Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Question in Bodies #26: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

I'm a sucker for the sort of film that messes with genre, and especially for the sort of film that uses genre to get away with saying things that you couldn't in a serious social realist drama. When a Serious Film, capital S, capital F, actually does make Serious Issues, which is a vanishingly rare occurrence, for all sorts of reasons, the issues become the tail that wags the dog, almost; people begin to watch the film because it is about the issues, people argue with it on the grounds of the issues, people make it part of the issue and it's almost as if it loses the ability to say anything because you know what it's going to say before you start. It becomes part of the conversation rather than starting a new one.

For example, Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake (2016), caused questions to be asked in Parliament. The conversation around it was impassioned, but centred around whether it was an accurate representation of the experience of poverty (spoiler: it is) and, reduced to a political statement, it became the sort of film you watch either to hear what you knew already, or to pick holes in.

But genre films have been sneaking this sort of thing past audiences for a long time. That's not always a good thing: cinema audiences aren't necessarily literate enough to get the point (and indeed, as I keep saying, a big stream in fan culture lionises illiteracy), and might even seize on an entirely different point to the one you meant to say (see The Matrix). But the simple joy to be found in a film that's slipping things past people can't be discounted. Even if these things are blindingly, sledgehammer obvious.

Which I suppose brings us to Sorry To Bother You. As always, this post carries a spoiler warning.

You can take it any way you want
I keep seeing these reviews of Sorry to Bother You that suggest it’s messy, or ill-conceived, or inconsistent, or a film of two halves. It’s not. It’s absolutely logical in where it goes, funny as all hell, political like nothing else I’ve seen and a delight at every level. Sorry To Bother You is part comedy, part science fiction and part horror, and it is very, very funny, is set in the future and hides a horrific premise.

We're introduced to Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), as he sits through an interview for an obviously crappy telemarketing job with a company called Regalview. He lies blatantly about his experience and qualifications, and is rumbled immediately by the seedy interviewer, who then tells him that he's hired anyway, because they hire literally anyone, and he's clearly got initiative. This is true; it's demonstrated throughout the film, and even in his name, because in the US "Cassius" has two syllables, and you say "Cashus", so his name is the truism, cash is green, and that's even called out in dialogue, and everyone calls him Cash. Cash hustles, because Cash is poor. He lives in his uncle’s garage, and it has a faulty door that keeps opening just when he's about to have sex, and which he still can't afford the rent on, and he drives a battered old car that he's clearly cobbled together himself from bits of other cars, so you can still see the serial number scrawled in china pencil on his second hand windscreen and the doors are a different colour to the body, and every day he calculates the exact amount of gas he needs to get to work and back, in pocket change.

No one who hasn't been poor can ever really comprehend how much hard work it is, how much initiative and thought and effort you have to put into the business of just surviving, how you have to count every penny, devise workarounds, and constantly hustle. And it doesn't actually matter if your hustles are competent or incompetent – Cash's are both – because they have more or less the same chance of working. Because of course your degree of competence or your ingenuity have literally almost no impact on whether you get out of the poverty trap.

We've got a lot to teach you, Cassius Green
Cash's subsistence level job as a telephone salesman selling obsolete things no one wants – encyclopedias, in fact, and isn't that an indictment? – doesn't go well initially because Cash is, well, a bit green. Everything about the job sucks. No one is paid enough. The bosses are terrible: manager Anderson (Robert Longstreet) is uncaring, team leader Johnny (Sense8's Michael X Sommers) gives off a "may possibly be a serial killer" vibe and HR rep Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) is insincere, self-interested and sleazy in both an "I'm not your boss, I'm your friend" way and a "throws herself at the guy with the promotion" way.

Riley has this wonderful sequence where Cash rings people and he literally crashes right into their rooms, with a thump, in the middle of what they're doing, whether they're sitting alone or having their breakfast or in the middle of banging. These visual similes (and they're similes because you're supposed to understand that this isn't what's happening, it's what it's like), aside from being very funny, get across exactly how intrusive it is for the victims and how disorienting it is for the new telemarketer, still burdened with outmoded ideas of propriety and common decency. Cash tries to stick to the script (STTS, written on the walls of Regalview), but he can't do it.

His breakthrough comes when his veteran colleague Langston (Danny Glover) explains where he's going wrong. He needs a White Voice. Langston demonstrates, a young middle-class white guy's voice (an overdubbed white actor's, in fact) coming out of his mouth. Cash balks. He could never do that. And then he does. Spectacularly.

And when Cash finds his White Voice (the voice of David Cross, and it's never less than hilarious when he opens his mouth and David Cross's voice comes out), Cash turns out to be money. Suddenly he's selling buttloads, and his success begins to change things for him, because he's good at this and the bosses are showering him with praise. So, while his mate Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and his awesome way-out-of-his-league artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are getting involved in union organising at Regalview with shop floor firebrand Squeeze (Steven Yeun), Cash is becoming increasingly focused on his work. Cash's White Voice is a ticket to success. The day after he reluctantly joins in with strike action, the bosses tell him he's being promoted. Now he's a Power Caller. Now he works for Steve.

A sitcom based on a torture chamber
Sorry to Bother You, Riley's 2012 album as part of hip-hop collective The Coup, features a cast of characters who unsurprisingly overlap with those in the film of the same name (as there is in the film, there's a guy called Cassius Green, a privileged fratboy douche called Steve). But mostly, the whole thing is a furious, hilarious call to actual, full-on revolt, the sort that aims to reclaim revolution from right-wing assholes and multinational CEOs. It relentlessly punches up: sellouts, silver spoons and squeamish liberals all wind up in the crosshairs. It's one of the cleverest, funniest, angriest albums I've heard in ages and it's also packed with banging tunes, as white Brits of a certain age are embarrassingly prone to say. I mean, OK, these are my politics (one friend who I enthusiastically quoted "Your Parents' Cocaine" to described it diplomatically as "on brand") and I'm no great shakes as a music critic, but I know what I like, and this I like.

Holding up the album next to the film of the same name, it puts into relief the same themes, more explicitly, openly stated in the music. Both album and film are furious, and playful. Comedy, like horror, is one of the genres that can, if done right (and by "done right" I do really mean "punching upwards"), have real teeth. Both deal with the absurd, both court extreme emotion. Laughs and screams are closer to each other than we think. And Riley's dayglo dystopia is horrific and hilarious in equal measure.

Cash lives in a world where everyone's favourite show is called I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me [sic], and the main innovation in labour is WorryFree, a program where people willingly sell their lives to their work, moving into corporate dorms that look a bit like prison cells, and working shifts for nothing other than their cheap blue and yellow uniforms (which are weirdly Amazon-y), their beds and their (gross) food. Cassius’s uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) is short enough of cash that he’s seriously considering WorryFree Living, and Cash, like so many people, is under pressure to save not only his own finances, but his family’s.

As a Power Caller, Cash is suddenly vaulted up into a world where he's above all that, and it's all ridiculous and absurd: there's a gold plated lift with an access code with hundreds of digits, and Diana starts making huge passes at him, and the elevator voice (Rosario Dawson!) tells him it hopes he hasn't masturbated today because he needs to be sharp, and he's expected to sell that WorryFree slave labour to multinational corporations and unscrupulous governments.

There's this running gag where Cash says, more than once, "Wait, you mean I'm actually supposed to be [doing something utterly abominable] for you?" and the authority figure goes "yup" and this, like most of the best jokes in the film, is really pretty funny on a basic level until it isn't, because it's sort of true. At some point Western governments realised that the best way to get away with atrocity is not to deny you're doing it. No, you own it: you just talk about it as if it's OK. When the US government started putting small children in concentration camps recently, the tactic was not to deny it, it was to get annoyed about calling them "concentration camps", as if the language surrounding them made it OK. And the thing is, the really horrible, appalling thing, right, is that this seems to have worked, because the US government is still putting small children in concentration camps, and no one with any authority appears to be doing one single fucking thing about them putting small children in concentration camps. This tactic works, until, hopefully, it doesn't, and the perpetrators, at some point in the future, might be able to be brought to account and they'll stop putting small children into concentration camps. I don't know if that's going to happen. Until then, they are fucking putting children into concentration camps and this is utterly unacceptable. This is more important than the film criticism.

The Gods of Science have spoken
In its absurd, brightly coloured world, Sorry to Bother You portrays a place one step removed from that, it shows the world of the people, ordinary decent people who don't see indentured slave labourers, they see numbers on Excel spreadsheets. Cash's scruples extend exactly as far as seeing what his salary will be. He struggles! He lives in a garage! He pinches pennies in spectacularly creative ways! And here he is, being offered Financial Security, even after telling his bosses to go fuck themselves if they think he's going to rat on the union, bosses who grin and tell him he's being promoted. Because of course Cash is good at what he does, but he's not the only person with a White Voice. What about Langston? Even Detroit has a White Voice (although we don't find that out until later and in a different context). Cash is good at the job, but that's not the reason, we'll find out later, that he's elevated. He's elevated partly because he's been identified as able to be turned, and it's a management tactic to prevent organisation by splitting the floor. Cash is green, you see.

Even as Cash makes bank, the shop floor organising goes to a next level; there's strike action. Cash has to cross the picket line. Cash has to be a scab. The bosses won. They got him out of the union. All Cash gets for being a scab, apart from losing Detroit and all his friends, is a full soda can chucked at his head, caught on video and gone viral, giving him an unwelcome social media notoriety and a bandage that he wears on his head for a big chunk of the movie.

Cash's new mentor is a fabulously dressed and perfectly groomed Black guy whose name is beeped out of the soundtrack (Omari Hardwick) and who, in the voice of Patton Oswalt, advises Cash that up here it's White Voice Only. And that man's namelessness is also sort of chilling. He's redacted from everyone's hearing, and that's scary partly because the company can do that in the first place, and partly because he's sort of a cartoon of a Black guy, so given over to the narrative of the company that even his identity is gone. It's only when he says his one line in his own voice, that he gives you an idea of what he really is, and that's someone just like Cash, a man looking out for an opportunity. 

The reason they want Cassius is because they want a tame Black guy on their side. They want one who's willing to sell out. Mr [REDACTED] might have qualified, but he's already sold out, and they need a new one. It becomes apparent when Cash gets invited to a party at the home of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), a portmanteau of all the very worst inspirational billionaire assholes, part Steve Jobs, part Elon Musk, part Jeff Bezos. In an excruciating scene, Lift orders Cash to rap, and the direction that scene goes is painful and hilarious and is a perfect indicator of what Lift wants: he wants someone to perform blackness when he needs it.
Lift: See? It's all just a big misunderstanding.
Cash: This ain't no fucking... misunderstanding, man. So you making half-man, half-horse fucking things so you can make more money?
Lift: Yeah. Basically.
And when we find out Lift's plan, we realise we don't know the half of it because Cash discovers, in the weirdest, most thrilling, most dizzying left turn of the film, that Lift is planning on turning WorryFree workers into mutant horse people – Equisapiens – and that he is going to turn Cash into one too, and then make Cash be a sort of tame liberator for them, but not really, the sort of inspirational figure who gets them some concessions and rights but crucially keeps them pacified. And Lift calls that an "Equisapien Martin Luther King".


White people really like Dr King. White people love to explain Martin Luther King to Black people (just look at Twitter on Martin Luther King day. Or, more sensibly, don't). Malcolm X? He is a bit less easy to appropriate. Whatever Dr King was for or not, his legacy has been domesticated. He was a complex, difficult, messy figure, but that doesn't matter, because we've ruined him. Riley isn't afraid to make mordant offhand references in the script to the sort of Black people white people like (Langston describes the White Voice as "not Will Smith white" for example).

Riley isn't afraid, period. He's not afraid to be spiky and difficult. He's not afraid to say true, painful things about capitalism and what it does to you and how it exploits you. He's not afraid to show his disdain of the way working class people and Black people (and in America they're largely the same thing) get told to perform who they are.

Class is partly a performance. That's what the whole White Voice thing is really a metaphor for. In the UK, we have the assumption that class is an inborn thing, that it's in your blood (and if you're reading this and you're British and you balk at that, consider the way that people act like you kicked a puppy when you point out how morally abhorrent it is that royalty exists, or that someone had the power to end British democracy simply because they were born into that position). It always used to interest me that American takes on the Harry Potter books saw the way that characters were prejudiced against "muggles" and mixed heritage people as a metaphor for racism when it was really a more or less 100% accurate presentation of how British people do class (and besides, Rowling is also low-key racist in different ways, as anyone with a bit of literacy who's read the bits about the goblins could tell you). I was wrong. American readers would make that take. Because in the USA, race and class are inextricably linked in a way that goes far beyond how things are in the UK.

If you think class is in the blood, it’s only one step away from treating the workers as a different species. And never forget that until the Second World War it was taught as a basic truth of science on both sides of the Atlantic that black people and white people were different species (and this is your reminder that the John Scopes Monkey Trial was not initiated on his teaching evolution, it was initiated on his teaching evolution to prove that black people were an inferior species). This was used to justify slavery. This is part of our history. Making the wealthy a different species is an underlying part of transhumanist ideology ("Come on, you're not even alive/If you're not backed up on a drive", sang Grimes, who had her own pet Asshole Billionaire, last year) but what if they revert to making poor people a different species? What if they actually make true what they believed all along?

They said “You've forgotten. You're one of us.”
Cash has to play white to succeed, and that means he's got to talk white.

Your voice, the language you use, it's the central point of how you present your identity. How you look might inspire judgement, but it's your voice that nails down what people think of you, it's the moment that you open your mouth that forever confirms whether or not you'll be accepted in any social grouping, in whatever class (consider especially how much of a struggle it is for trans people). Your use of grammar, your cadence, all of it. It nails you down. It’s why it’s so hard to take working class characters seriously in movies when they’re played by posh people (I don’t have to give you an example, you know what I’m talking about).
Langston: You’ve got it wrong. 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’re happy about your future, and you’re about 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 one. You’ve never been fired, only laid off. It’s not really a white voice. It’s what they wish they sounded like. So it’s like what they think they’re supposed to sound like. Like this young blood. [Speaks with the voice of a young, middle-class white man] Heyyy, Mr Kramer, this is Langston from Regalview. I didn’t catch you at the wrong time, did I?
But it only gets you so far. Because people assume that class is innate (especially in the US where "Black" usually is cognate with "working class"), and while you can play the part of another class, you'll most likely never be one of them. All that Cash achieves by selling out is proving he can play white enough to be safe for the bosses and succeed at his morally void work, and play black in a non threatening way when he is asked to.

He finds himself in a position where he erases his own identity for the sake of adopting a fake one that doesn't crucially fool the real white people, and leaving himself with a real identity that winds up compromised and commodified.

And yet somehow Mr ____ is still himself; he's not a dupe. He chose this, and we can see that in the one instance in the film where he's not using his White Voice, the moment when he tells Cassius that when people like them are presented with opportunities, they have to take that opportunity, and not fuck it up. You might compromise your identity by selling out, but it is a choice. You don't cease to be you. You make a deal.

We got the guillotine, you better run
WorryFree is the main target of the Left Eye movement, a loose conglomeration of activist groups who paint a black stripe under their left eye (a nod to the outspoken and tragic Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the L from late 90s RnB group TLC). Detroit, when she isn't working as a street corner sign twirler (a really good one, so good that it looks like performance art itself) or staging epic performance pieces, keeps busy defacing WorryFree ads, and organising labour activism with Squeeze and co. How any one human being can have the time to do all that is pretty amazing, but then Detroit really is amazing.

Detroit is the moral heart of the film, and, after Cash, the character with the most screen time. She hates Cash's White Voice. But what's interesting is that when we finally see her gallery opening, we discover that she has a White Voice of her own, and it’s the whitest voice imaginable, because it’s Lily James’s honey-sweet, impeccably posh and very, very English register.

But somehow Detroit wears it lightly. She knows that the hustle is bullshit; she knows that it’s a performance, and she’s a performance artist. She understands. Her performance art is framed as a bit ridiculous, because it’s performance art and performance art knows it’s ridiculous, but she knows it’s ridiculous, and it’s also sort of great. Wearing a bikini made from black leather gloves (where the glove/thong is giving the audience the finger), Detroit quotes The Last Dragon (1985), a movie that is almost as nuts as Sorry to Bother You, from a scene where a character turns her back on selling out, while allowing herself, Marina Abramovic-style, to be pelted with empty bullet casings, dead mobile phones and balloons full of blood.

And Cash doesn’t get it. The whole spectacle makes him so uncomfortable that he interrupts the performance. And that means that Detroit’s art works. Because it makes him uncomfortable.
Cash: Wait, wait, wait, stop! What the fuck is this? Why would you subject yourself to this?
Detroit: It’s a part of the show, Cassius! You of all people should understand, right?
Detroit’s art also works because it is not a pose. It is the real deal. She is actually out there on the streets putting herself on the line in solidarity with her fellow workers. She’s got to hustle, but she’s wearing it lightly, which is an interesting contrast with Mr _____: both she and Cassius' Faustian mentor are making deals and using their White Voices, and for both of them the White Voice is a tool for navigating the world of white people. It's how they wear it that differs. 

And that’s a lovely thing about this film. It recognises that sometimes you have to play the game, but that in the end, doing the right thing by the people with you on the ground is what matters. Detroit might have a White Voice, but she is not a sell out. She is the Real Deal.

It’s in her that we see the right way to get by in a world where it is impossible to be perfect.

Detroit makes her own jewellery – spectacular, flamboyant earrings that says “MURDER MURDER MURDER/KILL KILL KILL” or “You’re gonna have to fight” or which look like tiny models of electric chairs, which are reminiscent of some earrings I saw that were actually made in the French Revolution that look like tiny guillotines, and it works, because Detroit is a revolutionary. She’s never going to be as rich as a power caller, but she’s a success as a human being and she’s a fighter. She stands on the front line.

No sentence I spit could’ve shifted events
Sorry to Bother You, in its absurdity, because of its absurdity, is about the most realistic film about capitalism and work and selling out and what you sacrifice to succeed and how the rich look at the rest of us, and for that to work, it has to carry it all the way through to the ending.

Because, in the end Cassius makes the Equisapiens plot public by going on I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me and showing his video there. And the stock market surges. And the striking telemarketers get a few concessions, but they’re still going to have to go to work. But they’re still working. Steve Lift remains a billionaire (although he might, the film hints, be subject to a very final and personal form of revenge a short time after the credits roll). And Cassius and his friends still have jobs. Because as much as Regalview is complicit in the subjugation of humanity, and these folks are its enemy, the system still exists and it needs its employees just as much as they need to eat. Cash (the object) is still green, but Cash (the protagonist) is not. The real victory is in Cassius’ heart. He finds his voice. He finds his courage.

And the fight is going to go on. Winning one battle doesn’t fix a regime; it’s more complex than that. Just as it is in real life.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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