“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem”
Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry to Bother You (2018), a dark comedy fantasy film, takes a strong anti-capitalist stance, mapping out the trajectory of false consciousness. The concept refers to members of the proletariat being led to misjudge their position in society by institutions that thrive on capitalism. It signifies our inability to recognize inequality, oppression and exploitation.
The story follows a black telemarketer named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who adopts a “white voice” to make sales and move up within the company. But as he learns about the horrors the corporate conscience is capable of carrying out, the assimilation tool quickly becomes a symbol of oppression.
Doug Emmett’s vibrant cinematography, when paired with the film’s soundtrack, knits a thick and eerie ambience. The scenes depicting bland uniformity and its affects on a slowly fading mind give rise to Cash’s existentialistic ruminations. While they serve as a bite-sized prelude to The Wolf of Wall Street-esque “Power Caller” status that Cash desperately yearns for, the initial acknowledgement of his disillusionment with life also leads to questions regarding the nature of an authentic existence.
In his thesis on The Concept of Authentic Existence in Existentialism, Dr. Diwan Tashkeer Khan notes that authenticity is linked to “transparency”, especially the recognition of one’s responsibility for one’s position in life. It’s actually quite a rebellious idea that Riley proposes within the first few minutes of Sorry to Bother You. That’s because the authenticity his protagonist craves demands “autonomy in making moral choices that are not bound by society’s norms”, which is of course the very web of interests and moral concessions that ruthlessly ensnares Cash.
The film’s genre allows it to make every element slightly hysterical, if not surreal, which adds greatly to the thrill of deciphering Detroit’s (Tessa Thompson) literal statement earrings and tops. From an endless elevator code to a parody of corporate management and daytime television, the film displays an astute awareness of cinematic limitations. When they are bent out of shape, it’s done with the same level of recognition, and an even greater dose of playfulness.
The greatest example of the film’s horseplay occurs during the telemarketers’ protest, when one of the characters shocks the crowd with personal statements regarding his STD-ridden sex life. Thanks to the nature of his cries into the megaphone, the scene shows great likeness to the ear-throwing rally in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).
The unfolding events come across rather jovially, since their absurdity is never twisted out of shape for the sake of confounding us. And seeing as the script introduces gene manipulation and modern slave labor, that’s quite an accomplishment. Armie Hammer, in the role of a deranged CEO, also shows off his spirited humor when delivering lines such as this one:
Of course, the epicenter of the story is the “white voice”, which serves as the physical embodiment of the white gaze. Malik Pitchfork explained it as the way people “view Black creations under the scope of white ethnocentrism”, which relates to the idea of seeing one’s own culture as the ultimate standard of “good” culture.
This tool allows Riley to merge systems of oppression, which touch people of all backgrounds, with the more tangibly illustrated issue of racism. Much like all the other elements in Sorry to Bother You, racism is escalated to the point of absurdity, becoming an entity that lurks in the corner of every room that Cash occupies.
That’s why it’s not hard to see the telemarketers’ fight for labor rights as an allegory of the greater struggle for equality. The “white voice” is simply a device used to strip Cash of his integrity and force him to dream of assuming an identity that doesn’t fit him in any capacity.
And so, we’re left watching a fantastical take on race, unique and baffling. Most importanly, the story’s shock value is carried though to the end, toying with surrealism and brutality in a way that makes it impossible to anticipate what’s coming.
Overall, Sorry to Bother You offers a thrilling take on issues that affect our society, reminding us of their impertinence with playful shoves. Though the film lacks an impactful punch due to its stretched running time, it certainly bodes well for Riley’s future projects.