I worked in a call centre for several years. So when, in the very first scene of this movie there’s this archly framed shot of Lakeith Stanfield’s hero in front of a noticeboard on which the contextless word ‘You’ is prominently displayed — I felt that. As he begs for a job with his fraudulent credentials across from the desk of some pasty old dude who is over-friendly and a little lascivious you’re firmly established in the realm of a workplace comedy. There’s echoes early on of Mike Judge’s Office Space, though we can tell that Boots Riley approaches the environment with a more easily apparent political bent.
He creates people around our apathetic lead like his performance artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), the whispery workplace organiser (Steven Yeun), and his uncle facing repossession (Terry Crews). On the television we see news reports suggesting growing social unrest, adverts for innovative startups that are promising to nebulously ‘reinvent’ work, and a game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!. The game show one is probably the weakest of the bunch, the script was apparently written a while ago and the same thing has been done quite a few times before.
What hasn’t been demonstrated is the absolute commitment to following every single strand of the world to its ultimate, wildest conclusion. The thing with workplace comedies is that regardless of their opinion of work, in order for the plot to have any drive they have to accept the assumptions of the capitalist system. Office Space ends with the lead finding a job that he likes, but the necessity of labour is unquestioned. This film starts in that vein, an early shot showing Stanfield’s Cash Green working as some chaotic printer malfunction happens in the background demonstrates his obliviousness, but slowly things start to get woke.
The great Danny Glover advises him early on that he ain’t gonna get nowhere if he sounds black on the phone, and the prodigious speed with which he picks up his ‘white voice’ sends him shooting up the ranks. It’s a fact that businesses are run on secrets. The most obvious and pressing to the worker is pay, societal hush around the topic of compensation is what gets us all screwed, but that ain’t all. It’s in the way that high power people make up acronyms for things understandable in plain language, but whose status is increased by knowing the right words.
If a worker is kept uninformed they are more easily manipulable. We see this extend in both directions, while the labourers at the bottom decide to inform themselves on class consciousness and strike, Cash scabs out on them and rises through the ranks. As he does so the secrets that he gains access to become increasingly troubling until their cost don’t become worth selling his soul for.
And soul selling becomes almost entirely literal as the running time goes along. Armie Hammer turns up as some tech-bro parody of a human being that he makes uncomfortably real in the way we imagine human vampire Peter Thiel to be and the film takes a grand leap to the absurd. Like, we’ve been witness to it all along — Detroit, the girlfriend sports increasingly outlandish earwear, twirls nonsensical street signs on corners. When telemarketing a full computer desk plummets into the room of whoever’s on the phone. The ‘white voice’ is overdubbed by David Cross for fuck’s sake.
Yet it’s easy to be dismissed, it’s stylistic, a first time filmmaker having fun with the elements at his disposal. But like, not actually. The final act of this film directly confronts the audience with the absurdity of capitalism, and suddenly all the weirdness is redefined. I’m like half into leftist twitter and listen to a few leftist podcasts and there’s a lot of jokes told in order to reconcile the horrific dissonance that comes with living a comfortable life in a crumbling world.
The white voice is a real thing. The violence of television and hypocrisy of the news is a real thing. So when that happens. Yeah, I can see it.
It’s goofy and ridiculous and sometimes laser sharp and sometimes broad as hell. There’s a sloppiness to it, it moves with a weird frantic energy. Like Riley knew he’d not be let make another movie after this (or maybe only had the one in him) and so had to throw literally everything into it. So there’s like a troubled romance subplot for about five minutes which feels outta place. A strange amount of time is dedicated to the proliferation of a meme, things like that. Characters just appear and disappear when necessary and, while there is an ending, it’s a very messy dismount.
I’m not sure what the reaction of a capitalist to this movie would be. There’s a whole lotta discourse going on and the unrestrained spite at the core would probably chafe uncomfortably. But there ain’t no capitalist going to go see this. It’s not for them, propaganda can make itself smooth — protest can’t.
Sorry to Bother You is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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