Capitalism is like a spider, the web is getting tighter
I’m struggling like a fighter just to bust loose
It’s like a noose, asphyxiation sets in
Just when I think I’m free it seems to me the spider steps in
This web is made of money made of greed made of me
Of what I have become in a parasite economy
—Boots Riley, 1993
Boots Riley of the communist hip hop act The Coup interrupts box office theaters to promote revolution. For a directorial debut layered with satire and analogy, Riley’s fidelity to his cinematic subject moves everything along apace. The jokes are abundant enough to merit the media description: “absurdist dystopian comedy.” A noteworthy cast attracted coverage rare for indie film, and the characters themselves personify a dynamic set of themes. But instead of knee-slappers the comedic material accumulates in a slow burn reveal of daily proletarian life, and the cast and characters meld together to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Sorry To Bother You, summoning everything from gentrified housing costs and the international arms trade to lab-created “equisapiens,” eludes the common pitfalls and cliches of experimental, dystopian sci-fi by keeping it simple: class struggle is the only path forward in a world as strange and predatory as ours.
“Everything in life is sales. Learn sales and it’s yours!” Such is the wisdom entrusted to telemarketing workers everywhere, announced in repetitions roughly matching staff turnover rate (that is, frequently). Marxists would refer management to the force actually behind commercial gain and profit: human labor, the activity expended by employees in headsets without which no call center could operate. Whatever the accolades to salesmanship and the market, the power of production is held by workers.
The sales agent bothering a stranger in another area code only arrived at work that morning to exchange their labor-power for a wage. The call center then sells the commodity of “dials per hour” and “sales performance” to the client corporation. This matrix of insincere, smiling strangers buying and selling and selling and buying requires a rotating roster of the underpaid, who dedicate their days to the “bullshit job” of their “choice.” Enter the movie’s fictional conglomerate Worry Free. Bills, transportation, shopping . . . why worry about them? Sign up for expenses-paid, perpetual employment! Dormitories, meals, and more, all inspired by the successes of prison labor!
Our protagonist, rookie telemarketer Cassius Green, tries something different. He discovers his White Voice—how to sound like “what [white people] wish they sounded like, what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” Or as David Cross explained, “If you could put a Brooks Brothers jacket and a pair of dockers on a voice, that’s what we’ve got.” The White Voice is for everyone. It is the intonation of success itself, the verbal password to the American dream. In an actual call center, new hires practice the same routine in all but name, even if they’re white, something that Riley, once a telemarketer himself, knows well.
Thanks to his new power Cassius excels at work and comfortably ascends to the middle class. In return, the White Voice follows him home, leading to his estrangement from the picket line of his striking former coworkers and his girlfriend, Detroit, a political artist when she’s not at work. At her art show, Detroit debuts her own White Voice in a masochistic, violent performance art, and Cassius leaves early to join an exclusive party hosted by Worry Free CEO Steve Lift, in scenes reminiscent of “Your Parents’ Cocaine” by The Coup.
At the party, Lift demands a freestyle rap for the guests. Cassius, unable to actually rap despite racial misconceptions, thinks fast and shouts the n-word on rhythm, delighting the wealthy, white crowd. Test passed, Lift floats a promotion involving an unthinkable sum of money. His proposal: ingest a formula that’ll morph Cassius into one of Worry Free’s extra-productive, obedient horse-human hybrids, forget the White Voice, join the “equisapien” labor colony, and establish himself as their labor leader to shut down strikes. And then things really get weird.
Distributors class Sorry To Bother You in the “black movies” department, the excuse given for its absence at international box offices. Riley has outdone the decaffeinated status quo of corporate black entertainment to deliver a revolutionary perspective on racism, which, as he explains, is hard-wired to capitalism in origin and nature. Rent, unemployment, cheap cars that break, “bullshit jobs,” etc are also. Cassius and friends represent working class youth, who are financially squeezed by so many strings to pay for the capitalist crisis.
Primitive capitalist development invented racism to govern colonies. Today capitalism requires wage-slaves experienced in specialized fields, while failing to provide decent jobs for all. Further, the specialization and division of labor is not uninfluenced by culture and tradition, including oppression and racism, which serve to pin the worker to their assigned lot. The “code-switching” required to navigate life is linked root and branch to this condition.
We propose seizing the immense wealth and properties of the rich under workers control and planning. This would provide a superabundance of goods and services plus the reduction of the work week—ensuring for ordinary people the means to pursue their interests and effectively meaning their liberation from the toilsome, stereotyped roles available under capitalism. Like Cassius discovers by the end, the solution is socialist revolution.