when you couldn’t get anything else. The film’s millennial hero, Cassius or “Cash” Green, played by the 26-year-old Lakeith Stanfield would probably be more likely to turn to the kind of short term, ill-paying job that killed Pablo Avendano, or, perhaps, to driving an Uber. Riley’s vision of where capitalism is taking us, on the other hand, right back to slavery, is dead on and positively chilling. Not only does “Worry Free,” the slave broker that Cash is eventually assigned to market to overseas clients, work as both a warning about the past and a metaphor for the present, the gig economy, it’s probably going to become the reality over the next few decades. If you want to see how slavery is going to be marketed to the American people, both white and black, in the not so distant future, go see Sorry to Bother You. That alone is worth the price of admission.
The acting in Sorry to Bother you, including the widely criticized Armie Hammer as Worry Free’s CEO Steve Lift , is almost uniformly excellent, especially Tessa Thompson, as Cash’s girlfriend “Detroit,” I almost wish Boots Riley had given her a more morally ambiguous character. I get Riley’s point. Incels and misogynists believe that beautiful woman are mainly attracted to money. That Cash would have a hot girlfriend even when he was a penniless loser would be incomprehensible to the typical conservative or libertarian. When Detroit briefly dumps Cassius for “Squeeze,” a union organizer played by the Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, it’s not because he’s poor. It’s quite the opposite. Detroit loses interest in Cassius precisely because he’s become upwardly mobile. “In the days when you were hopelessly poor,” Morrissey once crooned, “I just liked you more.” Being part of the upper-middle-class, Riley corrected observes, means that you are also part of exploiting and dehumanizing, quite literally in this film, but I won’t give any spoilers, your fellow man, or woman.
The problem with Detroit’s righteous moral character, however, is that it detracts from the Faustian drama supposedly at the center of Sorry to Bother You. Steve Lift tempts Cassius with money, drugs, and women, but in the end he has to rely more on coercion than seduction. None of the faceless women at the decadent “Worry Free” party can remotely compete with Thompson’s Detroit, so why even bother? Cassius isn’t particularly interested in being rich anyway. Indeed, the richer he becomes, the more miserable he becomes, going from a confident young man with a sense of humor to a neurotic, paranoid wreck whose own body seems to be attacking him. Cash wants to be able to pay the rent money he owes to his uncle, buy a workable car, and have enough private space to let him and his girlfriend fuck in peace. Cash doesn’t want power, wealth, a harem or easy women, drugs, or fame. All he really needs is a living wage, something which, Riley implies, under late capitalism almost means you have to sell your soul to the devil.
Final Note: Some people have compared Sorry to Bother You with Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but other than being made by first time black directors, they have little in common. Get Out is about race. Its villains are creepy, white Clinton/Obama neoliberals obsessed with young black men and their physical essence. Sorry to Bother You, while it certainly addresses race, is more about class. The film’s “white voice” that’s caused so much debate is more about assimilation into the bourgeoisie than it is about identity politics per say. Putting on your white voice could be about a black man trying to sound white in order to make a sale over the telephone, but it could also be about a first or second generation Jewish or Italian immigrant Anglicizing his or her name to get into the country club or the white shoe law firm on Wall Street. The coming reintroduction of slavery, Riley warns us, won’t spare white people any more than it will spare black people. So if you value your freedom, rebel.