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Sci-Fi Saturday #6


Welcome to Sci-Fi Saturday, a new column that is devoted to all things science fiction: film, television, comics, novels, video games, and local Metro Detroit events. If there is a topic you'd like to see covered in an upcoming column,

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I'm taking a brief hiatus from Star Trek this week while I get caught up with a million other things. Instead I'll be sharing my thoughts on Sorry to Bother You, a dystopia/satire/comedy/science fiction film now playing at Cinema Detroit (and elsewhere).

I saw Sorry to Bother You right after it came out at the beginning of this month, and have been trying to write something cohesive on it since then. If you've seen the film, you probably can understand my struggle. If you haven't seen the film, you should. It isn't an exaggeration to say that Boots Riley, the writer and director of the film, hasn't just thrown out the rulebook for filmmaking but has created an alternate universe in which those rules don't even apply. Sorry to Bother You is groundbreaking, nerve-wracking, genre-bending, and - despite the many comparisons critics have made between it and films like They Live, Get Out, Bamboozled, and so on - it is unlike anything I've ever seen.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

The film follows Cassius Green ("Cash is Green", played by Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man just getting by in Oakland, as he begins working at telemarketing company RegalView. Under the advice of his co-worker Langston (Danny Glover), Cash starts using his "white voice" (dubbed by David Cross) while on calls with potential clients. Tapping into the power of the "white voice," Cash is able to sell his way up to the very top of the food chain and earn the coveted position of "Power Caller." As his friends Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) struggle to unionize the telemarketers, Cash and the other Power Callers act as scabs, crossing the picket lines with the protection of an armed security force. As a Power Caller, Cash finally has the life he wanted all along - money, respect, a place of his own, and a job he excels at - but at the cost of alienating his friends, losing his girlfriend, and becoming embroiled in a system that does irreparable harm to others. Power Callers, after all, don't sell the standard junk associated with telemarketers, but sell weapons and slave labor.

This all changes when Cash is invited to a party thrown by Steve Lift, the mega-wealthy techbro CEO of WorryFree, a company that pressures laborers into lifelong work contracts in exchange for shelter and housing (as Morty from Rick and Morty might say, "that just sounds like slavery with extra steps"). At the party Cash stumbles upon something horrible lurking in the basement of Lift's enormous mansion - a half-human, half-horse hybrid creature (they are called "equisapiens"). Lift reveals that WorryFree has been experimenting with a gene-modifying powder that can transform humans into equisapiens, which he claims makes them both physically stronger and more docile.

Cash nopes right out of there and decides he has to take this information public (luckily he has captured footage from the equisapien laboratory on his cell phone). Unfortunately, even though Cash is able to get the equisapien story to the public, no one cares. Lift is hailed as a genius and WorryFree stock makes considerable gains on the market. Cash, now reunited with Detroit and his friends, realizes that the only way to stop Lift and WorryFree is through violent revolution. They work together to free the equisapiens, fight the police, and maintain the picket line.

In the final minutes of the film, it is revealed that Cash himself has transformed into an equisapien (we can assume that the "cocaine" Lift offered him earlier at the party was actually the "gene-modifying powder" used to transform humans). The final shots of the film show Cash, now in equisapien form, leading the other hybrids into Lift's mansion, breaking down the door and roaring at him menacingly. Roll credits.

Did you get all of that? For the sake of expediency, I even left out some of the side stories happening with Detroit, Squeeze, and the other central characters.

Although I still haven't managed to fully formulate my thoughts on what the film is doing, I do have some preliminary ideas about Sorry to Bother You that may become more fleshed out as I write more on the film.

Firstly, I think it can't be overstated how radical this film is in terms of its portrayal of life under late capitalism. The desperation, exploitation, lack of privacy, physical and psychological damage, and chasmic disparity between the rich and the poor are all on full display here. Solutions are not presented in the form of a single proletarian hero (aka Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath or Nada in They Live), but as community and union based. Cash cannot overthrow WorryFree alone, not even by "exposing" the company's ill deeds to the media.

This leads to my second point. Unlike They Live, for example, Sorry to Bother You does not operate on the logic of exposure. To clarify, within the world of the film it is not enough for Cash (or anyone else, for that matter) to simply expose the conspiracy. When the world finds out about the equisapiens, WorryFree is able to spin this revelation into a stock market boon rather than a world-shattering exposé. And the only way Cash is able to make the information public in the first place is by appearing on a game show called "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!" and literally getting brutally beaten in exchange for the video of the equisapiens being shown. This makes me think of the preponderance of video footage of black men and women beaten, shot, and killed by the police. The footage of soldiers killing unarmed civilians, journalists, even children. The footage of workplace conditions in factories and warehouses that recall nothing more than the worst Dickensian hellscapes of the early industrial period. And all of this highly publicized brutality often results in nothing - no systemic changes, no revolution, no riots in the streets. Sorry to Bother You follows this idea to its furthest extent - if Jeff Bezos decided to genetically modify Amazon warehouse employees to make them more efficient workers, who the fuck would - or even could - actually stop him?

Thirdly - Sorry to Bother You addresses the necessity of violence in overthrowing the white supremacist patriarchal capitalist order. There is a brief moment towards the end of the film when it seems as if RegalView has been unionized, the workers are getting better pay and treatment, and all is well with the world. Then Cash begins to mutate, and we get those final few glorious moments of the equisapiens taking the WorryFree compound and approaching Steve Lift. The more abstract, symbolic rebellions of the film - Detroit's performance art show, Cash's spreading of the equisapien video, Squeeze's work as an organizer - are all crucial, but in the end it is the threat of physical violence that seems to actually instigate change.

Another aspect of the film that I've been thinking about a lot is the visibility and audibility of blackness, which is at the forefront of Sorry to Bother You. The trailers for the film all heavily feature the "use your white voice"/codeswitching aspect of the story, although the film ends up being about a lot more than the discrepancy between white and black voices. On a formal level, the dubbing of David Cross's voice for Lakeith Stanfield's seems purposely asynchronous - we are always reminded that we are seeing/hearing something illusory, something uncanny. In a longer paper on this topic, I want to dig into how Sorry to Bother You creates layers of hypervisibility/invisibility and hyperaudibility/inaudibility in relation to the blackness of the characters. At various points in the film, Cash is exposed without his consent (hypervisible) or totally ignored (invisible); the blackness of his voice is hyperaudible when he is trying to sell, yet inaudible when he is trying to expose the wrongdoings of WorryFree. His "white voice" adds another layer of complication by mitigating the blackness of his skin (while not erasing it) while also creating paths of access to a predominantly white world (which he can then take down from the inside).

There are probably a dozen more points I could make about Sorry to Bother You, and I probably will continue thinking about and writing about this film for years to come. I think that is probably the strongest argument I can make for why you should see this film. If you see it, I guarantee you'll want to talk about it.

[Where I share upcoming and ongoing SF-centric events in the Metro Detroit area]

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