Classes as Characters in Sorry to Bother You
Sorry to Bother You, the new film by activist-and-rapper-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley is the first truly anti-capitalist film to be made in mainstream American cinema in my lifetime. I say truly anticapitalist because it is so both in content and in form.
The film centers around the young working-class Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield). Green’s situation is familiar to any millennial, he lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and must prostrate himself in front of hiring officers for low-wage work to pay his rent. While at his new job at the call center Regalview, he discovers his “white voice”, an inherent talent that allows him entry into the petit bourgeois world of the Power Callers, the people who sell weapons to warlords or slave labor from the corporate antagonist of the film: Worry Free. Doing so, he must become a scab and abandon his fellow basement callers in their strike. Eventually, Cassius discovers the vile lengths the capitalists at Worry Free will go to for profit and attempts to topple the company by bringing the truth to the world. However, his individual struggle against power fails to do anything but boost Worry Free’s profits, and the film ends with a lesson in the necessity of collective action.
What makes Sorry to Bother You stand out though, is the revolutionary proletariat nature of its form. Sergei Eisenstein, probably the most famous and influential Soviet filmmaker, director of Battleship Potemkin, often considered the most innovative film in history, describes how he attempted to make specifically proletarian film, free from bourgeois preoccupation with individual psychology at the expense of mass movements:
Discarding the individualist conception of the bourgeois hero, our films of this period made an abrupt deviation-insisting on an understanding of the mass as hero.
When “characters” appear in Eisenstein’s films, they are not endowed, as in conventional bourgeois cinema, with psychological profiles or individual biographies. The reason we care about them is because of the class or mass of people they represent, and that mass is the real protagonist (or antagonist, as it might be). So sailor Vakulinchuk, who leads the revolt aboard the titular Potemkin is not given a history, we don’t learn about how or why he became a sailor, his revolt isn’t precipitated by events earlier in his life, he is a sailor and the sailors revolt because they are being exploited.
Riley takes this approach in Sorry to Bother You, most obviously with the Regalview Telemarketers Union. As mentioned earlier, after Cassius tries to take the individual hero’s approach to taking down Worry Free in one fell swoop, doing the talk show circuit, urging individuals to call their senators etc., he comes to realize only the collective action of the Union can prevail over their class enemies. The union in Sorry to Bother You is “personified”, as the sailors in Potemkin are by Vakulinchuk, by union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun). In a bourgeois film, in which the character Squeeze might be more important than the union he helps start, we might be privy to formative scenes from his life, perhaps showing his parents being mistreated by an out-of-control-boss, lending him an individual psychological motivation for building a union. In this film we do not.
Squeeze has no role outside his role representing the union. Even in scenes outside of the workplace, even when he is flirting with Detroit, he is talking about the union. The only thing approaching a biographical fact we learn about him is that his life seem to consist of going from workplace to workplace organizing unions, “starting trouble” as Detroit jokes. None of this is to diminish his role in the story. Again, the union he starts and speaks for throughout the film is the protagonist of the film. Rather, it is to underscore that the “hero” is not Squeeze himself. The final battle does not represent Squeeze’s victory over a personal enemy, but the mass of strikers victory over their shared class enemy. The “hero” is the union itself.
Similar roles are played by Mr. ___ (Omari Hardwick) and Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) representing the petit bourgeois Power Callers and the bourgeoisie respectively. Like Squeeze, neither of them is given any backstory, they exist solely to represent the classes they belong to. Mr. ___ is living the high life as a power caller, like Cassius he sees himself as better than the basement workers of Regalview, preferring to take his personal advancement into a life of more luxurious servitude over the collective liberation of all workers (which, the film goes out of its way to remind us, via Squeeze, includes Power Callers). Every day the Power Callers break the strike. Like Cassius, Mr. ___ is only in the position he is because of his innate talent speaking with White Voice. It’s clear that Power Callers have not worked harder than other callers, they were simply born lucky, with particular talents etc. Despite the relative opulence of the world of Power Callers, Mr. ___ is still forced to grovel and kiss the ass of the really powerful: the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, in the form of Steve Lift.
Steve Lift, CEO of Worry Free, is the quintessential capitalist, he has a best selling book, rubs shoulders with politicians, and is absolutely morally bankrupt. It’s from Mr. Lift that we hear two of the most ubiquitous apologias for capitalism, albeit modified to fit the world of the film.
When Worry Free is accused of slavery Lift responds that it can’t possibly be engaging in such an activity, for the same reason capitalists deny the existence of wage slavery and the coercion of needing to work under capitalism: the workers “don’t sign contracts under threat of physical violence”. Despite the fact that we see people only resort to Worry Free employment when they have no other place to turn, as with Cassius’ foreclosed-upon uncle, the insistence is that such people could still have “chosen” not to sign the contract, the same way people can “choose” not to work in today’s society.
Later, when Cassius confronts Lift about his plan to genetically modify equisapiens to increase profits, Lift is practically relieved that Cassius has hit upon the financial incentive for his doing so: “I didn’t want you to think I’m crazy. I’m not doing this for no reason. I’m not irrational!”
Under capitalism who could argue?
The point is that Mr. ___ and Steve Lift are not “evil” in the same sense antagonists are often “evil” in bourgeois cinema. Indeed, they both are polite enough to Cassius when they meet him. Their antagonism comes from their location in the class system and the pursuance of their own class interests. Given his own perceived class interest, it is no more “irrational” for Mr. ___ to cross the picket line every day to get his fat paycheck than it is for Steve Lift to manufacture half-horse-half-humans to increase his company’s profits.
The final battle, between the strikers and equisapiens and Worry Free’s private security force, does not end with the personal defeat of Steve Lift or Worry Free, it simply ends with the strikers getting a union at the office. At the end of the film they are all going back to work for the same evil company, headed by the same CEO. This is only appropriate as the battle was not Cassius, Squeeze and Detroit vs. Mr. ___ and Lift. The defeat of Steve Lift or even of Worry Free would not have put an end to the film’s real struggle: the class struggle each of us must contend in every day.