“Sorry to Bother You” is an Absurdly Important Film

Reduction to absurdity, reductio ad absurdum, takes an idea and plays it out until it preposterously falls apart, which is what the new film Sorry to Bother You does with predatory capitalism and white supremacy. [spoiler alert: a couple of film scenes, including the ending, will be discussed below]

One of the critiques Ken Wilson and I offer white Western Christianity in Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance is our inability to listen to marginalized voices. People on the underside of power can best give voice to the weight of cultural oppression, and provide a collective imagination for how to create more just and loving systems.

Sorry to Bother You is one such voice. Written and directed by Boots Riley, the film deftly and not-so-subtly highlights race and class disparities in America, made all the worse by an unchecked capitalist system that rewards increasing corporate profits over treating people humanely.

Lakeith Stanfield’s character, “Cash” Green, goes to work for a telemarketing firm where he learns to use his “white voice” in order to make more sales. Not just any white voice, but a breezy male voice that connects with white American fantasies of having more than enough … the kind of voice that says “I don’t really need your business, but you’d be lucky to do business with me.” Once Cash masters the art of masking his blackness and his oppression in exchange for success, he gets promoted to work as a “power caller,” selling the “real” goods of his firm, WorryFree.

WorryFree is a corporate slave labor company. Capitalism having driven working class wages so low and made benefits so scarce, people can no longer afford basic housing, transportation, and health costs. That’s where WorryFree finds its profit niche: it requires people sign a lifetime contract with a corporation with zero salary in exchange for prison-style bunk accommodations, hot meals, and medical care. This isn’t anything sci-fi writers haven’t already explored (think Octavia Butler in Parable of the Talents, or even the more recent Ready, Player One), but Sorry to BotherYou takes it a couple steps further.

For one, it depicts how an American black man could find himself making bank recruiting slaves for the global capitalist system. Using his white voice. And performing, minstrel-style, for his white colleagues, so that he’s accepted into their circle as an exotic curiosity there for their amusement. Writer/director Boots Riley posits that capitalism will so deform even those most oppressed by it, that they will be in danger of losing their identity, dignity, and collective redemptive imagination. Don’t let that happen, warns the film. We have too much to offer.

The characters offering the most poignant critique of capitalism in the movie are Cash’s girlfriend, Detroit, and his work friend, Squeeze. Detroit is a performance artist (whose art exhibition scene alone boils the movie’s analysis down to a brilliant three minutes or so), and Squeeze is a union leader. Artists and laborers are the canaries in the coal mine, says Sorry to Bother You, letting the world know when things are not okay.

Two, the film finishes its long exploration into the absurd conclusions of unregulated capitalism by having WorryFree cross-breed humans with horses.

Capitalism requires labor to produce goods. When labor is cheaper, the profit margin on goods increases. Stock market prices require ever increasing profit margins. What happens when you can no longer squeeze (remember the union leader’s name!) wages because they’re so low? You look to increase production. What happens when production has also reached its physical limit? You cross-breed humans with horses to make humans stronger and more durable, so they can produce more. And what happens when someone blows the whistle and tells the media what WorryFree is doing to fellow human beings against their will? WorryFree’s stock price goes through the roof, since they’ve clearly found a way to increase profits regardless of the means or affect on fellow humans.

Reduction to absurdity.

When I first saw the ending, when I saw people turned into fantastical horse-human creatures, I thought: It’s too much. I get the magical realism and why Boots Riley is making the movie absurd, but the horse people are too much. However, the more I thought about it — and this movie will make you think — the more I realized the genius of it. It had to be THAT absurd. Because what we’re doing to people is, in fact, that senseless.

In an era when corporations move increasing toward contract work (think Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb), the responsibility for laborers’ quality of life, benefits, and safe work environment shifts companies to the workers. Corporations get more and more labor for less liability, no benefits payments, and no union hassles. But it comes at the expense of the well-being of workers, especially less-skilled or underemployed workers. At what point will workers need to indenture themselves to corporations to meet their basic survival needs?

Economist umair haque writes constantly about predatory capitalism and its effects on our collective humanity. (If you don’t read his stuff, he’s worth following.) In an older article, he talks about the differences between predatory societies and societies that allow humans to flourish (eudaimonic societies). This is what Sorry to Bother You is getting at — it’s warning us that our current system is predatory, and that there will be consequences if we don’t, in Christian terms, repent and go another way. We may not wind up cross-breeding stronger animals with unwilling human workers, but, then again, 2018 has already proved so absurd that perhaps it’s beneficial to consider even the most outrageous possible conclusions.

Emily Swan and Ken Wilson are co-pastors of Blue Ocean Faith Church Ann Arbor, a progressive, inclusive church. Visit us at solusjesus.com