by Aaron Stephens / IWW Connecticut
Sorry to Bother You, the debut film of writer and director Boots Riley has been a long time in the making. The screenplay was first published in 2012 in conjunction with the Coup’s sixth album by the same name, part of a long and multifaceted campaign to garner enough attention to get the film made.
But we could go back even further and say that Sorry to Bother You was in the making while Riley was alternating between rapping and (you guessed it) telemarketing in the 90s. For him the Coup was largely a project of convenience. Film-making was the real goal, and music was an artistic and political outlet more readily accessible to young black men.
For the sake of this analysis, let’s go back a little more. Boots was a red diaper baby, meaning his parents were radical with considerable organizing experience under their belts. His father and Danny Glover met during the 1968 San Francisco State College student strike where ethnic studies were first won. Both he and his father were members of the Progressive Labor Party, an organization that split from the Communist Party USA in the early 1960s and quickly distinguished itself as a party of street agitators and militant anti-racists. Although they drifted away due to the burnout that goes along with membership in any organization that demands high commitment, their political convictions have not worn off with time.
Now, let’s talk about the film. Sorry to Bother You is mostly about the power of the self-activity of the working classes. The main characters are all the same class, all work together, hang out together, sleep together, and fight for each other. When they’re at odds with one another, they don’t take it lightly. Self-activity just means the agency and autonomy that all working class people exercise outside of the rules of class society, both informally as well as in organized forms. All of their would-be leaders, saviors and assorted rich people in the movie are, at best, a joke to roll your eyes at. And at worst they’re actively engaged in the worst crimes in history. Sorry to Bother You shows deep love for the underdogs, not out of charity but in solidarity, because Riley sees our class of people as humanity’s only hope.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Detroit says her parents wanted her to have an “American name,” which is a sardonic statement on what the United States of America is really about: hard work with unfulfilled promises, neglect, black suffering and decay that the city of Detroit has come to represent. She is the idealized radical artist. She is not all talk, nor does she make art for art’s sake. In the same breath that Detroit gives a Marxist analysis of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (putting it in terms of “capitalism started by stealing labor from Africans” ) she also extols her deeply held values concerning living life and embracing love and celebrating resistance in spite of all the oppression and misery in the world. Detroit is all at once a union militant who can reference Norma Rae, a Left Eye anarchist running the streets, and a working artist. Riley sees no contradiction in any of that. A shame the same can’t (yet) be said for the rest of the left.
In a Democracy Now! interview earlier this year, Riley discusses his own politics a bit, which seems relevant to understanding Detroit’s character:
I say communist because that’s really what all those folks are talking about. It’s really a result of anticommunism that people sometimes call themselves anarchists. A lot of people will hear this and be like, “That’s not true.” But it’s a way to say, “I’m not part of those mistakes that happened before.” In reality, we all are part of those mistakes that happened before.
Whether you call yourself a child of that legacy or not, you are. We have to look at those things. So that is why I say “communist,” because the world that even anarchists are saying they want to create is a communist world.
Detroit and Riley embrace resistance in all its forms, not to obscure our differences but to avoid the breakdown in communication between different political traditions that can lead to the destructiveness of sectarianism (the habit of divisiveness for the sake of promoting one’s own particular organization or program).
See this essay’s appendix for a breakdown of her earrings, by order of appearance.
Cash is bitter and alienated by his position very near the bottom of the capitalist pyramid, and he feels deep guilt that he is responsible for his own lack of success. He is literally “YOU” as spelled out by the only legible post on the bulletin board behind him in the opening scene. His name might be meant to frame him as pre-radicalized, a la Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) on top of a pun (“cash is green”) which suggests a blue collar pragmatism. He’s embraced by telemarketing because of an apparent moral flexibility when it comes to making ends meet. When he’s offered a promotion, he internalizes everything Regalview management says about his own individual success, and how it has nothing to do with his former coworkers’ struggle. Bleep, the only other black “power caller” is the hardened and weary future-Cash, having long resolved not to listen to his conscience even after he’s done things he regrets. He whispers his own self-hatred into Cash’s ear (“don’t do that thing … that thing where you fuck it up”) before sending him to his fully-dehumanized fate (literally made not-human by capitalism) as an equisapien.
Cash’s head bandage is worn from the time he starts to regret his decision to scab, and only does it disappear and the wound start healing after he comes forward with his video clip. His shame is finally healed by the truth and returning to his principles. As crossing the picket lines and losing Detroit starts to wear on him, the camera pans out the window of Steve’s party to the vandalized/liberated Worry Free billboard we saw earlier: “Show the world your response baby,” foreshadowing that the seeds of rebellion that Detroit sowed in him may soon sprout. In the following scenes he discovers the horrible truth about the equisapiens, which he then responds to in dramatic Detroit-like style. At the very end, as he unveils his “new” apartment he says “I couldn’t come back to the exact same thing, after all that, right?” Winning isn’t about keeping what you had, but about moving forward with what you’ve gained in the experience of the struggle.
Salvador is the heart of the clique. He values friendship and camaraderie above all. He admires the former football team’s friendship while Cash can only make bitter comments while navel-gazing at his own alienation. Outside Regalview after the first work stoppage, Sal expresses deep, heartfelt camaraderie with his coworkers. “Like I’ve known y’all my whole life, you know.” When the workers are poised to take action for the first time, he eagerly delivers one of the best lines of the film: “Yeah! I brought ALL KINDS of weapons!” Toward the end, when Cash apologizes for his betrayal, Sal doesn’t care about punishing his friend; only about being on the same side once again. He knows that their bond doesn’t rely on transactional rituals like crime and punishment/confession and forgiveness. Sal is kind of a simple knucklehead, which highlights his sincerity and allows us to see the plain truth in what he says. If he can see things for what they are, why can’t everyone else?
Squeeze, the union organizer (and a “salt” as it’s called in the labor movement when someone gets hired with the sole intention of unionizing) does what’s called in the IWW a very quick “agitate/educate” with Cash before setting up an outside-of-work meeting (albeit with a group while drinking–not recommended by the Organizer Training program). He hammers on the low pay as something that he knows is bothering Cash (agitate) and suggests a solution (educate). The bar meeting is where the two paths to raising up working class people are presented, side-by-side: a workers’ union, or a white voice (respectability/upward mobility). Cash’s response to Squeeze’s union pitch with his white voice foreshadows his selling out.
The workers’ first warning to Regalview is a textbook example of workers’ direct action (in this case sometimes called a “job action,” because it’s done while on-the-clock). Illustrating the old union slogan, “Labor Creates All Wealth,” they leverage their key position in the corporate hierarchy to disrupt surplus value extraction (i.e., hurting their bottom line by simply withdrawing their labor collectively). Workers are visibly moved by their own power in the face of their despised wage slavery and weaselly middle managers. There’s a beautiful shot where Cash and Detroit exchange an amused and excited glance, and literally rise as one as they simultaneously stand up from their desks, facing the same direction in frame. Cash’s façade of bitterness cracks with joy and astonishment across his face. Struggle changes everything. The job action has its intended effect of giving the workers a hands-on lesson on collective action, while leaving plenty of room for escalation. Notice the movie doesn’t start with a strike; the same can be said of any successful union campaign.
A word on the picket lines: these are very unusual for the contemporary US (for now). Most union pickets you’re likely to encounter are “soft” in the sense that they will eventually “break the line” and let scabs through after giving them a lot of grief. “Hard” pickets like the ones in Sorry to Bother You may use varying levels of physical force to keep scabs out, and the labor movement’s power has diminished in direct correlation with their gradual disappearance from the US since the 1980s. Elsewhere around the world, hard pickets are common enough, and their unions tend to be a much bigger force to reckon with. It’s also interesting that the Regalview/Worry Free pickets are modernized with a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) sound weapon in the background, and robocops in full riot armor breaking the line, suggesting to the viewer what one might expect should a militant labor renewal take place in modern times.
In the end Worry Free is defeated by a united front of strikers, community muscle from the football team, Detroit’s statues (representing radical artists) and the newest proletarians, the equisapiens. Their unity literally overpowers the charging paddy wagon and pushes it back. Squeeze’s line “Same struggle same fight” is a classic Marxist slogan. As is so often the case in the real world, revolutionary power is unleashed when the whole working class joins forces with an insurgent striking workforce: the 2011 Egyptian revolution ended quickly when the military decided they would rather depose their own leader than have to fight the country’s increasingly militant striking workers emboldened by the mass street protests in the final days of the revolution. The 2006 teachers strike in the Mexican state of Oaxaca escalated rapidly after heavy-handed police repression sparked a mass uprising that became an anti-capitalist workers’ commune in the capital city, and almost resulted in the overthrow of the provincial government. And in May of 1968 France’s massive unionized workforce went on a nationwide general strike to protest police brutality against radical Parisian students, which led to mass worker occupations of industry as well as student occupations of universities.
More than any other film with wide distribution and attention in the US in recent memory, Sorry to Bother You is also very much about capitalism. We get the full experience: from workers’ day-to-day living under its boot, to the top of the pyramid and how they stay up there. The film is set firmly in our current capitalist dystopia. Cash is late on paying rent to his diabetic uncle who, in turn, is also way behind on mortgage payments. He drives his bucket of a car past shantytowns where they may soon live themselves if the job he’s driving to doesn’t work out, if they don’t “voluntarily” sign-up for slavery instead. We’re treated to the familiar corporate human resources gibberish designed to obscure and trivialize the basic facts of the jobs we’ve been forced into, and the economics that shape them, trying to lead workers away from the realities of the power of capital, so they’ll chase “social capital” instead. This is part of the larger capitalist strategy to sell working people on image over fulfilling basic material needs. Capitalism is more than just the New York Stock Exchange; it is an entire system that connects political structures, labor discipline and ideological warfare.
When the workers issue their first warning, Regalview starts immediately with a textbook divide-and-conquer union-busting approach, removing a social leader (Cash) which leads to dissension in the workers’ ranks (Sal and Detroit become at odds with Cash, even causing Detroit to leave the job—and the strike—altogether) while using a token promotion to sow doubt among those workers who may be on the fence, by showing them that promotions could be possible for them as well. Management literally closes the blinds on onlooking coworkers as Cash considers the offer. He’s haunted by his insecurities and fear of mediocrity in the form of the football team who appear in the manager’s office. During the meeting he internalizes everything Regalview management says about how his success has nothing to do with the union campaign. After the job action a poster appears outside the office: “Regalview Team Members! Remember that the Team Comes First! Don’t Let Outsiders Interfere with the Team!” This is called “third-partying” the union by suggesting that union organizers are outsiders that don’t care about the workers’ interests as much as the bosses do, which is also a giveaway that the bosses don’t think the workers are anything but a bunch of dupes.
Regalview and Worry Free represent the evil heart of capitalism: cartoonish greasiness that can only be represented in the popular imagination by telemarketers scamming broke old ladies with hospital bills, and responsible for the very real crimes against humanity in our time such as militarism and human bondage. Worry Free and Regalview also rely heavily on a slick image that Sorry to Bother You condemns in no uncertain terms as tacky as fuck. Steve Lift embodies the corporate public relations persona entirely, lying to Cash’s face about what he’s snorting, acting aghast that Cash would even suggest that Steve misled him, relying entirely on being convincing, reassuring and successful, and pretending it’s a normal business meeting while holding a pistol. Fittingly, he ends the meeting exclaiming “Go fuck something,” driving home that Steve sees other living beings only as non-person objects to be used, which is also a part of the movie’s running commentary on capitalism and masculinity. The elevator robot voice and Steve’s bevy of fuck-objects satirizes the corporate obsession with the appearance of male virility. Worry Free’s “Responsible BabyDaddy” billboard suggests that not embracing slavery makes black men bad fathers, which is a statement on how the nuclear family model has been historically used to bolster exploitative systems wherein parent’s love for their children are ideologically weaponized and held to the head of reluctant workers.
Finally, a newspaper headline shows us congress doesn’t care about Worry Free slavery, paralleling the multitude of issues that the political class is either unable or unwilling to address. As the channels are being flipped in the bar, the only options appear to be MTV-style Orwellian Worry Free propaganda, horrific game show spectacles, or the strike. In a scene in the latter part of the movie, cable news depicts glee and celebration as Steve decides to take the opportunity handed to him by the unexpected publicity and embraces his historically profitable crimes against nature. And no communist satire would be complete without having Steve’s unholy perversion sanctified not only by congress and the media, but also by the evangelical Christians that Cash encounters on the street. One of their signs references Revelation 19:14, which directs us to this Bible passage: “And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.”
Although the subject matter is sometimes dark, it is still deeply gratifying to see these themes get mainstream attention for once, especially coming from a director who has (many times over) earned the attention he’s finally attracted. It may be a sign of the times that we’re living in when a random assortment of left-wing Hollywood actors will take a risk and get behind an anti-capitalist screenplay by a largely unknown writer. Hopefully the same dynamic will take hold if the Coup ever tours again. The film’s soundtrack is fantastic by the way, don’t sleep on it.
MURDER/KILL: a visceral response to the first disgusting Worry Free commercial
Glittery penises: a message to Regalview after the work stoppage, along the lines of “suck it.”
Electric chairs: juxtaposed with WF ad/prison slavery, a nod to the understanding that life imprisonment is just another form of the death penalty.
“Bury the Rag/Deep in Your Face”: a line from “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” by Bob Dylan, a ballad about racist double standards and murderous impunity.
“You’re Gonna Have to Fight/Your Own Damn War”: a line from “Partyup” by Prince, appears in the art opening scene. This may be an antiwar reference since her performance at the gallery is also partly antiwar, or perhaps a reference to Cash’s decision to go it alone as he’s recently done at that point in the story.
“Bella Ciao” is an old Italian anti-fascist ballad sung from the perspective of a soldier saying goodbye to his love, which appears in the last garage scene with Cash when he transforms, foreshadowing that his war is just beginning.