Saturday, July 28, 2018
Riffing off the well-documented phenomenon that people respond to telephone calls based on the perceived race of the caller, Sorry to Bother You tells the story of a young black man, Cassius Green – Cash is Green, get it? – who goes from rags to riches by using his “white voice” for telemarketing. As Cash climbs the corporate ladder, he is torn between his newfound prosperity and loyalty to his old friends.
But that bare description of the film’s premise is hardly preparation for the surreal dystopian fantasy that follows. The plot is nearly beyond description, but most of the action centers on WorryFree, a labor contracting company that offers its employees dormitory-style housing and cafeteria-tray meals in exchange for lifetime work commitments – an arrangement deemed not to be slavery after congressional investigation. A proto-anarchist movement struggles to disrupt WorryFree’s operations and unionize Cash’s workplace, but mass media and viral marketing allow even the protests to be commodified and sold as entertainment. As such, the film dramatizes the concept of narcotizing dysfunction, where knowledge of an issue is substituted for action to oppose it. Ultimately, the message is that in a capitalist society, all labor is slavery; some settings are simply more luxurious than others. Therefore, the only solution is a militant class solidarity.
The film is uneven and a bit slow to get going; some of the earlier scenes, especially, feel like filler. That said, most of it packs quite a wallop. Particularly standout moments include a party where, after “passing” as white to achieve professional advancement, Cash must perform a grotesque modern minstrel to curry favor with white society, as well as just about any scene in which Cash’s girlfriend, an avant-garde performance artist with an endless supply of sexually explicit and/or violent homemade apparel, makes an appearance.
As one review put it, “one of the secondary pleasures of watching ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is sifting through its possible influences.” Reviewers have compared it to a host of other satires of capitalism and race relations, but if you ask me, Sorry to Bother You is the spiritual descendant of Little Shop of Horrors.
Of course, Little Shop of Horrors is a lot less radical, and doesn’t have a racial message (unless that message is, “our Skid Row exists in a nearly all-white alternate universe”), but similarly tells the phantasmagoric story of a nebbishy guy who finds capitalist success via Faustian bargain. I’d also argue that they have a somewhat similar visual aesthetic in their depiction of slum life and the petite bourgeoisie.
In sum, it’s difficult to imagine a film capturing the current zeitgeist as well as Sorry to Bother You. So, if you’re not getting enough of that in your ordinary life – or you just want to see a version of it starring prettier people – it’s worth checking out.