Keith Stanfield speaking at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International, Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
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Who is bothered by Lakeith Stanfield? “Sorry to Bother You” movie wants to save the workers’ movement

Boots Riley’s directorial debut won the Independent Spirit award and was praised by Trevor Noah as the most brainy movie since The Matrix. The Lakeith Stanfield-led dark comedy interrogates the allure of goods and images, bare life, instrumental reason, the military-tech complex and other conditions holding back the workers’ movement.

Revolution is a lonely position. The conscious artist is the one who looks over her shoulder and sees no one. But nothing is the same in our age of mainstream consciousness where social reality is the commodity and protest is the spectacle. Donald Trump’s presidency, remarkable for personalising resistance movements against one comedian, represents such a turn. Protest comes into question because it has morphed into the establishment position. Comedy also comes into question because nobody caricatures Donald Trump like Donald Trump. Rapper, screenwriter and social organiser Raymond Lawrence “Boots Riley” sat down to his first movie in this context.

Marxist Riley left references to his president out of his 2018 movie, Sorry to Bother You, so they do not feed the buzz at the expense of his less comfortable communist ideas. This lone-wolf angst is shared by Kendrick Lamar whose 2021 feature finds the revolution more crowded than when he left it and puts “overnight activists” on notice. 

“When you are telling someone something that is different from how they view things, different from how they view the world, it feels like an annoyance or a bother,” Riley explained the title of his movie, his intention to speak outside the coordinates of accepted protest. The problem of “protest as spectacle” haunts Riley throughout his directorial debut. He does not try to artificially short-circuit the spectacle but keeps going back to old-fashioned worker organisation.

Riley speaking at a rally for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2017. Photo credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen – Own work/CC BY-SA 4.0.

Workers have long experienced the allure of goods and images as freedom from the daily grind. Here, they are just where the system wants them, doubling the chains that Marx prophesied they would throw off. Riley’s movie interrogates the range of conditions conspiring against workers, from bare life and black tax to instrumental reason, consumerism and the spectacle.

The “white voice” mediates between have-nots

We follow the life of an out-of-luck young Black man, Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield). Cassius shares a reduced life with his artist-fiance, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in his uncle’s garage. He lands a job at RegalView and soon becomes the company’s telemarketing boy wonder. “Sorry to bother you,” he nasally chats up consumers to seduce them into some kind of spending. Wherever you are in life, there is always a sweeter spot for your money; and if you are hardly getting by, Mr. Green knows just how to make your problem his selling point.

Senior workmate Langston (Danny Glover) teaches Cassius to use his “white voice” for success with clients. The “white voice” projects affluence to clients of various positions in life, from those who will sell themselves into modern slavery and those who will buy high-end tech solutions. In our internet paradise where we also sell people (ourselves), have-nots cannot reach each other without the affected mediation of the white voice.

While there is nothing to bother us in the miracle world sold by Cassius, there are no miracles in the world that he and his fellow workers at the telemarketing firm inhabit. RegalView employees are caught up in financial binds that keep basic human decency out of their reach, and often clash with their employers who turn them against each other and fiercely put down job action. 

We tend to hold on the most when we have the least to lose from dirty employers. Cassius’ dilemma is worse. Expecting to be fired for his role in “putting the phones down,” he is promoted to the elite telemarketers upstairs, so that he is separated from the struggles of his comrades. The moral problem of his new job – RegalView’s “power callers” sell weapons and “slave labor” on behalf of WorryFree – is not only to be considered against the promise of an affluent life, but also against saving his uncle from losing his house.

Buying back our souls 

Cassius crash-lands into a private setting and locks eyes with the customer on the other end of the line. Whether you are running through your bills, bonding with your partner on the couch or relieving yourself in the one place you can be by yourself, RegalView’s talisman drops right before your face to guess for you just what you need to buy. 

This magical operation is as real as everyday life gets. The triumph of consumerism today is in how it sponges us up to return us products in the shape of our souls. Instead of writing the pitch, the salesperson voices your most intimate thought-tracks back to you. Riley has spoken on how the telemarketing angle comes from two phases of his life where he had to do the job. He broadens it in the movie into a metaphor of marketing in the age of new media.

NoViolet Bulawayo at Melbourne, Australia. Photo credit: EuphoricOrca/ CC BY-SA 4.0

In Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, the children watching porn in the basement mute the video so that they can make the sounds themselves. Companies equally revel in being the soundtrack to the poverty porn in which they operate. And, just as sexual fantasy is more rewarding within realistic proximity, so that porn viewers are statistically faithful to their race and culture, the main seduction of modern corporates is their ability to soak up the social concerns of their environment while making no structural concession, even to amplify the voices of assertive citizens while allying with the big boys in the realpolitik. 

Whereas the corporates of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle would have their names in my face as the material of my passive contemplation, the new capitalists wantame and face, community and cause, body and soul, reflected back to me. Before black Twitter gets to work, there is already Adidas standing with Colin Kaepernick, Nike with Caster Semenya and Nando’s dropping subliminals on hapless African dictators. 

Horsemen of the apocalypse 

Slave labour kicks in during early scenes of Sorry to Bother You when it is revealed that human capital behemoth WorryFree is offering people accommodation and food in return for lifetime contracts. The workers, housed open-plan in rooms with several bunks, are sold to companies, thanks in part to RegalView’s elite telemarketers upstairs. WorryFree also sells weapons. 

But things get even more twisted when Cassius learns that WorryFree is turning people into horses to make them more efficient labourers and get more return on innovation.  At first glance, the horse-people, technically know as equisapiens, look out of time as a metaphor of capitalism considering that high-end gadgetry and artificial intelligence are usually promoted as the future of the workplace. Why bother with humans if the robots are coming?

But is this visual really out of place? Silicon Valley giants are already firing up next-planet technology but we are not past warehouse-horror stories, and outsourcing to Asia’s “cheaper” workers where hostels are shelter and suicide a recurring cop-out.

During her Africa performance Cassius’ woke girlfriend, Detroit, brings up war as convenient for sustaining the extraction of elements for consumer electronics from places like DRC. This is another strand of the military-tech complex represented by WorryFree. From here, it is one step to the tech-intelligence complex which is the vulgar reality of modern geopolitics.

Revolution at the gates 

The directorial debut for which Riley received an Independent Spirit award in 2019 comes from a place of political ambition. Riley describes Sorry to Bother You as an absurdist dark comedy with elements of science fiction and magical realism. The unsettling, often funny, tableau not picks apart the grime beneath the glitter of capitalism. The social organiser is not just repeating spectacular banalities but breathing new firepower into the old-fashioned workers’ movement.

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