By Heather Mendick, Hackney South CLP
Sorry to Bother You is a genre-busting film. A communist satire set in Oakland California. In the words of its writer director Boots Riley it’s ‘an absurdist dark comedy, with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing’. Its plot twists and turns in ways that defy prediction, but what follows is a spoiler-free account of why anyone on the left (and lots of people who aren’t) need to see this film when it opens in the UK next week.
Boots Riley spent his summers during high school organising farm workers in rural California and his term times organising his fellow students to oppose racist measures by his local school board. He’s mainly known as a rapper being lead vocalist in The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. This is not the biography of a typical screenwriter and director and his debut movie isn’t a typical movie. In a recent conversation at the London Film Festival, Boots noted that while class struggle has been happening for generations and many films are set in workplaces, struggle is removed from cinema. ‘It’s not even part of a human emotion to fight back in many movies so much so that part of why my movie is called weird is because people are fighting back and it’s so different than what really happens in real life that people have had to edit [struggle] out of their screenplays’. Screenplays reproduce clichés from other movies as if they were real, one of which ‘is that people don’t engage in class struggle’.
Beyond this systematic disappearing of struggle, those films that do centre class struggle have their own clichés. Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is filled with grotesque caricatures of the wealthy and powerful and romanticised caricatures of the poor and downtrodden. It is relentlessly earnest and the only Mike Leigh film to lack any nuance or humour. Even when class struggle movies include a few laughs, they take the form of realist dramas, often set in the past, as Pride is, which tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. There’s a few exceptions but none confronts the contradictions of contemporary capitalism nor embraces the surreal, fantastical and hilarious with the energy of Sorry To Bother You.
The film’s protagonist Cassius ‘Cash’ Green takes a commission-only job in telemarketing company RegalView. Cold calling members of the public he tentatively begins with the line ‘sorry to bother you’ only for people to repeatedly hang up on him. A more experienced worker Langston tells him that he needs to use his ‘white voice’ to make sales. This is a voice that speaks of security, a performance of whiteness that no person white or black actually inhabits. Cash achieves success with his white voice and gets promoted to power caller just as his fellow RegalView workers begin a wildcat strike. The exclusive power caller elevator takes him into a new world of global sales and attracts the attention of Steve Lift, a hybrid of Bezos, Zuckerberg and Musk, tech entrepreneurs who are the modern face of capitalism. These supposedly self-made billionaires give huge amounts to charity while exploiting their workers and maintaining personal fortunes. Steve Lift is CEO of WorryFree, a corporation that is reinventing slavery for the modern era. Their business model is based on saving money by housing workers onsite, providing them with food, uniforms and shared accommodation in exchange for signing a lifetime contract. As disgusting as this is, as Cash discovers, it is a front for something even worse.
As Cash gets sucked into the world of corporate capitalism, his girlfriend Denver splits her time between making money as a sign spinner, taking part in anarchist protests and creating political art and clothing. She is the moral heart of the film – the character Boots uses to ask questions about the political possibilities of art. When discussing his film, Boots compares it to a novel. Like all good novels and unlike films like Peterloo, Sorry to Bother You has no single take-home message. Yet, it left me feeling that however bad things are, as long as there’s struggle there’s hope.
Sorry to Bother You goes on general release in the UK on Friday December 7. Watch the trailer here.