Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Boots Riley's *Sorry To Bother You*

Codeswitching, and more specifically the act of African Americans using a "white voice," including accent, intonation and pitch, to meet the expectations of white teachers, employers, colleagues and the broader society, is a culturally and politically informed practice now extensively discussed in the public discourse. Any number of writers, politicians, rappers, and other figures have explored codeswitching; there is even an NPR program with that title. It also provides a thread in numerous current TV and cinematic shows--think of Issa Rae's Insecure, Kenya Barris blackish or Donald Glover's Atlanta--but Boots Riley, a 47-year-old musician, artist and filmmaker from Oakland, makes it the central premise of his first full-length feature, Sorry to Bother You, and what a dope film he has dreamt up! It requires no hyperbole to say that Sorry to Bother You is easily the most original and unpredictable feature of this year--or many years. In it, Riley takes the idea and practice of his premise literally, so literally in fact that it quickly shifts into productively absurd territory, only to keep ramping things up from there. (Riley makes great use of literalism's formal and conceptual possibilities.) The result is a speculative, progressive, Afrofuturist, fantasia that manages to produce laughter, provoke thought, and present far-too-rare onscreen plight of working-class people, transracial and ethnic labor solidarity, the voraciousness and utter lack of ethics of US conglomerates, and the perverse, almost science-fictionally rotten core of contemporary capitalism.

Lakeith Stanfield as Cash Green
& Tessa Thompson as Detroit
Sorry to Bother You unfolds in an parallel-universe Oakland (and dystopic US) and centers on the experience of underemployed Cassius "Cash" Green (the super-lowkey LaKeith Stanfield), residing in the garage of his uncle Sergio's (Terry Crews) single family house. Living with him is his performance artist/guerrilla activist girlfriend, Detroit (chill Tessa Thompson), who exudes charm in deuces. Cash is four months behind in rent, compounding Sergio's danger of losing his house, which  now in arrears. In the story's foreground, a commercial spurs Cash and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) to find jobs as lowest-level telemarketers at Regalview, with Detroit eventually ending up there as well; in its background, viewers see ads for and signs underpinning the conglomerate WorryFree Corporation, whose businesses operate as latter-day slave systems, providing housing and other amenities for works, but requiring a lifetime, unbreakable contract. Reilly also shows viewers that the socioeconomic and political crises that allow a WorryFree Corporation to exist in the first place can coexist, as they do today, with working-class and poor people making do--eking out whatever living is possible--as best they can.

Omari Hardwick
as Mr. ________
Becoming an effective salesman, let alone "Power Caller," stumps Cash, as many a novice salesperson has quickly figured out. Cash rides one elevator up to his floor, yet spots the golden portal to the realm of the "Power Callers" off to the right. Stanfield's hunched posture and furtive glances convey more effectively than dialogue how he views himself and the plight of so many blue collar workers today. What galvanizes Cash is a tip, both bizarre and reasonable, from his neighboring telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), who urges Cash to use his "white voice" to make the sales. Here, codeswitching isn't just metaphorical, nor the "white voice" merely literal. Glover suggests something aspirational, performative in the deepest senses of that word, brandishing a ludicrously stereotypical-sounding white voice that spurs Cash, with some coaxing, to conjure his own (fulfilled by David Cross), which proves to be a winner. What follows is success beyond his wildest dreams, including meeting the eye-patch sporting Mr. ______ (played with brio by Omari Hardwick, his voice squeaked onto screen by Patton Oswalt), who serves as a guide, mentor and fellow traveler, but he is able to help Sergio pay off his debts and buy his own lavish apartment. Out of the garage, into an aerie, literally.

Stanfield and Armie Hammer,
as Steve Lift
Many a filmmaker might have stopped there, in terms of the concept, to examine how a black working class figure, now suddenly empowered, maintains the exceptional instruments--voice, personality, psyche, etc.-- that have furthered his advancement, in the face of constant and countless work-place challenges. In effect, it could have been a more woke, black Office Space. For Riley, however, the stakes of the larger picture, even if somewhat in caricature, is at play. Cash's co-worker and eventual friend, Squeeze (Steve Yeun), is a union organizer, and his goal is to bring all of the first floor telemarketers into the union shop. To press the case, he organizes a strike, a plot touch that feels so appropriate as conservatives and billionaire donors continue to push for "right-to-work" laws in state after state. Yet by having Cash ascend the ladder, the film raises important existential and ethical questions, underscoring the black exceptionalist scenario that has been so common in innumerable fields. Where do Cash's lie? With management and the elites whose bidding RegalView is undertaking, or with his working-class girlfriend, Detroit, and buddies Salvador and Squeeze. His "white voice" takes on new resonance as the emblem of his growing estrangement from his past. The film poses questions that have long seem foreclosed in our media? Can workers still unionize? What are unions good for? Can unionized labor really gain workers a better deal? Returning to our protagonist, will Cash cross the line and whose side is he really on, especially after he crosses the picket line, and ends up with a head wound, bandaged so evocatively that it becomes a symbol of the wounds festering inside him.

LaKeith Stanfield as Cash
As Squeeze's labor organizing efforts unfold, viewers learn about the unnerving ties between the telemarketing firm and WorryFree; I found them almost too neat, but they serve the plot's purposes. At the same time, Regalview's "Power Callers," Cash fathoms, are engaged in nefarious work on behalf of WorryFree, meaning that he will be helping to wreak global havoc. Star that he is, he joins a truly exclusive group that includes Mr. ______ (his name, like he, is a cipher in the screenplay), and gets invited to a party at the mansion belonging to WorryFree's owner, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the name a play on Apple's legendary former leader and guru. WorryFree's virtual slavery practices are only one component in its evil efforts across the globe, and Cash picks the wrong bathroom door and happens upon a horrific scene that shifts the film into a different narrative gear, Lift shares with Cash not just an apparent mega-line of cocaine but his plans for even worse, transhuman corporate vision that would make Victor Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau jealous. I am being somewhat vague here so as not to give away too much, but I do want to say that Riley manages to wrap nearly everything together by the film's end, including the unionized, striking Regalview workers, Detroit's pro-African art, the national and global financial system's links to WorryFree, and literal revolt, while adding yet another twist that he had expertly set up during Cash's bathroom encounter and subsequent meeting-confrontation with Lift.

Steve Yeun as Squeeze
Riley, a self-described Communist, has produced one of the better and coherent--despite its antic quality--overtly political satires I have seen in a while. I would label it less a Communist work of art than a Democratic Socialist one, because in its vision for the future, Sorry to Bother You centers a reformed and reformable capitalism instead of the system's end, with workers having greater say as opposed to the proletariat destroying the rotten system wholesale. One can see this in Left Eye participant Detroit's art, from her wry earrings to her performance piece, a masochistic on-stage event protesting the mining of coltan in the Congo, that turns the focus inward on her, instead of outward. Even the film's chief guerrilla organization, Left Eye, a clever femmage to the 1990s R&B group TLC's beloved late singer and, more obviously, a Left-perspective activist group, seem more interested in playful critique and subversive performance than in armed revolution, more in line with the Situationists than Bolsheviks. Perhaps, I surmised, Riley is suggesting that before the endgame there might be alternatives in the war against the violence of capital--and the capitalist system--than just more violence, though that occurs here as well. But a spirit more poetry than prose runs throughout the film, and it is hardly a surprise that six years before Sorry to Bother You was made, because Riley struggled to find funding, he and his Afro-punk/hip hop band released a version of the screenplay in musical form, on his 2012 album The Coup, that gives glimpses of the richly imagined world, in Oakland and in his mind, he would eventually portray onscreen.

Thompson, featuring Detroit's
amazing earrings
That playfulness seems informed at times by cartoons--there's even a claymation instructional film embedded in it--and at others by music videos, but Sorry to Bother You has the heft and complexity of a very short novel, and feels informed as well by the long history of African American satirical literature. As is the case with its exploration of class, its deft treatment of race, often wry and light-handed, deserves high praise. One such moment, at the WorkFree Party that is one of the film's highlights. Lift asks Cash to perform, and after the new star salesman demurs, Lift and the nearly all-white party attendees start to chant "Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!" Cash finds the perfect way to satisfy them, allowing Riley to critique the inanity of certain strains of contemporary rap and the insistent desire among some white people to utter the "n-word" with impunity. It is but one of several such moments or touches, verging on silliness or slapstick yet which turns out to have real bite, that underline Riley's gifts as a writer and thinker.  Another way in which Riley flips the script racially is by including the presence of a key Asian-American character, presented without stereotype, and a Black-Asian American romantic encounter so rare that it astonished me. (On the other hand, strangely enough, though a number of characters have Spanish first names and Tessa Thompson is herself an Afrolatina, this alternative Oakland seemed strangely devoid of Latinxs--Chicanxs especially--though perhaps I should see it again. But this was one thing I--and C--noticed separately as watched. Hmm.)

Jermaine Fowler as Salvador,
Yeun and Stanfield
One might argue that despite its successes, the film does not fully cohere. I would counter by saying that given all that Riley sets out to do in this one film, fully aware, one suspects, of the long and ugly history of black filmmakers' struggles with Hollywood to make more than a brilliant one-off, or two films if very lucky, in careers that should include dozens of offerings, he pulls it all off. The shifts in tone are central to the film's aesthetics. Its political vision goes further than almost any recent comedy I can think not directed by Ken Loach. The actors all embody their characters with an effective combination of the comic and serious. From the film's opening frames, Riley establishes a foundation for speculation that could go in any direction, so the final transmogrification, while surprising, is one he and Sorry to Bother You earn. The film, in sum, makes the sale, while also accounting for how much it also may disturb us; both in its title, as throughout its 111 minutes, Riley never takes the simple route, and I for one hope that we will see more from him, much more, in whatever forms his vision takes him.

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