In his writer-director debut, Boots Riley has delivered an exercise in surrealist satire not truly before seen on film. Yes, Sorry to Bother You shares some themes with movies like Get Out and Idiocracy, or even Wall Street and Nightcrawler, but it separates itself by doing something that is so rarely seen: it acknowledges, while capitalism may or may not be inherently racist, the world has never seen capitalism that was not racist.
Identity Politics: noun. A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.
There is a famous quote attributed to Greek philosopher Heraclitus; you may have heard it if you watched season one of The Chi, where it was said in full, or Cloak & Dagger, where it was referenced, but the quote says “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It’s a quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’ll tell you why.
Given our current sociopolitical climate, where we have an open racist in the White House, we’re seeing Nazis proudly marching in the streets, and even the “good” side of our government is complicit in its request that we “be civil”, it is easy to suggest we have been here before. Yes, we have seen Nazis before. Yes, America has always been a racist country. Yes, there have always been privileged people telling the oppressed to be civil, or to comply, or to show patience. Yes, we have been here before, and that’s the point. Experience is not the mirror nor the reflection; experience is the light. We have not been here before. Not us. Not here.
We are at an unprecedented time in our society. Identity politics gets a bad rap, and that’s mostly because it’s been co-opted as a negative term. The privileged and the defenders of the status quo love to do that. Take the phrase “All lives matter”, for example. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase, but the intent of its creation is undeniably nefarious. “I don’t see color” is another one white people love to throw around to seem progressive, but it’s actually a convenient way to use white privilege to ignore the problems racism causes for people of color. How about “Pro-life”? That’s a hell of a misnomer, isn’t it? They say they’re pro-life while they’re taking your healthcare, stripping women of their autonomy, and ignoring all gun violence. Hey, but they do want to send you their “thoughts and prayers”.
But we’ve seen a resurgence and reclamation of identity politics in recent years, to the point where we are now living in an identity culture. We’re at a place where people aren’t just embracing who they are, but they’re defending it with everything they have. The main drawback of identity politics has always been an assumed ignorance of intersectionality; the presumption we will become so caught up in our own identity that we will ignore how our problems overlap with the problems of others, but it seems like we are ready to confront that issue, too.
What’s more, art has always been used as a way to challenge the status quo. From Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, to Andy Warhol commenting on consumerism with a soup can, to street artists like Banksy or Shepard Fairey confronting fascism: the best art challenges the system. The art of film is no different. Movies can tell you to recycle, or not to do drugs, or to help your fellow man. Or they can just tell you your system is trash. In our flourishing identity culture of the last couple years, we’ve had so many wonderful films not only telling you to be yourself but telling you to love it with all you have and not let anyone take it away from you. And these movies are no longer arthouse secrets few people ever see; these are commercial successes. These are movies like Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and Black Panther. These are television shows like Barry or Atlanta, which both deal with the perils of performative identity and being who you think you have to be. That brings me to the brilliant Nanette, a Netflix comedy special from Hannah Gadsby. In that special, Gadsby lays it all out in such a viscerally clear way. I absolutely suggest you watch that comedy special in its entirety, but I will relay this short takeaway: she is done pretending. In that way, I think we are all done pretending. No more going high. No more being civil. No more saying you’re sorry.
Yes, that does finally bring me to the buried lede. I can hear you asking why I am taking so long to get to the movie, but–and you’ll pardon the hackneyed pun–I am not sorry to bother you, because all of that shit is the movie. Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), fittingly nicknamed “Cash”. I’ve seen the setting described as an “alternate present-day”, but I don’t know that it’s all that “alternate”, really. Perhaps the most unbelievable thing for a film set in 2018 is that Cash is a telemarketer selling encyclopedias. Everything else, though? 100% accurate.
Yes, it is surreal, but surrealism focuses on an aspect of reality and enhances it to hyperbolic lengths for effect. Here, that takes the form of Cash and the other black characters in the film using their “white voices”. In the movie, these voices are actually provided, in voiceover, by white actors (David Cross for Cash, for example), but this is an exaggerated representation of code switching, which of course is real. I could attempt to explain this, but instead I will point you to a Twitter thread I recently read from author L.L. McKinney, who addressed it better than I feel I ever could.
(This is the first tweet of several in the thread.)
So! Yesterday a writer friend asked me why Black people can write white characters but not vice versa.
Let me say that she meant “can” as in possessing adequate knowhow and understanding, not can as in physically able to.
We’ve had this discussion. Not here for that, today.
— Elle says Pre-order A BLADE SO BLACK. Treat yoself (@ElleOnWords) July 6, 2018
In centering the film around this, Boots Riley is not only directly taking on identity and the idea of what it means to be yourself, but he’s also making a clear point about cultural imperialism and how the marriage of capitalism and racism forces people of color to lose themselves in order to succeed in a world built on white supremacy. You have to have the right voice, wear the right clothes, speak the right language, have the right hair, practice the right religion: all in the pursuit of the privilege, happiness, and comfort of whiteness and what it represents. It is in tackling this issue that Sorry to Bother You sets itself apart from previous films about naked greed and the exploitation of ambition inherent in unchecked capitalism, as it establishes itself as the epitome of identity culture and the value of being true to oneself.
But, wait, there’s more! Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is an artist whose art is, yes, challenging the system. It’s difficult to get too specific about this character without going into spoiler territory, but let’s see. Through Detroit, as well as a game show we see where people voluntarily get hurt and a protest incident with Cash, we get what seems to be social commentary on what we all put ourselves through for fame, notoriety, and (again) money. That game show, titled I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!, is another example of surrealist satire that distills the problem to its clearest form. We have to stop letting everything we do be performative, but it’s so hard because everything is built to tell us we have no inherent value. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
There are yet further messages about workers’ rights, colonialism, dehumanization, complicity, confidence, enabling, rebellion: this movie has more to say than a crisp, leather-bound encyclopedia, and I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of it. The upshot is Boots Riley did a hell of a job writing and directing it, the cast is terrific, the music is great, and the set design and character design are excellent. In the end, I don’t know that I would say the overall message here is explicitly anti-capitalist as much as it’s a clarion call for an examination of what capitalism is doing to us. What’s crystal clear is Boots Riley certainly has thoughts on capitalism, and he is not sorry for them.