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Absurdity at Work
Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You
Josh Langhoff

Sorry to Bother You is a workplace comedy where work threatens to engulf life. “If you lived here, you’d be at work already!” reads one nightmarish company ad. Written and directed by Boots Riley, an Oakland-based rapper, bandleader, and activist, it’s also a dystopian sci-fi fable and an agitprop manifesto, consistently goofy and sporadically funny throughout its 110-minute running time. Few comedies have been smarter about how work tries to stick its grubby mitts into every aspect of our lives, and even fewer acknowledge how often we welcome the intrusion.

Sorry Film

The movie follows brooding young Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, who wore the straw hat in Get Out) as he joins Oakland’s telemarketing industry, where he skyrockets through the ranks like Bay Area rents. When we first meet Cash, he’s living in his uncle’s garage with his fiancée, the perpetually vibrant Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who somehow turns everything she touches into art. Desperate for money, Cash lies his way through a call center interview. The cynical manager catches the lies but offers Cash a job anyway, seeing in his desperation a worker who will follow the job’s most important rule: “Stick to the script.”

After Cash struggles through several frustrating days of failing to sell encyclopedias to strangers, Cash’s wizened cubicle neighbor, played by Danny Glover, gives him a piece of advice: “Use your white voice.” “Not Will Smith white,” he explains, offering a useful taxonomy, and not simply nasal like a Richard Pryor bit, but carefree and privileged—what white people “wished they sounded like.” Overdubbed by the very white David Cross (Crane in the Kung Fu Panda movies), Cash’s new voice succeeds wildly. “Spin Doctors—classic!” he banters with one customer, liberated from the script. “Tim, I wanna chop it up more but I gotta get to my squash game. Will that be Visa or Mastercard?”

In these early scenes, Riley excels at spotting hilarious absurdities among the world of the working poor. It’s one of the skills that has made his rap project, The Coup, so relatable for more than two decades. Riley has claimed improbable turf in the world of rap music: he’s a funny communist. Coup classics like “Cars & Shoes,” an uproarious litany of the ways Riley’s car is falling apart, find visual analogue in Cash’s three-toned Toyota Tercel, whose windshield wipers move only when its passengers tug a rope. The call center’s dynamics are awkward in the fashion of Office Space and NBC’s The Office—and closer to real life than many managers would like to admit. At one motivational pep rally, a vaguely psychotic supervisor tells the call team, “You gotta know when to bag ‘em” (like a corpse) “and when to tag ‘em.” (“Tagging is when you claim that money,” he says. “It’s a sale. Cha-ching! Like when they put the tag on the body at the morgue to identify it. That’s mine.”)

When the new, chipper team leader starts babbling about “synergy” and “social currency,” Cash asks the only question that matters: “Does that mean we get paid more?”

It does not. Cash soon finds himself recruited by union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun), and before long the staff is staging protests and striking outside the building. In the meantime, the bosses promote Cash upstairs, where he becomes a “Power Caller,” selling various kinds of government-sanctioned evil for much larger commissions. Cash is torn. On the one hand, he loves his work. Having finally found a job at which he excels, that pays him enough to bail his uncle out of debt and move from the garage, he also finds himself crossing his friends’ picket line with the help of police swathed in riot gear. His friends call him disloyal and encourage him to use his Power Caller leverage to advance their union cause. Meanwhile, Cash’s new boss has far more sinister designs on his rising star.

CEO Steve Lift is a spectre of entitled bro-villainy. As played by Armie Hammer, he wears his smug self-regard as comfortably as his ridiculous sarong. Lift’s claim to fame is WorryFree, a mysterious company that signs workers to lifetime contracts doing… something… in exchange for dorm-style room and board. “The comparison to slavery is just ludicrous and offensive,” an affronted Lift tells Oprah in an interview. “We’re saving lives. It’s all highlighted in my book.” After Cash lands several big sales for WorryFree, he attends Lift’s annual cocaine orgy. Lift has stocked his mansion with trophies: a rhino head, a crowd of bejeweled women, and Cash himself, whom Lift demands “bust a rap” for his white guests. In the wee hours of the party, Lift unveils for Cash his nefarious scheme, which twists both the ethical laws of capitalism and the human genome. Cash finally meets a line he can’t cross.

Sorry

Several months ago, my neighbors down the street posted a yard sign reading “We Back The Badge.” Recently, right above the sign, they started flying a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, complete with a rattlesnake and everything. It turns out you can buy a vast assortment of “Thin Blue Line”/“Don’t Tread On Me” mash-up merchandise on the internet. I keep hoping these displays are conceptual art pieces about the American paradox, but they probably aren’t.

Many Americans crave revolution but don’t understand how it works. In his landmark study of race relations, An American Dilemma, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal described how we feel compelled to break laws that seem unjust, while demanding ever-stricter laws for other people. It’s the old conundrum: “No one can tell me what to do,” flying right above “There ought to be a law.” When people wave that defiant rattlesnake flag, who exactly do they think will tread on them? The “Don’t Tread On Me” motto is a promise to bite the heel of big government. But surely anyone defying a government’s laws should expect a visit from the jackboot of government law enforcement agents. Those agents will wear badges, they’ll be armed and coercive, and they won’t care about a “We Back The Badge” sign.

Magical thinking muddles our politics. Indignant thoughts and yard signs don’t change unjust systems; neither do internet griping or affected civility. (Especially not affected civility.) Direct action is the only thing that does; the more direct, the greater the consequences. On this point Boots Riley remains gloriously unmuddled. No matter how lovingly he portrays everyday absurdities and relationship nuances, the razor’s edge of the people’s Revolution looms in the future. In Sorry, the call center workers unionize only after goading the police into a violent, night-long riot. The movie ends with a team of disfigured WorryFree slaves breaking into dazed Steve Lift’s mansion; it’s unclear whether they plan to seize the means of production or simply take their revenge.

For Coup fans, this is nothing new. Every Coup album contains a song or two in which Riley unflinchingly (but wittily) raps about mass movements of armed citizens, from “20,000 Gun Salute” to “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.”, “My Favorite Mutiny” to “Guillotine.” Hearing these songs is about as discomforting as reading James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, and just as refreshing. Riley has his Marxist theory down cold, but his words vibrate with populist life. He makes other political art seem like a humorless, mealy-mouthed sham, whereas he alone sees the endgame and spits the truth. He’d do well in U.S. politics if he could just lose the communism.

As Sorry grows darker, its tone grows less certain. Riley and editor Terel Gibson don’t always lead their scenes to payoff—jokes fall flat, or they hold reaction shots a beat too long. The climactic riot uses quick-cut visual confusion to suggest chaos, but it’s so chaotic we lose the narrative tension, and therefore the horror. Riley has acknowledged the influence of Alex Cox’s 1984 absurdist sci-fi comedy, Repo Man, where the L.A. sets seemed patched together with chewing gum and scenes trailed off more than they didn’t. (Probably coincidentally, two of The Coup’s funniest songs celebrate dastardly repo men.) So these awkward stagings may have been deliberate, but they clash tonally with the plot’s central conflict, blunt as a police baton: capitalism leads people to stark decisions that carry dire consequences.

Overstuffing Oakland with ideas and throwaway gags, Riley labors mightily to humanize the place, and largely avoids making his characters the sum total of their decisions. His greatest success is Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson. She seems to represent Riley’s ideal of how to live under late capitalism. Thompson shrewdly underplays, centering a character who could have vanished into quirkiness. Her advice for Cash is unfailingly correct. She performs her day job, spinning a sign that reads “SIGNS” in front of a store called Signs, with aplomb. Her giant earrings, bearing paired slogans like “TELL HOMELAND SECURITY” and “WE ARE THE BOMB,” are fabulous. (No surprise, you can buy replicas online.) Being flawless is more pressure than any female character deserves, so I wish Riley had emphasized Detroit’s concessions to her own white voice, used during her gallery show and dubbed by Downton Abbey’s Lily James. No one can stay totally pure. But if we’re going to let capital define our lives, it might as well be on our own terms.

 

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music.

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