Monday, November 05, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

If you're anything like me, you've probably been hearing great things about Sorry to Bother You since it premiered to rapturous reception in this year's Sundance Festival.  If you're a lot like me, you probably follow many film industry people and reviewers on twitter, and have spent several months watching them go nuts over this film, while also advising you to learn as little as possible about it so as not to be spoiled for its mind-bending plot twists.  If you're really like me, you probably live in one of the many non-US countries where Sorry to Bother You, despite its tremendous reception, hasn't been able to find a distributor, and had reconciled yourself to not being able to see it legally.  And if you actually are me, you were probably overjoyed to learn that a local film festival had purchased the film for a special, one-night-only showing, and hurried as fast as you could to buy tickets.

You see where I'm going with this, right?  It's pretty much impossible to sit down and watch, in November, a film that you've been hearing talked up since January, and not come away feeling at least a little let down.  And the issue here isn't that Sorry to Bother You isn't a good movie--it is, with a tremendous cast, a sharp and funny script, and more ideas per minute than any dozen other films put together--but that a lot of its promised mind-blowing plot developments struck me as more familiar and more conventional than I was expecting.  And then when thought about it, that suddenly seemed like the whole point.  The thing that makes Sorry to Bother You remarkable is less how it tells its story, and more its willingness to tell it at all.  Under the guise of its eyebrow-raising premise, and the gonzo twists of plot it proceeds along from that premise, it is willing to talk about issues of labor rights, and labor organizing, that the rest of pop culture seems genuinely blind to.

Written and directed by rapper and activist Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You recalls, in its freewheeling visuals and cheerful weirdness, the work of auteurs like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.  But it also gives the definite impression of having had a lifetime's worth of ideas, preoccupations, and frustrations crammed into a script that can't quite hold them all.  It's impressive that Riley has managed to craft a gonzo-yet-plausible day-after-tomorrow world, to tell a complicated story within it, and to make the whole thing pretty funny, but there's often a sense that the film can't properly address all of its interesting ideas, and ends up underplaying some of them or leaving them by the wayside.  About halfway through the movie, for example, we detour into the world of performance art, and the question of whether radical or disruptive art can spur real social change.  It's an interesting question (especially since the film we're watching is one such work of art), but there simply isn't enough time to consider it.  Other times, the script indulges in oddball flourishes that seem to exist merely for the pleasure of doing them, such as a character whose name is bleeped out, or a massively popular reality show whose participants agree to be beaten bloody on live TV.  No doubt there's a hidden meaning to some of these details, but mostly they feel like a way of setting the film apart.  Not that that's a bad thing--I can't think of another film that feels as much like its own thing as this one.  But one sometimes wishes that Riley had saved a few concepts for his next work.

The premise of Sorry to Bother You, which has been widely reported, reads like a racially-conscious twist on surreal corporate parodies like the early scenes of Being John Malkovich.  Down-on-his-luck Oakland resident Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) lands a boring, unfulfilling job at a telemarketing company, selling useless crap (it is one of the script's typically underplayed but obviously significant choices that we get only a few vague descriptions of what Cassius is selling), but finds that he can't make much money at it, because prospective customers hang up on him as soon as he introduces himself.  An older colleague, Langston (Danny Glover), advises Cassius to use his "white voice" to lure in customers.  Once Cassius finds that persona (voiced by David Cross), his sales suddenly shoot through the roof, and he's invited to join the company's elite, highly remunerated "top sellers", eventually catching the eye of company founder Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

So far, this is probably what you know about Sorry to Bother You from its trailers and plot descriptions.  But this part of the plot is gotten through in the film's early scenes.  More importantly, though race plays an important role in the story (if in no other respect than the fact that the film's sympathetic characters are almost entirely people of color, while its antagonists, be they thoughtless or malicious, are mostly white), it isn't what the film is ultimately about.  The idea that a black person might have an easier time doing their job if they seem white is introduced and accepted, but even during the first introduction of the concept of a "white voice", it's made clear that this isn't simply about vocal inflection.  As Glover explains, "white voice" doesn't mean sounding like a white person, but sounding like the fantasy of whiteness that only a minority of white America actually embodies, but that all of it has been taught to aspire to.
I'm not talking about sounding all nasal.  It's like, sounding like you don't have a care.  You got your bills paid.  You happy about your future.  You 'bout ready to jump in your Ferrari out there after you get off this call.  Put some real breath in there.  Breezy, like, I don't really need this money.  You've never been fired, only laid off.  It's not really a white voice.  It's what they wish they sounded like.  It's like what they think they're supposed to sound like.
Sorry to Bother You is much more interested in capitalism as the original sin of its world than in racism.  That doesn't mean that race doesn't play an important role in the movie, or indeed in its critique of the class conflict--when Cassius asks his girlfriend, the artist and activist Detroit (Tessa Thompson), why her work focuses so much on Africa, she talks about the atrocities visited on African people, but also observes that this exploitation was the starting point of modern capitalism.  This doesn't mean that race, and how his race changes the way people relate to him, doesn't continue to dog Cassius, but that it is inextricably mixed with class, woven through the film's critique of capitalism.  When Cassius arrives at the top callers' floor, he's mentored by another black man, Mr. ____ (Omari Hardwick), who instructs him to use his white voice at all times (Mr. ____'s white voice is dubbed by Patton Oswalt, and we only hear Hardwick's own voice once or twice).  But when the two are invited to Lift's mansion for a party, the plutocrat insists that he's cool with black people and that Cassius should drop his feigned persona--and then immediately instructs him to tell rough stories from his childhood, and perform a rap.  When Cassius, over his objections that he can't rap, is nevertheless compelled to perform, he's initially flummoxed, and then realizes that he can satisfy the crowd by yelling the n-word repeatedly.  The way that his blackness shifts from hindrance to asset as Cassius climbs the class ladder, but never in a way that he can feel comfortable with or allow himself to embody in the way that he wants, is clearly a major component of the film's argument.

But it isn't the main component.  Even as Cassius is taking his early steps towards corporate success, his fellow employees (who eventually include Detroit) start to grumble about the poor working conditions in their company.  One of them, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), starts to agitate for a union, and we eventually learn that he is a professional organizer, moving from one workplace to another and encouraging the employees to unionize.  The scene in which Squeeze introduces himself to Cassius and starts feeling him out for union sympathy is a deceptively simple one, but it threw me momentarily out of the movie.  I started asking myself when was the last time I saw a Hollywood movie incorporate labor organizing into its storytelling--much less a raucous, SF-inflected comedy like Sorry to Bother You.  The film itself seems aware that this is a vanishingly rare plot element in movies, as it has Detroit compare herself to Sally Field in Norma Rae, which came out in 1979.

What's more, the fact that the organizing, and eventual strike, of the film's characters isn't something spontaneous, but spurred and guided by the actions of an "outside agitator" like Squeeze, is practically unheard of in modern pop culture, which has a seemingly pathological distrust of progressive organizing and continues to insist that good social change can only emerge from individuals acting on the spur of the moment.  (Even Doctor Who pretends that Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat was merely a spontaneous protest.)  Planning is for villains, and working towards a better world from any position other than abject misery and humiliation is inherently suspect.  But not in the world of Sorry to Bother You, which treats Squeeze's actions as legitimate and even heroic, and the union he's trying to form as necessary to the characters' happiness and wellbeing.

Naturally, the unionization plot ends up on a collision course with Cassius's upward trajectory on the corporate ladder, which is where the emotional and moral weight of Sorry to Bother You actually lies.  Cassius is initially supportive of the union, and even after his fortunes improve, he continues to root for his friends.  But the more he succeeds and the more relations between workers and management deteriorate, the more he pulls away from his old group, until he's faced with the stark dilemma of whether to cross a picket line.  This makes Sorry to Bother You a very familiar, even hoary, Hollywood story--the outsider who discovers that they have a special skill, is embraced by the mercenary, shallow world they'd previously despised but also secretly yearned to belong to, and along the way abandons the friend who appreciated him back when he was a nobody.  It's the stuff of a million teen movies and sports dramas, but what sets Sorry to Bother You apart is that Cassius's failure isn't refusing to be true to himself, or forgetting about the people who knew him when.  It's failing to show solidarity with his class, thinking of what's best for him alone, instead of what's better for everyone.

As well as the central fantasy conceit of the white voice, Sorry to Bother You is littered with exaggerated SF worldbuilding that imagines how a world where inequality has only gotten worse and worse will look like.  The most prominent of these is WorryFree, an employment scheme that trades guaranteed room and board for a lifetime of labor--or, in other words, slavery.  Several characters in the movie contemplate selling themselves into this sort of contract, and billboards for the scheme crop up everywhere in the film's version of Oakland (the billboards are quickly defaced by Detroit and her fellow members of an anarchist collective, but we're left to wonder whether this form of protest has any effect--Squeeze, for example, seems politely dubious).

I found myself wishing that the film had acknowledged that this sort of labor policy is ultimately cannibalistic--if more and more of the population has no disposable income, then they won't be able to buy the products they're producing, and the economy will shrink.  It ends up doing the next best thing.  When Cassius asks Langston how he can make real money off this telemarketing job, the older man admits that there's no path to that in selling the consumer products they've been peddling--and indeed, the customers we see Cassius sell to are often only scraping by, doing not much better than he was at the beginning of the movie.  When Cassius graduates to the top seller level, he learns that he won't be selling to the little people anymore, but to corporations and plutocrats.  And his product is the WorryFree workforce.  So again, even though race isn't the central topic of the movie, it continues to lurk in the background, with its black, white-presenting character only achieving the wealth he'd dreamed of by becoming a slave-trader.

The final turn of the film's surrealism screw comes when Cassius finally gets a glimpse behind the curtain of the vast corporate empire he's sold his soul to.  At a party in Steve Lift's house, he discovers that some of the WorryFree employees have been given a serum that transforms them into horse-human hybrids (dubbed "equisapiens"), who are more powerful and resilient than ordinary humans.  I think this is probably the moment that blew the top of a lot of people's heads off, but taken on its own it strikes me as a fairly middle-of-the-road Black Mirror premise (though that's not going to stop me from nominating Sorry to Bother You for the Hugo next year).  It's what Riley does with this idea that makes it special.

Finally shocked out of his selfishness, Cassius at first tries to alert the media to Lift's evil scheme, but the result is only to inflate WorryFree's stock price (I would like to call this a moment of exaggerated cynicism, but all anyone has to do is look at the myriad examples of the market reacting positively to appalling corporate behavior, and negatively to anything resembling good citizenship and compassion on the part of companies, to know that this is hardly an unlikely supposition).  Finally, he realizes that he can't save the world on his own.  He contacts Squeeze, Detroit, and the other strikers.  More importantly, he reaches out to the equisapiens, and the film culminates in a protest in which humans and horse-people join forces to defeat the SWAT team deployed to break up the strike.  The core difference between Black Mirror and Sorry to Bother You is that where the former would stop at the moment of disgust Cassius feels when he first sees the suffering, grotesque equisapiens, the movie reaches past that reaction to compassion, and then to solidarity.  It treats the horse-people not as monsters but as people who are still capable of participating in society--and more importantly, it treats protest as merely one form that that participation can take.

In the end, that's what makes Sorry to Bother You special.  It's not that any particular idea is so original, but that Riley completely rejects the cynicism and sneering disdain for progressive action that permeates so much of Hollywood's political work.  Sorry to Bother You doesn't end with order restored and evil defeated--it's very clear, in fact, that the characters will have to continue struggling and protesting for the rest of their lives.  But the idea that this is, in itself, a happy ending, and that by standing together they can create a good, meaningful life for themselves, is rare enough that it felt almost like a physical shock to encounter.

At the beginning of the film, Cassius worryingly asks Detroit what she thinks the meaning of life is.  What value will his life have if he just lives it and accomplishes nothing of note?  Detroit answers that she wants to be loved by her family, but Cassius counters that this is merely kicking the can down the road, that finding meaning in your children is just a way of pushing the burden of meaning onto their shoulders.  This is a standard Hollywood film dilemma--do you pursue greatness and personal accomplishment, or family and love?  It's the crux of a million movies about overworked dads who have to learn not to ignore their families in favor of more time at the office, and it's the core dilemma of a different million Great Man biopics in which a tortured white guy achieves great things while his all-but-abandoned wife looks pained.  Sorry to Bother You insists that this is false dilemma; that in fact, to focus on yourself when trying to find meaning in life is to completely miss the point.  The solution, as Cassius concludes at the film's ending, is to work together to make a better world for tomorrow.  (And in case you find that ending too treacly, there's another, second ending with more of an "eat the rich" theme.)  It's so rare to find a film that reaches this seemingly obvious conclusion.  As with so much else about Sorry to Bother You, there's nothing new here; just things that desperately needed to be said.

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