Sorry To Bother You and Class Struggle

Sorry To Bother You may be one of my favourite films of all time. I only saw it very recently, but it’s no exaggeration. Sorry To Bother You is a satire that captures the material realities of modern capitalism in a way very few mainstream films can. It doesn’t just make cute gestures at revolutionary politics. It shines a light on the anxieties of everyday people, and their desire to still make something of themselves in this soul-crushing system. And it does it with a wild sense of humour, and perhaps even a cautious optimism.

We see the world of Sorry To Bother You through the eyes of Cassius Green. Cassius is a working class black man in Oakland, California; struggling to make rent in his uncle’s shed. He lives in constant existential dread, fearing that he’ll be forgotten after his death. Cassius gets a telemarketing job with a sketchy company called RegalView, and forges his credentials in the process. The scarcity of entry level work – especially for marginalised people – can often lead to this anxious overcompensation. Even the scummiest employers can make you feel unworthy.

Cassius sees that he’s being ground down. He even monologues about the evil of landlords, despite living with his equally struggling and precarious uncle. And yet, he still gets sucked into defining his self worth by his job. This becomes the ultimate point of conflict between Cassius and his peers. He feels that primal need for survival under capitalism, which turns to greed.

Suffice to say, my focus on capitalism isn’t a crank theory. Director and writer Boots Riley is an unabashed communist. Depictions of corporations literally owning people’s lives, commission workers given a feeble promise of a promotion, and constant union strikes and protests are no coincidence. They’re all striking images of our decaying lives under capitalism. The slow rotting of any stability, leaving us with only the joy of watching trash TV shows and seeing a rich asshole get a coke can thrown at them from time to time.

When his peers at RegalView strike, Cassius finds a talent for selling useless goods to vulnerable people. But crucially, he can only do this because he learns the ‘white voice’. The need for that ‘white voice’ (done through comical overdubbing) shines a light on woke capitalism. Brands and companies may make cute gestures at diversity, but they’re not actually that interested in the material issues people face. In truth, woke capitalism hasn’t compromised to cultural issues. Cultural issues have compromised to woke capitalism.

Cassius buries his identity, using the smug irritating ‘white voice’ without even realising it at times. To even use his normal voice around wealthy white people he waits for permission. And that permission is only given when they see him as a cute novelty, someone who can rap and say the n word. His identity is only valued to the extent that it’s an appealing social commodity.

Eventually, Cassius has to choose between personal prosperity and solidarity with the people around him. Right as the strike begins, he gets offered a promotion to the elusive position of ‘Power Caller’. With the urgent pressure of paying back his rent, Cassius takes the promotion. He finds individual success under capitalism, at the expense of the collective movement. 

Cassius is made to feel unique and special by his managers, but the fact that he’s good at his job doesn’t matter a whole lot. As his friends point out, Cassius was an asset that could make or break the strike. RegalView preys on his desperation for personal security and success, and coerces him to cross the picket line and abandon everyone he cares about.

Cassius joins the Power Caller elite, who hide behind a golden elevator with a comically long password. The elevator offers personalised horny messages, and crackpot advice about not masturbating to increase productivity. The Power Callers, as it turns out, sell weapons to military operations around the world. And so, Cassius finds himself working on behalf of the most evil people in the world.

True prosperity under capitalism requires the destruction of life. To maintain the fantasy of eternal profit and growth, vulnerable people need to be exploited. A few regular people like Cassius may find highly successful careers. But only as long as they keep that machine running. As long as they choose to hollow out their empathy.

Cassius isn’t a hollowed out ghoul, though. This becomes obvious soon after he endears himself to Steve Lift, the CEO of WorryFree. We see WorryFree throughout the film, advertising themselves in commercials and billboards with the promise of ‘lifetime employment’. Most people realise these are slave labour camps, and we see mass protests unfolding even before the RegalView strikes. Upon the discovery that WorryFree is holding mutant horse people hostage, Cassius bails. Faced once more with a choice between wealth and his remaining shreds of humanity, he chooses to be human.

For a film full of absurd moments, the well-endowed Equisapien people are the wackiest idea. A lot of satire of the current moment (especially of Donald Trump) is frankly terrible. Only the funniest and stupidest ideas our brains can conjure are stranger than the present. In the case of Sorry To Bother You, that idea is genetically modified horse people being used to make slave labour more productive.

As Lift casually points out, human beings are only capable of so much physical and emotional labour before we’re burnt out. We need time to sleep, to eat, to do things we enjoy. The need for workers to have time for themselves is an inconvenience to the ultra wealthy. Whether or not they’d admit it, folks like Jeff Bezos would do what Lift did in a heartbeat. Steve Lift, of course, sees no problem with this. To the point where he’s visibly baffled that Cassius does.

Just for the chance to show the world what WorryFree is doing, Cassius gets beaten up and covered in manure on live TV. Having humbled himself, he’s accepted by his old friends and the strike movement. At the same time, the invention of the Equisapiens is hailed as a master stroke by the elites. We see Lift celebrating with both Democrats and Republicans, as the public does nothing. This frustrates Cassius, to which Squeeze responds with one of the most pertinent lines in the film: “If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to solve it, then you just decide to get used to the problem”. 

When wealthy and powerful people do horrible things in the open, they do it knowing that you’re powerless to stop them. Even if the public knows and accepts a reality like Equisapien slave labour, you could only talk about it for so long before the outrage dissipates. 

Sorry To Bother You argues that talking isn’t enough. If we want things to change, we need to organise. The final act of the film shows a brutal confrontation between the strikers and the police. The police are far more well armed, but the strikers have the power of the Equisapien people. The ruling class aren’t cunning supervillains, in this film or in real life. What they do have is pure might. Political strategy and organising can only go so far against military grade weapons. 

So what does that leave us with? Sheer numbers. There are A LOT more regular people than billionaire oligarchs. Even without superpowered Equisapiens, our collective power can do more than we realise. In Sorry To Bother You, we see mass solidarity. Solidarity with the degraded commission workers. Solidarity with the sign flippers. Solidarity with people who literally sold their lives for food and shelter. And solidarity with every vulnerable person who knows they deserve better. Only then – through the sheer force of will of the majority – does change happen.

Cassius and his peers return to RegalView, having bargained their way to better standards. Cassius returns to living with his partner Detroit in his Uncle’s house, albeit with nicer furniture. It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Sorry To Bother You doesn’t believe that we’re on the cusp of a major revolution. But it does show how we can organise, and use our collective power to affect change in our communities. If we want to build strong mass movements, there’s no better place to start.

In the final twist of the movie, Cassius himself turns into an Equisapien (despite Lift assuring him that what he had snorted earlier in the film was cocaine). And in one last act of solidarity, he joins the Equisapiens and busts through Steve Lift’s door. Getting to do that to an oligarch may be pure fantasy, but boy is it a fun little fantasy to end with.

Fair to say that Sorry To Bother You is extremely good. It treats our current reality exactly as it should be treated. Showing all of its comedic strangeness, its alienation and its pure unfettered cruelty. At the same time, it still believes in our power to make things better when we recognise our shared struggles. It’s never going to be easy, but we still have a chance to make things better.

Did you like this? Do you wanna’ see me write about something of your choosing? You can find me on Twitter @BristleBris. TV shows, films, anime, western cartoons, whatever you want (within reason)! Prices start at $3 per 100 words. You can find more details here

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