Art, activism, sales calls,
and slave labor: dialectics in
Sorry to Bother You

by Milo Sweedler

Boots Riley’s debut film, Sorry to Bother You (2018), is one of the great anti-capitalist films of the early twenty-first century. Although Riley characterizes the movie as “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction,” which it is, the film also provides one of the most clear-sighted accounts of grassroots class struggle to appear in mainstream North American narrative cinema in decades (“Beautiful Clutter”). As witty, playful, and delightfully quirky as it is, Riley’s tale of an ethically compromised telemarketer, his artist-activist girlfriend, and the labor organizer that unionizes their workplace sheds brilliant light on the class struggle today.

I analyze here two different kinds of dialectics that Riley uses in telling his story of class conflict in an alternate present-day Oakland, California. One the one hand, a narrative technique used repeatedly in the film is dialectical in the Ancient Greek sense of staging a debate between interlocutors holding different points of view. On the other hand, numerous scenes in the film set up a contradiction that the movie momentarily resolves, often in unexpected ways, before introducing a new element that complicates the resolved contradiction. If, as Karl Marx argued more than 150 years ago, “What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion,” Sorry to Bother You is dialectical in this way, too (Poverty of Philosophy 108). This article examines how these two dialectics shape Riley’s class-conscious film.

The plot

The movie tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (LaKeith Stanfield), an unemployed twenty-something-year-old Black man living with his artist-activist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in his uncle’s converted garage. Cash manages to land a job as a telemarketer at a company called Regal View, but he has little success selling encyclopedias and self-help books over the phone until an avuncular colleague, Langston (Danny Glover), suggests that he try using his “white voice” when cold calling prospective clients. Cassius then excels as a white-voiced telemarketer, eventually rising to the rank of Power Caller, moving up a floor in the Regal View office building, dramatically increasing his income, and receiving a new clientele to whom he sells a very different kind of product.

Regal View’s biggest client is Worry Free, a labor-supply company that offers lifelong contracts to workers that it houses and feeds in lieu of paying wages. On his first day as a Power Caller, Cassius lands Worry Free a contract with a Japanese cell phone manufacturer worth “upwards of ten million dollars.” An unrivaled powerhouse even among Power Callers, Cash has found his calling as a white-voiced telemarketer selling slave labor to multinational corporations.

Several countervailing factors complicate Cassius’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of this capitalist society. First, shortly after his arrival at Regal View, an itinerant labor organizer by the name of Squeeze (Steven Yeun) begins the process of unionizing the Regal View employees. Detroit, Langston, Cash’s friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler), and virtually everyone on the ground floor of Regal View support the unionization effort. In principle, Cassius supports the union drive too, but once he becomes a Power Caller, his solidarity with the rank-and-file employees on the lower level wanes. When they go on strike, he crosses the picket line, undercutting the telemarketers’ efforts and buttressing management’s position.

Cassius and Detroit (sporting one of her in-your-face fashion pieces) stand in front of Cash’s uncle’s garage. “Use your white voice,” Langston tells Cassius on the Regal View floor, giving the rookie the piece of advice that will catapult him to the top tier of the telemarketing hierarchy.
Worry Free boasts providing “the cheapest labor in the world,” which is not surprising given that the company pays its workers no wages. Squeeze and Cassius discuss working conditions at Regal View in the company breakroom.

Second, Detroit, who is a politically engaged artist and a foot soldier in the anti-capitalist “Left Eye” movement, as it is called, perceives Cassius’s actions as an act of betrayal. No longer able to reconcile her political convictions with her boyfriend’s material support for a system she vehemently opposes, she breaks up with Cash and begins a casual affair with Squeeze, whose politics align much more closely with hers.

It is not until Cassius learns that Worry Free CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has been genetically modifying workers, turning them into half-horse, half-human beings called “equisapiens,” that the ethically challenged protagonist finally receives the call of conscience, switches allegiances, and becomes a Worry Free whistleblower. However, Cassius’s revelations, made on numerous media outlets, that Worry Free is turning people into humanoid workhorses only inflate the company’s stock.

On Squeeze’s cue, the Regal View telemarketers put down their phones in unison. Picketing telemarketers face off against “Starkwater” (read “Blackwater”) security guards in front of the Regal View office building.
Riley uses footage of the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests for television coverage of the fictional Worry Free demonstration (Riley, “Commentary with Director"). Cassius’s discovery that Worry Free CEO Steve Lift is turning people into half-horse, half-human beings called “equisapiens” finally convinces the ethically challenged protagonist to join the working-class struggle.

Meanwhile, Cassius, who snorted a line of what he thought was cocaine that Lift gave him at a Worry Free company party, discovers at the end of the movie that the substance he snorted was in fact the “fusing catalyst” that turns people into horses. In the film’s coda, Cash, now an equisapien, shows up unannounced with a small posse of horse-people at Lift’s mansion. “I’m Cassius Green calling on behalf of stomp a mud hole in your ass.com,” he says into the video intercom. “Sorry to bother you,” he continues, ironically reprising the phrase he uttered countless times as a telemarketer. He then smashes the intercom and bursts through Lift’s front door with a roar.

Modes of engagement

This film narrative undoubtedly has roots not only in the filmmaker’s stint as a telemarketer but also in his decades-long engagement in both left-wing politics and the Bay Area arts scene. A social activist and labor organizer who joined the International Committee Against Racism at the age of 14 and the Marxist-Leninist Progressive Labor Party at 15, Riley has been the lead singer and principal songwriter for the revolutionarily charged Oakland-based hip-pop / funk / punk band, The Coup, since the early 1990s. The title of the group’s debut album, Kill My Landlord (1993), gives an indication of the band’s politics.

Each of Sorry’s main protagonists—Detroit, Cash, Squeeze, and even Sal—reflects an aspect of this artist-activist who is also a former telemarketer. Riley is upfront about the inspiration he drew from his lived experience in drafting these characters. “All the main characters in the movie are based on me,” he tells Sight & Sound’s Kaleem Aftab (Riley, “White Lines” 25).

“There’s the artist [Detroit] who’s trying to figure out whether art means something, there’s the organiser [Squeeze] who’s arguing with the artist, there’s the guy [Sal] who’s trying to be funny all the time and then there’s the person [Cassius] hoping that their life means something” (Riley, “White Lines” 25).

My interest in these comments lies not in the light they shed on the film’s autobiographical dimensions but in their suggestion that the characters represent different ways of seeing and interacting with the world. Michael T. Martin perceives the characters more or less in this way when he calls each protagonist in the film “an archetype of sorts” (179). Rather than archetypes, though, I would characterize the protagonists as representatives of different social and political perspectives. The film unfolds at times almost like a Socratic dialogue in which characters debate a problem, shedding light on diverse facets of the situation and often (although not always) leading the viewer to a particular conclusion.

Numerous exchanges between Detroit and Cash unfold in this way. Roughly midway through the film, for example, Cassius has risen to the rank of Power Caller, made a series of spectacular sales for Regal View, crossed the picket line, and moved into a swanky new apartment. At that point, Detroit, fed up with her lover’s infidelity to the workers’ cause, informs Cash that if he goes to work and crosses the picket line that day, she will leave him. Cassius responds to this ultimatum by trying to justify his decision to keep working:

“CASSIUS: Baby, what are you asking me to do? Are you asking me to quit the fattest job I ever had?
DETROIT: But Cassius, it’s not fat! It is morally emaciated. You sell fucking slave labor, Cassius!
CASSIUS: What the fuck isn’t slave labor?”

The two positions come into relief with particular clarity in this exchange. Detroit’s assessment of Cash’s “morally emaciated” job selling slave labor is bang-on, but the rhetorical question Cash asks in response to this accusation also has an element of truth to it. As the late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber argues, “There is, and has always been, a curious affinity between wage labor and slavery” (352). Although Cash’s defense here is undoubtedly self-serving, it is not necessarily made in bad faith. Whereas Detroit sees Worry Free’s twenty-first-century version of the slave trade as morally reprehensible, Cash counters, not entirely without justification, that all labor under capitalism is essentially slave labor. As Graeber writes in a phrase that lends credence to Cash’s admittedly solipsistic self-justification:

“Whether you’ve been sold or you’ve simply rented yourself out, the moment money changes hands, [...] all that’s important is that you are capable of understanding orders and doing what you’re told” (352).

This exchange between Cash and Detroit harks back to an earlier conversation between the two lovers during a late-night wind-down session in the art gallery where Detroit later shows her work. The scene takes place on the evening after Cassius received his promotion. When she asks him what he is going to be selling in his new role as Power Caller, he avoids the question by changing subjects. Admiring a massive painted collage in the shape of the African continent, he asks her why she chose that particular form. A tight point-of-view shot from Cassius’s perspective then follows the lit joint in Detroit’s hand as she improvises a response to Cash’s question:

“I wanted to talk about a life shaped by exploitation, about fighting for a say in our own lives, about how beauty, love, and laughter thrive and flourish under almost any circumstances, how capitalism basically started by stealing labor from Africans.”

While she makes this impromptu miniature artist’s statement, a chime melody playing in the background moves to the sonic foreground as Detroit’s voice becomes muffled and muted. Representing Cash’s subjective aural perspective as well as his visual point of view, the shot communicates with crystalline clarity Cash’s utter lack of interest in what Detroit is saying. What he wants is the joint in her hand, not an exposé on the relation between Africa and capitalism. When he finally gets a hit of the joint, he refocuses his attention on her, says, “Yes, OK, I’m listening now,” and then jokingly summarizes what she was saying: “Capitalism in Africa is… booming!” Cassius makes this mock summary with light-hearted humor, but his attempt to lighten the mood also betrays his obliviousness and probably his indifference to what she was saying. As far as he—an African American who just landed a job as a Power Caller at a major telemarketing firm—is concerned, the relation between capitalism and Africa is just fine.

Detroit’s speech here to a fidgety and distracted Cash about the origins of capitalism in the transatlantic slave trade is arguably the film’s most powerful piece of dialogue. It channels simultaneously Marx, who claimed in 1846 that “slavery is the pivot of our industrialism today” (On America 36), Oliver Cromwell Cox, who argued that “racial antagonism […] developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits” (xxx), and Cedric Robinson, who made the claim that the “development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions.” (2) In this speech, Detroit provides the movie’s most compelling analysis of capitalism as a system of exploitation that originated in the African slave trade. However, although she functions here, as elsewhere, as the film’s veritable mouthpiece, the movie is not entirely uncritical of her mode of engagement.

A conversation between Detroit and another character—in this case, Squeeze—beckons the viewer to compare and contrast two different types of anti-capitalist activism. The conversation takes place on an Oakland streetcorner shortly after Regal View’s first work stoppage. When Detroit learns that Squeeze, who organized the flash strike, is not a Regal View employee like the others but rather a professional labor activist, she asks him whether his job consists in organizing political actions like the one he orchestrated on the Regal View floor:

“DETROIT: Is that what you do? You just go from place to place stirring up trouble?
SQUEEZE: Trouble’s already there. I just help folks fix it.
DETROIT: Yeah, that’s what I do with my art, too. You know, expose the bullshit.
SQUEEZE: It’s not exactly the same thing.
DETROIT: It’s pretty much the same.”

The scene leaves in suspense whether his work as a labor organizer and her work as an artist are fundamentally the same thing. Squeeze responds to Detroit’s remark by saying, “I haven’t seen your stuff,” and the conversation turns to another topic. However, later in the film, when we see an example of Detroit’s work, an answer to the question emerges.

The scene of Detroit’s art opening is profoundly ambiguous. The exhibit has several components. On the walls hang huge Africa collages like the one that Cassius admired in the earlier scene while life-sized human statues in what looks to be papier mâché are placed around the gallery floor. The first part of the scene leads us to believe that the show consists of these two types of works. Then a gong rings and Detroit, clad in transparent plastic boots, a black raincoat, and sunglasses, walks onto the floor to announce the evening’s main event. Explaining that the buckets at the back of the room contain broken cell phones, bullet casings, and water balloons filled with blood, she invites her audience to throw these objects at her while she recites lines from the Motown-produced film, The Last Dragon (1985). She then removes her raincoat, exposing a costume consisting of two cobalt-black hands covering her breasts and a third one (complete with raised middle finger) emerging from her crotch, and the performance begins.

Detroit’s interactive performance piece is reminiscent of Serbian performance artist Marina Arbramović’s works that invite audience members to use instruments of torture on her. In addition to exploring the relationship between the performer and the audience and the limits of the body, though, Detroit’s piece also has an explicitly political dimension. As the artist explains to her crowd of spectator-participants, the objects in the containers at the back of the room are meant to evoke the wars and hardships that cell phone manufacturers have caused in their pursuit of coltan, a mineral found in the African Congo. If, as Cassius suggested in the earlier scene, capitalism is “booming” in Africa, Detroit’s piece clarifies that it is not necessarily Africans who are benefitting from the boom. By inciting her mostly white audience to pelt her with tokens of capitalist violence, she has gallery attendees metaphorically re-enact the multinationals’ assault on the African continent.

Detroit’s performance is a potent piece of engaged art. Yet, as powerful (and disturbing) as the work is, it is hardly the same thing as organizing a union and leading a work stoppage. The last shot we see of Detroit’s performance, in which the artist dons a motorcycle helmet to protect herself from the onslaught of projectiles that audience members hurl at her, leaves us skeptical about the effectiveness of this form of political engagement.

In case we had doubts about where Riley stands on this issue, his decision to have Detroit speak in a white voice (dubbed by Lily James) at the gallery, both when she discusses her work with visitors at the beginning of the scene and when she delivers her performance at the end, should clear up the matter. This decision transmits a wordless yet resounding critique of the politically engaged artist. While Cash affects an exaggerated upper-class white man’s accent (voiced by David Cross) to sell human labor power, Detroit adopts an English accent to present her work. It is as though, from Riley’s perspective, they were engaging in the same sort of commerce.

Further reinforcing this implicit critique, when Cassius defensively responds to Detroit’s accusation that he sells slave labor for a living by telling her, “You ain’t gonna do shit neither by selling fucking art to rich people,” his criticism rings true. The itinerary of a Worry Free billboard exemplifies this argument: Detroit or one of her fellow “Left Eye” militants defaces it with spray paint, and it then appears later in the film in its defaced form as an artwork hanging on a wall of none other than Steve Lift’s mansion. As confrontational and thought-provoking as Detroit’s work is, it is unlikely to have much effect on the social conditions she critiques.

In interviews, Riley characterizes the opposition between Detroit’s and Squeeze’s different forms of engagement by contrasting direct political action with what he calls “spectacle.” Whether defacing a Worry Free billboard or putting on an anti-capitalist art performance, Detroit essentially engages in “spectacular” acts of resistance. Yet what is needed to effect real social change, Riley insists repeatedly in interviews, is job actions like the one that Squeeze organizes at Regal View. As the filmmaker says to Michael Martin:

“To me, the two main questions are how can we have power over the world around us? What power do we already have that we can harness?” (Martin 188)

The answer to these two questions, Riley asserts, is “the withholding of labor” (Martin 188).

In sum, although Detroit is the film’s mouthpiece, Squeeze is its unalloyed hero. He is the only character that the movie unequivocally endorses without qualification. Whereas Detroit plays Socrates to Cash’s Gorgias (the sophist whose position Socrates refutes in Plato’s Gorgias) in her exchanges with her power calling lover, she is Squeeze’s foil in her streetcorner conversation with the labor organizer.

The irony here is, of course, that Riley presents this critique of spectacular forms of resistance in the decidedly spectacular medium of film. His criticism is self-referential, the product of an artist—a veteran musician as well as a novice filmmaker—questioning the value of his work. As he divulges in his interview with Aftab, the debates in Sorry are, in effect, externalizations of inner dialogues that Riley has with himself. “I kind of wrote all the dialogue playing chess with myself,” he tells Aftab (Riley, “White Lines” 25).

“Instead of being like, ‘This is what this kind of person would say,’ I was like, ‘Here’s what I would say in this kind of situation’” (Riley, “White Lines” 25).

The movie’s implicit criticisms of Detroit and especially Cash are therefore, by implication, self-criticisms that the filmmaker directs against himself.