Sorry to Bother You & the Hypervisible Spaces of Late Capitalism
Note: This article is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Literature/Film Association Annual Conference in New Orleans on December 1, 2018.
Sorry to Bother You, from first-time director Boots Riley, was released to critical acclaim in January 2018. The film follows the story of Cassius Green (a play on words – "cash is green"), played by Lakeith Stanfield, also known for his roles as Darius in the FX series Atlanta, Andre Hayworth in Get Out, and Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton. The film opens in an alternate present-day version of Oakland with Cassius (who goes by Cash) desperately attempting to land a job at a telemarketing firm, where he is hired despite being caught blatantly lying on his resume. As his new boss, Anderson (Robert Longstreet), says – “This is telemarketing. We’re not mapping the fucking human genome here. You don’t need experience for this. I’ll hire damn near anyone.” This scene – blending the embarrassment of Cash’s lies being laid out in front of him and the euphoria of him being (somewhat) gainfully employed – sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which Cash’s economic and social standing are persistently in flux.
The condensed version of the film's plot is this: Cash, his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and their friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler) are all hired in to Regalview Telemarketing where they hawk encyclopedia sets. Cash is an awful telemarketer until his co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) lets him in on a secret – “use your white voice.” Langston clarifies that this is more than sounding “Will Smith white” or “all nasal.” The white voice is “sounding like you don’t have a care…it’s not really a white voice. It’s what they wish they sounded like. It’s like what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” Once Cash unlocks his “inner white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) he quickly moves up the ranks at RegalView to the level of “power caller” – and power callers, it turns out, broker high-level deals with corporations needing laborers. In less euphemistic terms, they sell (among other things) human labor. This is mainly done through WorryFree, a monopolistic contractor, which uses lifetime work contracts that laborers sign in exchange for food and shelter – essentially modern day slavery.
As Cash becomes more and more entangled in WorryFree’s late-capitalist empire, the other RegalView workers organize a strike. By this time, the previously “just barely scraping by” Cash has gained wealth, clout, and the lifestyle that he’s always felt he deserved. When he crosses the picket line to continue working as a power caller, Cash alienates his friends and girlfriend. But when he discovers WorryFree’s twisted plot to engineer human-horse hybrid laborers – stronger, yet more docile – for their workforce, Cash knows he must join his friends to protest RegalView and WorryFree and to blow the whistle on the entire operation. Somehow the film gets even weirder from there, but this should be enough summary to clarify my overall argument - which is that Sorry to Bother You develops a spatial logic in which public and private are not distinct categories but constantly shifting points on a spectrum that tracks in parallel with class and social standing. The tense relationship between public and private, hypervisibility and invisibility, is explored as Cash attempts to adapt to the wealth and social status that his new position affords him.
By "hypervisibility," I mean a state of being not just visible to others, but excessively so. Not just visible, then, but on display. Not just visible, but looked at, looked upon, objectified, surveilled. The flip side of the coin is invisibility – to be ignored, disregarded, discarded. Hypervisibility and invisibility aren’t just sensorial – what can/cannot be physically seen – although it cannot be denied that visual or phenotypical markers of race are critically important to this conversation. In addition to the physical and psychological sensations of looking at and interpreting visual signifiers, hypervisibility and invisibility also refer to the social positioning of who looks and who is looked at, codified and made manifest especially in how the eye of the camera (in Hollywood film particularly) captures or evades certain subjects. The difficult task then is to think about how life under late capitalism exacerbates the tensions between hypervisibility and invisibility and how those tensions are undeniably linked in to issues of race, class, gender, and location. Sorry to Bother You offers the possibility of untangling this Gordian knot.
In one early scene of the film, Cash and his girlfriend Detroit find themselves literally exposed to the neighborhood when the garage door – the only barrier between the outside world and Cash's current living space (his Uncle's garage) – accidentally opens. This scene provides some comic relief following Cash’s nihilistic ruminations about whether or not his actions matter in the grand scheme of the universe, but more importantly it sets the stage for a series of further exposures and embarrassments. At every turn, Cash's lack of personal space and privacy is made manifest, highlighted even more by his job in telemarketing which asks him to, in turn, invade the private lives of others.
The film makes this invasion of privacy literal by inserting Cash into the lives and homes of his clients – his telemarketer's headset functions almost as a teleporter. He is physically “dropped in” to the location of the people he calls. Although this spatial and temporal displacement could be read as purely metaphorical – a representation of Cash’s discomfort with invading the privacy of others – I think there is a bit more to it than that. Cash is dropped in to increasingly intimate and uncomfortable moments in people’s lives – a woman is sitting alone at the kitchen table, rifling through the bills for her husband’s cancer treatments – bills she knows she can’t pay; a couple is having aggressive sex on a couch; a Japanese businessman is sitting on the toilet. Not only do these iruptions highlight Cash’s initial discomfort with how his job requires him to intrude on the lives of others; they also showcase how mundane and quotidian it has become to be codified into data and marketed to, even during the most private and intimate moments of our lives. Sorry to Bother You uses location and proximity to reveal the dystopic nature of a late capitalist society in which there is no longer any expectation of privacy or intimacy (for those doing the selling or those being sold to).
Another compelling element of the formal decision to physically place Cash alongside his potential clients is that it draws the audience’s attention back to that tension between hypervisibility and invisibility. To the audience, Cash is hypervisible in these spaces – in addition to being the film’s protagonist (and therefore the focus of our attentions), he looks uncanny and out of place in these new settings. To the client, though, Cash seems to be invisible, despite his sudden appearance in their private space. Even when he is literally so close that he could reach out and touch them, the customers do not make eye contact or directly interact with his physical, corporeal presence (with one or two small exceptions). This dual logic of hypervisibility and invisibility, public and private, allows Sorry to Bother You to make a radical critique of late capitalism while also acknowledging the crucial intersections between race, class, gender and location.
The beginning of Sorry to Bother You, before Cash has moved up to the position of power caller, is intensely focused on cramped, small, shared spaces – the aforementioned garage where Cash stays; the small, ramshackle car he drives around (often with several friends in tow); the cramped cubicles at RegalView; the VIP room in a bar Cash visits with his friends. It isn’t just that these spaces are small and cramped, seeming to force Cash over into a hunched position at almost all times, but that they are so public, so easily exposed, so lacking in barriers between Cash’s body and the world around it. This overexposure and lack of privacy can be read as commentary on one of the cruelest ironies of late capitalism – as the commons have eroded, so have private spaces for marginalized people.
Privacy becomes a privilege that only the wealthy can afford, and simultaneously, common spaces are privatized, regulated, and engineered to ward off loiterers and trespassers in the same way that Jim Crow era public nuisance laws criminalized black unemployment. Oddly enough, though, when Cash ascends to the rank of power caller, he doesn’t gain the privilege of privacy, but rather what I would call “semi-curated hypervisibility.” He moves out of his uncle’s garage and into an expensive loft with large uncovered windows. This much more expensive living space doesn’t afford more privacy than the garage with the faulty door, but it does allow a sort of curated visibility – he can be seen because he wants and chooses to be seen, amidst the new markers of his wealth. Similarly, Cash trades in his beater car for a sleek new sports car. Both cars draw attention from onlookers, but for totally different reasons. The hypervisibility of the poor, marginalized, and exposed morphs into the hypervisibility of excessive, gratuitous wealth without skipping a beat. Paradoxically, Cash’s wealth and social standing as a power caller afford him more space but no more privacy – he is as “on display” and hypervisible as before, if not more so. The difference is that now Cash is confident – even cocky – mostly enjoying the attention his newfound power brings him, until of course, that attention becomes critical of his role as a scab.
Cash’s girlfriend Detroit works as an interesting counterpoint to this. In addition to working at RegalView, Detroit is a part-time sign-spinner on what she refers to as “the best corner” and also a budding visual and performance artist. By choice, and from the beginning of the film, Detroit demands to be seen. She wears unique, often handmade, jewelry and clothing that draws attention to herself (and her politics), in contrast with Cash’s muted uniform of sweaters and khakis. She performs her sign twirling job with gusto – twirling and leaping, contrasted against Cash’s hunched, uncomfortable crouching over his desk at RegalView. And most importantly, Detroit’s performance art piece, one of the most interesting scenes in the film, highlights her hypervisibility (as an openly sexual young black woman) and simultaneous invisibility (as she becomes an object – a piece of art for the consumption of others).
In Detroit’s performance, she is wearing only black gloves covering her breasts and pubic area – reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s 1993 Rolling Stone Cover – clear plastic boots and large aviator sunglasses. She recites lines from the Motown produced film classic, 1985’s The Last Dragon, spoken by Angela to Eddie Arcadian as she leaves him: “In the end, Eddie, you know what? You’re nothing but a misguided midget asshole with dreams of ruling the world. Yeah, also from Kew Gardens. Also getting by on my tits.” As Detroit recites these lines over and over, the audience is encouraged to throw debris at her, provided throughout the performance space – old cell phones, bullet casings, and water balloons full of sheep’s blood.
Although Detroit’s attire, choice of dialogue, and decision to provide her audience with projectiles are all worth further consideration, my interest in this scene is in how it critiques the space offered by performance art to critique power. Detroit is on stage – physically she is above everything else. She is the center of attention – a spotlight draws our eyes to her. She is provocatively dressed – encouraging us to linger over her form. Yet she is silenced – Tessa Thompson’s voice is dubbed over by the “white voice” of British actress Lily James. And she is also made invisible – turned from subject to object – as the audience begins to pelt her with debris as thoughtlessly as they’d toss trash into the garbage can. Cash is in the audience – distraught by what he sees, he runs up to the stage and tries to stop the show, asking Detroit “why would you subject yourself to this?” but she says it is just “part of the show” and asks him to leave. The performance art space in this moment becomes analogous to Cash’s cubicle at RegalView – a space where the black laborer or artist is both hypervisible and invisible, pulled in all the directions by a form of late capitalism that often centers and consumes black labor, bodies, and creativity while simultaneously regulating black people to object status and stripping them of agency.
The intersection of race, gender, class, and location are integral to Sorry to Bother You's larger argument about the tensions of being overexposed, overworked, underpaid, and vulnerable to late capitalism and all of the debasements that come with it. Even when it seems like those debasements are chosen – as in Detroit’s performance art – it is revealed that everything happening is overdetermined and pre-destined. Before Detroit asks Cash to leave her performance she says “you of all people should understand – stick to the script, right?”. She is referencing here the RegalView edict – telemarketers should stick to their scripts. Just as Cash’s pitch for encyclopedias was predetermined, Detroit’s show also follows a script. The main difference is in what is being sold, and yet the film shows us that a commodity is a commodity is a commodity. Under late capitalism, it doesn’t matter what is bought or sold, just that the buying and selling are constant and inescapable – part of a larger script that ensures the continuation of a system that marginalizes, silences, kills. And although that sounds incredibly depressing, Sorry to Bother You, more than any film in recent memory, offers a radical vision for how we might understand late capitalism’s stranglehold on privacy and personhood and more importantly, how we might deviate from “the script”.