Review Movie Sorry to Bother You theaters in summer 2018
About the Film Movie Sorry to Bother You Boots Riley’s latest film project, “Sorry to Bother You,” hit theaters in summer 2018. The movie is set in Oakland, California, and follows Cassius Green, a seemingly normal guy just trying to get by. Cassius takes a job at a telemarketing company where he’s told to “stick to the script.” As he adjusts to his new role, he makes friends with a few of his coworkers, including Langston (played by Danny Glover), who advises him that a key to making sales is using his “white voice.”
We learn that the “white voice,” in telemarketing, is selling a pitch like you’re worry-free and have your life put together. The voice is several octaves higher and is about emanating a carefree energy—absolutely no desperation allowed. Cassius masters this skill swiftly and soon moves up the corporate ladder, all while trying to balance his relationships with his partner and his new work friends, who have not been as successful as him. As Cassius becomes more successful, his coworkers plot protests against their company. This creates the main conflict in the film: will Cassius choose his own prosperity, or the collective care of his fellow workers?
AA: One of the major clients of Cassius’ telemarketing firm is “WorryFree,” a company that promotes waste reduction and downsizing. How do you see this as contributing to the film’s narrative?
SA: WorryFree promotes downsizing and limiting waste, but all while subjecting the people who work in its factories to harsh labor conditions and cramped, inhumane living conditions—under the guise of “stability.” It’s a front for taking advantage of the workers while being able to make a profit off of them. There’s even a scene in the film that shows a liquor store with a WorryFree ad tagged over that reads, “slavery at work.”
WorryFree’s role illustrates an important point about how movements
and ideas can be co-opted, and how it’s important to look below the surface.
In theory, downsizing and living minimally have taken hold in our society
because of the positive impact they might have on our carbon footprints
and in addressing our alienation from each other. However, in this case,
the downsizing is only in the name of cutting costs on taking care of workers.
This reminds me of the “who pays” question that the creators of the short
animation The Story of Stuff address: when consumers are offered cheap prices,
it’s only because they’re not assuming the full costs of creating a product,
and the gap is absorbed by various people along the chain of production.
AA: How does the film demonstrate the power of the collective—of community
organizing—when confronting powerful corporations?
SA: At one point in the film, an unnamed female protester throws a soda can
at Cassius’ head as he heads into work with the other “Power Callers.”
As a Power Caller, he gets to take the golden elevator to the top of the building,
and one of the acts of protest among his fellow workers is trying to use force to
prevent him and others from getting inside.
The community uses Cassius’
run-in with the protester as a symbol for their cause of unionizing and agitating
against unfair wages and labor conditions. This makes for a good symbol because
the action goes viral and is a physical “win” against the company.
It’s important to note that the girl who throws the soda can ends up “selling out”
by becoming the face of the soda company, which seems to illustrate the ways
that movements/protests can take a negative turn.
This reminds me of an incident
that happened in real life with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. A photo
went viral of a BLM protester facing a line of heavily armed policemen, with her
hand up in a peaceful attempt to keep them from using force against the crowd.
In an insensitive twist on this, celebrity model Kendall Jenner recreated the action
in a Pepsi commercial, going up to a line of policemen and handing one of them a Pepsi.
The commercial sparked outrage by making a mockery of the movement.
SA: What does the film’s use of satire—through its display of “code switching” (the voice that Cassius assumes when he’s on the phone or at work)—say about corporate culture in the U.S.? Is satire a useful tool for social change?
AA: The code switching in the film signifies that, in order to be successful in corporate America as a person of color, you need to not only to work extra hard to be given the same opportunities, but also to compromise who you are. For example, in one scene Cassius goes to a work party where the CEO tells him to rap. Cassius says he doesn’t know how to, and then all the white people start chanting “RAP, RAP, RAP” (assuming that because he’s black, he knows how to rap). He ends up just saying the same thing over and over again using the “n” word while they chant it back at him.
Another memorable element of satire related to code switching occurs when Cassius “drops in” to the homes that he’s calling to give the audience a visual reference for when he uses his regular voice versus his “white voice.” Satire is also powerful in the company’s “stick to the script” rule,
which symbolizes how corporate culture often forces you to go with
the norm—how things have always been—and to never question when something is unjust.
I think satire can be used as a tool for social change in some cases, but not all. When satire becomes more offensive and less effective, and the message is hidden behind a veil of bitterness, it isn’t satire anymore—it’s just an attack method. But I think it’s done correctly in the film.
SA: What are your thoughts on Cassius’ girlfriend (Detroit) functioning as his consciousness—the voice of reason, per se?
AA: I’m a little conflicted on this one. On the one hand, I love the strong, independent, confident woman that Detroit’s character is: a “rebel” for a good cause and a good representation of the modern woman. But the other part of me feels like she’s meant to be a stereotypical version of a feminist in current culture. For me, Detroit is on the line of satirizing modern feminism while also reinforcing a stereotype of modern feminism.
I got major “Quentin Tarantino” vibes when watching her on screen. Tarantino is all about over-exaggeration in his films: playful use of color and loud/dramatic music. Detroit seems like she’d be a character in one of his movies, from her statement earrings, to the music that plays when she flips her signs at the sign shop (making it look like she takes her job seriously but not too seriously), to her dramatic art show in which she uses her own version of the “white voice.”
AA: As Cassius climbs the corporate ladder, he eventually meets the CEO of WorryFree, who shares that he’s designed a drug to turn his workers into horse/people hybrids—”equisapiens”—to make them stronger and more efficient. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), Cassius himself turns into an equisapien. What do you think this means?