Sorry to Bother You, the 2018 film from director Boots Riley is a biting satire that literalizes the conditions commonly associated with late-stage capitalism – an era of transnational flows of capital, increased labor demands, and corporate domination. In the film this is embodied in the form of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the founder of WorryFree, a company that provides the equivalent of slave labor. This labor is presented, by Lift, as voluntary – an opportunity for those in need to live a “WorryFree life” in exchange for food and shelter. Lift is also the owner of RegalView, a telemarketing firm in which entry-level employees cold call presumably middle-class individuals in an attempt to sell them encyclopedias. The upper-level employees, Power Callers, target an international pool of customers, and sell them everything from military-grade weapons to cheap labor provided by WorryFree. But the central figure in Sorry to Bother You is Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakieth Stanfield, a twenty-something black man who, at the start of the film, is unemployed and two months behind on the rent he pays to live in his uncle’s garage.
The contrast displayed between Cash and Steve Lift forms the foundation for the film’s critique of whiteness – and specifically white masculinity – and the economic oppression and exploitation of blacks in the United States as a result. There are two stylistic conceits Riley utilizes to construct his racial critique in the film. The first, and most prominent, is “the white voice.” The voice is presented through an overdubbing of the voices of the black actors who use it with those of white actors. In the case of Cash, for example, Stanfield’s voice is replaced by David Cross, while the voice of his supervisor, Mr. _____________ (his name is overdubbed with noise so that it is never clearly heard) is replaced by Patton Oswalt. The sonic infidelity of the voices exists within the diegesis of the film, as well, and the overdubbed quality is commented on by the characters. Taken alone, the artificiality of the white voice could be read as simply a comment on the constructed-ness of the racial identities of the characters. This is complicated, however, by the second conceit, which Riley utilizes in several of Cash’s sales calls for RegalView. During these calls, which occur at each of the three main stages of Cash’s arc, the character literally drops into the space inhabited by the person he’s calling (Cash, himself, seems to be aware of this, but for the most part those he’s calling seem unaware of his physical intrusion). As these drop-ins progress, the access gained by Cash is shown to increase, the specifics of which I’ll discuss later. In this sense, though, despite the seeming artificiality of the racial categories presented, there is a demonstrable difference in the response received by Cash as he begins to use, and becomes increasingly adept with, the “white voice”.
While Cassius Green is the main focus of the film, I also plan to spend some time talking about the character of Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson. In thinking through what the film is presenting about race and class in an America not too different from our own, and thinking about larger questions of identity – which is central to most of my work – I would argue that it is Detroit who occupies the intersection of race and class. Detroit, beyond simply being the love interest for Cash, is the film’s critical and moral center. Outside of her day job working as a sign spinner, she works as an artist, creating objects centered around the African continent and its long history of exploitation by colonial powers. She is also a member of The Left Eye, an activist resistance group protesting Steve Lift’s WorryFree. But it is through the exchanges she has with Cash in response to his constant concern over doing "something that matters", and desire to be remembered – which, in his view, can only be obtained through the accumulation of wealth – that I find the most interesting when it comes to thinking about identity outside of class or race. When asked, “What will I have done that matters?” by Cash, Detroit responds, “I just want to make sure when I die I’ll be surrounded by people who love me. And who I love back.” And when Cash adds, “I’m just out here surviving and what I’m doing right now won’t even matter,” Detroit tells him, “Oh, baby, baby, it will always matter.” It’s that emphasis on actions in the film that I want to focus on. To begin with, though, I’ll look more closely at the film’s use of the formal elements I mentioned above.
The framing of the white voice by Langston (Danny Glover) as not “how they really sound” is executed in the film through the overt overdubbing of Lakeith Stanfield’s actual voice. And, indeed, this overdubbing is commented on later in the film by Cash’s friend, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), explicitly stating that Cash “sounds overdubbed.” Alexander Wihelyehe writes that “in sonic Afromodernity, sound, for a variety of social, ontological, historical, and aesthetic reasons […] holds out more flexible and future-directed provenances of black subjects’ relation to and participation in the creation of Western modernity” which seems to be reflected in both the sonic infidelity of the “white voice” as well as the two versions of “the black voice” I’ll talk about later. For as much as the necessity of using the white voice acts as a commentary on racial hierarchy the film reflects, key in the description by Langston is also the extent to which whiteness itself is a construction with its own class-based hierarchy. Along with the auditory infidelity of the voice, Riley also utilizes the mise-en-scene of the film to illustrate the increasing access to whiteness Cash gains as he experiences increasing levels of success.
Riley depicts Cash physically dropping into the space of those he’s calling. With his initial phone calls (using his own voice) there is limited access – those he’s calling are shown engaged in their own activities with little interaction with Cash. Similarly, while he is in the same room as those he’s calling, there is a physical distance maintained. With his use of the white voice (prior to becoming a Power Caller) that distanced is lessened. In one sequence we see him laughing and joking with a man who, during the call, passes a joint to Cash. Presumably, it is the assumption of his whiteness that facilitates this increased access and visibility. This becomes even more explicit in the one call containing a drop-in once he ascends to the status of Power Caller. Here, rather than calling presumably middle class, largely white, American customers, his position as a Power Caller allows him access to an international customer base, and the proximity shown has changed as well. He drops-in on a Japanese executive while the latter is using the bathroom, and the two are framed together in a close-up, with Cash’s face inches away from the executives. In this way, Riley illustrates, both visually and sonically, the flow of power contained in global capitalism.
The origins of the desirability of whiteness are explored in Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property” in which she writes that, “[w]hiteness is not simply and solely a legally recognized property interest. It is simultaneously an aspect of self-identity and of personhood.” She goes on to explain that the legal codification of whiteness “converted an aspect of identity into an external object of property, moving whiteness from privileged identity to a vested interest.” One way to read the performativity and artificiality of the white voice in Sorry to Bother You is that it is this investment that creates a boundary around true whiteness. For Cash, there is a limit to just how “white” he can be, and just how faithfully that whiteness can be reproduced. That the overdubbed quality of the voice is discernible within the diegesis of the film would seem to support this. Cash’s white voice contains a certain seductiveness to his potential white customers that does not appear to translate when directed toward other people of color or, in the case of Lift, a white man who exists above, if not entirely outside of, the web of the capitalist-consumer relationship.
While Weheliye focuses primarily on the black voice in Phonographies, and the technological recording and reproduction of that voice, it may also provide a useful way to think about the lack of fidelity in the presentation of the “white voice” in Sorry to Bother You, as well. In addition to foregrounding the artificiality of whiteness, that infidelity may also speak to the limits to which whiteness is obtainable (leaving aside whether it’s even desirable) for black men and women in modern culture. A reproduction of that voice, and of what that identity allows, constitutes the upper limits of inhabiting that identity, and the falseness of it will always be discernible to one’s self and to others. Weheliye cites Lindon Barrett, who argues that “the black voice functions as a figure of value within African American culture, particularly as it is contrasted with the lack of worth ascribed to blackness in American mainstream culture", which informs my reading of two later scenes, one in which Cash is pressured into rapping at a party held by Steve Lift, and another in which he is confronted by his friend, Sal.
In the latter half of the film, when Cash is invited to a party at Lift’s mansion, he is effectively put on display and forced to perform for Lift and his fellow party-goers. There are a couple of important things here. First, Lift begins the scene by telling Cash to drop the white voice – something he is required to maintain at all times while working as a Power Caller. This dismissal helps to demonstrate the social construction of that form of whiteness. It is, for Lift – an authentic white man – a fully illusory form of whiteness, regardless of the access it grants. To him, Cash is a black man from Oakland and nothing more. Lift then insists, despite Cash’s protestations, that Cash must know how to rap, and insists he do so. Cash attempts a freestyle rap, barely making it through a couple of lines. Visibly uncomfortable, he then gives the almost entirely white crowd what they want.
In much the same way that the “white voice” is described as “what they think they should sound like,” this “black voice” is equally inauthentic. It is what the same “they” think black people should sound like – and there is an additional element of white consumption and appropriation of black culture in their immediate rapping along with Cash. Just as the white voice allows Cash a certain access to whiteness and white culture, the black voice offers a sort of access, as well. However, in this case it’s an access as a product to be consumed by white culture, and in both cases Cash exists solely to perform a type of labor. This scene is also another of the places throughout the film where race as a motivating identity is brought into question. While Lift is holding court, surrounded by the white crowd who is fully engaged in consuming the product of Cash’s final moment of selling out, both he (Lift) and Mr. _________ (Omari Hardwick) stand quietly observing both Cash and the crowd around them. Lift is far beyond the point of being a consumer of what his own exploitation produces (and we can make a reasonable assumption, given his level of wealth and the old money/aristocratic trappings – complete with a riding crop he carries during the party – that he has always been at that level).
That’s not to say that Riley’s film entirely disregards race. Earlier in the film, after Cash has effectively sold out his fellow RegalView workers after becoming a Power Caller, he has a confrontation with his best friend, Salvador. While there is clear tension in their exchange, there is something interesting, and I would argue just as subtly stylized as the rest of the film, in the form the confrontation takes.
On the surface this could simply be a passive-aggressive back and forth between the two men. But I think there is something a bit more complex going on with both the pleasantries and the decision to have the confrontation between Cash and Sal, rather than Cash and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who organized the walk out and protest at WorryFree. What I think is going on here is a more authentic “black voice” outside of being defined from the context of whiteness. If Cash’s rap is the white “black voice” – the way white people think black people sound, then this is the black voice that’s both more comparable to Cash’s white voice – in that it’s the way black people want to sound – and at the same time completely different in its sincerity and authenticity. Rather than centering on materialist aspirations, this is grounded in genuine concern and a mutual lifting up of each other.
In these cases, the use of the white and black voice allows the film to offer its capitalist and racial critiques. But these are the causes of Cash’s dilemma, rather than the effect. That effect is the abdication of his individual, rather than social, identity. And I would argue that it’s clearly the individual loss that ultimately drives Cash to balk at Lift’s final pitch. That pitch is so bizarre that it’s probably best to keep the description pretty straightforward. [SPOILERS] Lift’s company has created a formula which will transform people into human/horse hybrids. He wants Cash to undergo this process in order to sell it to the slave labor work force. While Cash has barely hesitated to sell out his friends or larger socio-economic group thus far, he draws the line at the loss of his own humanity – and, to be fair, this leads to him finally enacting Detroit’s philosophy and attempting to take action to expose, and directly oppose Lift. It is worth noting, though, that the film still punishes Cash for his earlier actions in revealing that he had already been given the formula leading to his own transformation in the final moments of the movie.
And this is where I’d like to circle back to Detroit, and her role in the film’s various critiques. As I mentioned, Detroit is an activist and artist – not unlike Boots Riley, himself. In a key exchange between Detroit and Cash, he attempts to deflect from his own lack of investment in social justice – and, really, his own betrayal of those concerns – by claiming that Detroit sells her art to “rich white folks” and therefore has no room to criticize him for using his own skills and finally being good at something. The key distinctions lie in both Detroit’s intentions and in her actions. Where Cash is motivated by and ensnared in his capitalist aspirations and sells both his own labor and that of others for the benefit and continuation of that system, Detroit’s art is directly engaged in an anti-colonialist critique, and it is that critique that she is selling. The film doesn’t necessarily present this as wholly pure, either, as Detroit has her own “white voice” (with Lily James’ voice substituted for Tessa Thompson). But here the overdubbing is more subtle – as a side note, the first time I watched the film I wasn’t even aware that it was overdubbed, and thought that Thompson was doing a posh British accent, herself.
Her critique also directly intertwines race and class without eschewing or elevating either. The clear and unambiguous target is the colonial exploitation of the African continent by white patriarchal oppressors, of which capitalism is merely the latest iteration. It is ultimately that combination of pure intent and action – action which also consists of Detroit accepting a certain degree of punishment for her own complicity (during the performance art piece she reads a monologue from The Last Dragon while being pelted by the audience with shell casings, pig’s blood, and batteries). It’s not that race/identity is unimportant. We see its importance in the makeup of the protestors, the employees at RegalView – both entry level and Power Callers – and the party-goers at Lift’s mansion. It’s about authenticity – and it’s an authenticity that has less to do with surface cultural markers – the way a person dresses, speaks, carries themselves fitting the cultural expectations – but an authenticity of intent, meaning, and purpose. As both the potential stand-in for Riley himself, and as model for engaging with questions of identity, Detroit presents a potentially useful way to theorize identity beyond socially-constructed or essentialist categories.