Sorry To Bother You is marketed as movie about a 20-something African-American kid who co-opts a “white sounding” voice as a telemarketer so he can get his life together and his bills paid. But it’s really a stylized comedic look at race, corporate capitalism, and the price one puts on their soul and integrity. And Equi-Sapiens. Yes, that’s right, Equi-Sapiens. We’ll get to them in a minute.
The Struggle Is Real
Set in Oakland, we meet Cassius, Cash for short, living in his uncle’s garage and trying to have a private life with his artist girlfriend, Detroit. He lies on his resumé to get a job at a telemarketing firm and totally gets busted. But that shows initiative and he’s hired.
He gets a headset and a cubicle in a soul sucking room with soul sucking fluorescent lights to perform the soul sucking job of calling people at home to sell them things they don’t want or need. And there’s the corporate culture that oscillates between rah-rah encouragement that’s been tested in focus groups and a Stick-To-The-Script directive that is literal and metaphorical. Don’t rock the boat, do your best, and maybe you can become a Power Caller.
I’ve Got The Power
Not getting anywhere in his first few days, Cassius gets advice from the next cube over, Langston, played subtly and stoically by Danny Glover, that he needs to use his “white voice.” Well that does the trick. Once Cassius starts coming across as white, he’s becoming the new best friend of his marks and selling up a storm.
This raises questions on both sides of the race divide. Do black people really think white people really sound that geeky? And are white people that shallow that they’ll only talk to people of their “own kind?”
It’s not long before Cassius is moved upstairs, where the vaunted Power Callers work. They have their own elevator that can only be accessed by personalized 40+ digit code. The entire movie has a feel of uncomfortable laughter and a stylized tone that keeps the audience off-balance. But it’s here in Act two when the movie takes it up a notch (and we’re not even to the Equi-Sapiens yet).
From the over-the-top elevator with personalized messages to stroke his masculinity to his boss, whose name we never learn (Omari Hardwick), to his glass encased office where he can research clients and make his calls, it seems like he’s escaped the soul sucking atmosphere of downstairs.
But he will soon learn it just takes a different approach to sucking a soul. The main client for Power Callers is Work Free. They’re a company that entices people to sign a lifetime contract to work for them and never again need to worry about finding work or paying bills, and live in a communal workspace. The people look trapped and terrified even in Work Free’s corporate videos.
Power Callers spend their time lining up clients for Work Free’s lifetime labor force. These clients, who are often less-than-unsavory, are sold on double productivity at half the cost.
At the same time, his old coworkers downstairs, including Detroit, are striking to get benefits and better treatment. Cash turns his back on them for personal profit. He prevents his uncle’s home from being foreclosed, gets a car that isn’t a junker, and his own baller apartment.
While crossing the line one day someone beans him with a soda can and yells ‘have a Coke and a smile, bitch.’ By the end of the day he’s a meme, a viral video, and a Halloween costume. It’s a harsh yet on-point send up of online culture.
But despite this, Cash embraces his inner-Power Caller even if he’s still unsure about Work Free and it’s owner, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
Workhorses for the 21st Century
Lift has heard of Cash’s skills and invites him to a party at his house, and this is where all three themes converge.
One moment Cash is cajoled into rapping for a privileged white audience (he can’t rap, so just starts saying ‘n***er sh!t’ over and over.. and the crowd is enthralled.
The next moment he’s in Lift’s office, doing long, fat lines of what he thinks is cocaine, and preparing to get the offer of a lifetime. But when he goes to the restroom, he stumbles upon horse people, or Equi-Sapiens.
Freaked out, he tries to leave, but stays at gunpoint to hear Lift’s offer. Become an Equi-Sapien for five years and get 100 million dollars. Since Cash was so strident about crossing his friends on the picket line Lift sees him as a natural leader of the coming workforce of Workhorses.
Cash takes video of the anatomically correct horse-humans to the media. But rather than being outraged, society embraces the idea and hails Lift as a corporate genius.
Yes, it’s absurdist to the highest degree. But it’s not as absurd as it would have been five years ago. And five years from now may be, well, let’s not finish that thought.
And The Winner Is..
This film is a revelation, with strong, revolutionary performances. Director Boots Riley gives us a thought-provoking look into how we relate to each other in different realms of society. It is a solid contender to snag an Oscar Nomination for Best Picture and is our odds on fave at this point to win the Golden Globe for Comedy Movie. The Hollywood Foreign Press, the small, cloistered clique that votes on the Globes, loves this kind of fare.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Red Horse Beer. It’s an extra strong lager, a real Workhorse to challenge your taste buds and liver.