Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You (USA, 2018) is a breath of fresh air, writes Allan Struthers.
Film and television satire has been in the doldrums for a while now, possibly due to production costs. It has been displaced by memes, poorly edited podcasts, and freebase opinion (aka, ‘takes’) on Twitter. Meanwhile, comic social criticism has defaulted to lingering establishment figures from the ’90s such as Brooker, Iannucci, and Coogan, who have never seemed so ill-equipped for the job as it exists today.
So the debut film from Boots Riley, a director and musician with actual experience of politics beyond its media representation, is extremely refreshing. His politically committed background is surely a significant factor making Sorry to Bother You… one of the most keenly observed political comedies to enter the mainstream in a long time.
Set primarily between a towering call centre and a typically embattled black American neighbourhood, Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakieth Stanfield), finds fabulous success in the telemarketing industry through his uncanny knack for impersonating the voice of a white person. Meanwhile, his friends and co-workers are engaged in a struggle for better pay at the same workplace. As Cassius grapples with the personal and political implications of ‘selling out’ his comrades, his affected ‘white voice’ becomes an integral plot device that draws out the fundamental contradiction between labour and capital as it cuts across race.
Even though the film is primarily about politics expressed through withholding labour –and this depiction of a genuinely effective strategy of resistance is what makes it particularly unusual for a Hollywood product – the film also explores the politics of performance in a few different ways.
The everyday performance of race is clearly central. Successfully identifying and performing the dominant (white, capitalist) culture is this One Weird Trick to increase the likelihood of getting ahead in life. And while this generally holds true for workers in any society built on the back of a racialized division of labour, there are moments of inversion where exception proves the rule. Such is tokenism in the entertainment industry, that Riley the director and musician knows from the inside in his professional life, and to which he turns his tone-perfect sardonic wit.
“N****r Shit, N****r Shit, N****r N****r N****r Shit.” is the crowd-pleasing call-and-response pattern that Cassius resorts to leading when pressured into ‘rapping’ at a party full of white people. As a musical form commonly recognised as having its roots in African culture and bound in the history of the transatlantic slave trade, this call-and-response is used by Cash to sell himself as an acceptable exception in a culture dominated by whites. Only, the audience he performs to in the film aren’t at all interested in understanding or appreciating this historical background at all, they only want to see a recognisable caricature that will shore up their prejudices. It is one of three distinctly staged performances that Riley writes into the film’s narrative.
Performing to the same audience, the party’s host – telemarketing/slavery magnate Steve Lift (modelled on Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos) – stands on a raised platform and snorts an idiotic amount of cocaine to rapturous applause, making of himself a grotesque monument to white supremacy. This encapsulates a decadent capitalist culture that celebrates the unthinking hedonism of its ruling elite. It is a moment that incidentally mirrors the story of Billy Childish’s refusal to watch Tracy Emin’s friend making a piece of ‘performance art’ that also involved snorting coke on stage (leading to the emergence of ‘Stuckism’, as a reaction against 1990s sensationalist art).
This is relevant because the story’s third performance is staged in a contemporary art context, and offers the cinema audience a much more complex message about cruelty, exploitation, Hollywood, and ancestral trauma. Troit (Tessa Thompson) engages in a wincingly uncomfortable piece of live art that asks the audience to throw blood-filled balloons and mobile phones at her whilst she repeatedly, obsessively, recites a line from the 1985 film The Last Dragon. The performance here is consciously political and openly confrontational, but it doesn’t allow for the drawing of easy conclusions. However, that the film frames this in relation to an ongoing struggle in organised labour, weaving its characters’ ‘real-life’ problems into the way that this performance plays out, nods to the fact that artworks are never hermetically sealed events/texts, and that Sorry to Bother You… the film, is no exception to this rule.
Many in the audience for Riley’s film will be in fairly close proximity to workplace struggles such as those which structure the plot of Sorry to Bother You... It depicts a background reality that we can easily relate to: it’s a Western city buckling under all the miserably familiar pressures of capitalism.
Before things get incredibly weird and allegorical (no spoilers here), extraordinary scenes take place that demonstrate the viable continuation of working class resistance. In this sense, the film is an intervention in the social processes that conditioned its production… although some time-saving short-cuts have been taken in coming to represent the long process of building support for a strike.
Maybe I would like to see Hollywood films that feature lots of dialogue from organising meetings, but I can also recognise that this might currently have quite limited appeal. So, whilst we don’t get an entirely clear picture of how popular support for industrial action is won, at least its necessity is spelled out and its positive effects foregrounded. As compensation for this lack of procedure, Riley eventually gives viewers a revolutionary fantasy of mythical proportions, bearing the message that capitalism necessarily contains within it the forces that will bring about its own eventual supersession.