Embodied allegory in Sorry to Bother You: art, performance
and movement in neoliberal capitalist ruins

by Minji Huh

Riley’s deployment of allegory,
embodiment, and history

Boots Riley’s 2018 debut film, Sorry to Bother You, first and foremost depicts laborers’ protests against a telemarketing company named RegalView—where power callers sell everything except legal goods—and RegalView’s main client, WorryFree, a company that makes lifetime labor contracts with their workers. One critique the film has received is the “disembodied voice of the telephone call” (Maurice 88), which dispels the Black protagonist’s racially marked body, thus enabling his success.

The so-called “white voice” that he employs on the phone is an appealing voice that seemingly sounds as if one has nothing to worry about in life and thus implicates not only just white people but also their lifestyle. In fact the film frequently dubs such a white voice over Black actors’ voices. It has an impact on the viewing experience. Importantly, an incompatibility between the “white voice” and the Black body does not dampen our interest in the body and the material world, but rather it provokes a need to abstract oneself from the symbolic situation in order to understand the film’s main point. With this film, it is impossible to prescind allegory from the matter of embodiment.

LaKeith Stanfield plays the protagonist Cassius Green, who works for a telemarketing company named RegalView whose power callers sell everything except legal goods. The name of the protagonist, Cassius, signifies cash. Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun, leads many strikes against RegalView to fight for the rights of telemarketers.
RegalView’s main client, WorryFree, makes lifetime labor contracts with their workers. The CEO of WorryFree, Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer, is the biggest client of the telemarketing company Cassius works for.
A TV commercial shows the structure of WorryFree, which resembles a prison. The same TV commercial moves onto show older workers wearing uniforms in their bunk beds.
The same TV commercial then highlights WorryFree’s lifetime contracts with its workers.

The spatiotemporal setting of Sorry to Bother You is an alternative fictional version of contemporary Oakland, California, with its rampant gentrification. Within the time frame of the film, the characters’ names imply mixed allegories. On one level, the name of the protagonist, Cassius, signifies “cash,” and his girlfriend’s name, Detroit, alludes to the world’s best automobile assembly line. The narrative complements this reference by Cassius and Detroit having bodies marked by race, since on another level Cassius Clay is the birth name of Muhammad Ali, the famous African American boxer. Succinctly put, the plot traces how Cassius transforms into a hero for the protesting laborers, just like Muhammad Ali who became exalted as a morally authoritative cultural hero even to this day. In the film, Cassius cannot easily achieve success by just being a “power caller,” as Muhammad Ali also could not find his identity just as professional boxer since he always faced a troubled “integration” into white society.

Moreover, in the last several decades, urban Detroit has become a majority-Black center of the Rust Belt of the United States and is often considered to be something like a dead zone. Its economy has collapsed; its drinking water supply is dangerously polluted; it is full of empty, broken homes and factories, has a high crime rate, and a low average quality of life.

What embodied allegory reveals is that, despite their invisibility, atomized wage laborers have an objective presence as “congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor” (Marx 128) accumulated into products. Riley’s film is a critique of impersonal social domination that characterizes neoliberal capitalist relations embedded in the form of the globalized division of labor and the world market.

Riley’s satire may, in fact, be a Marxist one. He certainly presents a derisive view of neoliberal capitalist culture, but he also suggests the presence of laborers behind products, although they are neither recognizably present nor unequivocally absent. Crucially, Riley employs allegory, which encourages our intellectual engagement with bodies that interact with the other sensible material of our surroundings. His use of embodied allegory goes beyond the world-encompassing language of commodity fetishism which objectifies people in the market exchange system by brutally erasing particularity. As much as sellers are not only geographically remote but also socially distanced from laborers, laborers are alienated from the products of their labors, and consumers are detached from the process of production and circulation of commodities. What embodied allegory reveals is that, despite their invisibility, atomized wage laborers have an objective presence as “congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor” (Marx 128) accumulated into products. Riley’s film is a critique of impersonal social domination that characterizes neoliberal capitalist relations embedded in the form of the globalized division of labor and the world market.

In this paper, I examine how Riley brings art and politics together in Sorry to Bother You, specifically through embodied allegory. Such a deployment of allegory in recovering the bodies of the marginalized—in this case racially- and gender-marked laborers—resonates with how Annabel Patterson in Fables of Power (1991) shifts our attention towards Aesop as a “philosopher of materialism and the body” (38), an essential facet of Aesop which has long been eclipsed by “the legend of the witty Aethiopian slave” (34). To be sure, many episodes in Aesopian fables function as a critique of unequal power relations. The political message of these fables grasps wage laborers’ attention to this day when the urge to liberate oneself from the social hierarchy is still founded in capitalism, whose internal mechanism has an uneasy proximity to enslaved labor in pre-capitalist societies. I propose that Sorry to Bother You is a viable fable for this day and age, alerting us to the possible subversion of official values and dominant culture, and at the same time, encouraging us to attend to another device of allegory, which is the historical situatedness of its current author.

Walter Benjamin’s notion of allegory in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925) offers useful insight toward uncovering how the body harbors the potential to do actions that are between stasis and change. In the film, Detroit’s role/performance is the main site from which this utopian impulse stems. In critiques of the film, many analyses of it as a political fable revolve around the “white voice” gambit of Cassius (Alice Maurice) and the surreal spectacle of the Equisapiens (human-animal hybrids) being developed as a new workforce (Leshu Torchin, McGuinness and Simpson). Milo Sweedler, in contrast, pays attention to Detroit’s interactive performance but is skeptical about its effect in two aspects: whether it is as powerful as organizing a union, and whether her participatory art is distinct from Cassius’ selling human labor power, as both are dubbed by white voices.

Tessa Thompson plays Cassius’s girlfriend, whose name, Detroit, alludes to what was once the world’s best automobile assembly line.

It is plausible to argue that Detroit in this film is an implied portrait of Riley himself. Both are dedicated to the convergence of art and politics.

I maintain that Detroit, an artist as well as an avid activist, is an underexamined character who is crucial to providing the link between abstraction and concreteness that is played out in allegory. Most importantly, her performance departs from the conventions of dark comedy: it comes in one of the film’s most impactful scenes, and highlights that this film is charged with more than just black humor through its deft use of icons as allegories to reveal something political. Moreover, it is plausible to argue that Detroit is an implied portrait of Riley himself. Both are dedicated to “the convergence of art and politics,” thus invoking Antonio Gramsci’s term organic intellectual—“ someone who represents the subaltern from which they are bounded to and identify with as a social class or group” (Martin and Kamara, 177, italics original).

To this end, I first consider Detroit as a performer of her own art in an art gallery, and how her reasons for using the “white voice” diverge from those of Cassius. In ways useful to my analysis, Judith H. Anderson argues that allegory, which has oftentimes been “otherized” in its relation to narrative, functions like intertextuality. Intertextuality, which “coincides with the transition from structuralism to poststructuralism” (Martin 148), can be easily part of “uncertainty, indeterminacy, incommunicability, subjectivity, desire, pleasure and play” (Allen 3). And yet, at the same time, “the coexistence of individual agency with societal and cultural determinism” (Anderson 2) in intertextuality, as suggested by Judith H. Anderson, enables us to interpret Detroit’s use of the white voice differently from Cassius’s use of it.

Next, I elaborate further the uneasy parallel between Cassius and the cultural icon Muhammad Ali through their assimilation into the dominant white culture. I also chart how Cassius’s image is framed and consumed by capitalist institutions at the beginning of the film, and how he subverts them. For example, after he witnesses Detroit’s performance and encounters Equisapiens, Cassius uses the disrepute he gained via an infamous game show— “I Got The S#*@ Kicked Outta Me!”—to become a guest of that show, where he accuses the corporation WorryFree of transforming humans into Equisapiens in order to take advantage of its skyrocketing rise in profits. Following this, I will analyze how Detroit’s artistic approach is incorporated into the protest itself in the form of an afro wig stapled to a cola can, statues, and sculptures. I will conclude with a discussion of how the subversive allegory embodied by Detroit serves to suggest a hopeful enmeshment of art, performance, and movement as a driving force that can ultimately outperform neoliberal capitalism.

The “white voice” as an intertext

Langston gives Cassius the crucial advice that he must mimic a white voice in order to attract consumers. In his initial attempt to imitate a white voice, Cassius pinches his nose and sounds nasal.
Cassius is close to becoming a power caller through his proficiency with his white voice. The power callers have their own golden elevator, a symbol of prestige.

In an equivalent structure, the white voice gambit in Sorry to Bother You as it appears in Cassius’s workplace and in Detroit’s performance in the gallery can be seen to serve the same political function. However, in my view, Detroit’s performance is an intertext that is founded “on a continuum between deliberate imitation and intentional allusion” (Anderson 1), here an allustion to Cassius’s white voice. For example, Detroit’s own voice is dubbed over by a white voice, the very gambit that has enabled Cassius to become a power caller at the telemarketing company. Anderson’s emphasis on reading the allegorical intertext suggests that we take note of “the coexistence of individual agency with cultural and societal determinism” (2) and this perspective encourages me to read the different political functions of the white voice in the film. The extent to which Detroit and Cassius may exert their own agency through their adaptation of the white voice is the primary trajectory of the plot, and I will trace how their agency can be narrowed or expanded, minimized or enlarged within different contexts. 

What is noteworthy about Anderson’s adaptation of the term intertext in her interpretation of allegory is that she draws our attention to poetic language and its revolutionary potential— here she seems indebted to Julia Kristeva’s key work Revolution in Poetic Language (1974). According to Anderson, narratives upholding a precise equivalent structure in the name of concrete reality while equating allegory with abstraction only rely on to a reductive conception of mimesis, which relies heavily on the fantastical transparency of language (5). However, Kristeva complicates semiosis by arguing that the meaning of language cannot be definitively reduced to “either X or not-X” (2). Instead, similar to “metaphor, known also as translation,” the meaning is always already deferred as “X and/or not-X,” or “X and/or not-Y” (Anderson 2-3). Anderson, following Kristeva, discredits this prevalent semiotic interpretation by pointing out that the gaps formed by this ironic deferral of meaning serve no purpose other than to create the “potential for over-[determinacy] or indeterminacy” (3). Instead, she sees these gaps as indicating the flexibility of the reading process, where numerous ways of connecting these variables (X, not-X, or X, not-Y) consistently emerge and develop across time and space. In this context, Anderson “describe[s] the intertext as a condition of potentiality and relationship, adding that it comes into being in an act of reading a text” (15). In doing so, Anderson hopes to recover the “vitality of textual exchange” (3) that has always resided in Kristevan intertextuality. Such an interpretation can well be applied Riley’s film to examine the various effects of the white voice gambit in the cases of Cassius and Detroit, respectively.

Cassius’s trick to conspire with the logic of
neoliberal capitalism

The protagonist’s name, Cassius, recalls Muhammad Ali, the famous boxer, whose life holds rich cultural meaning—especially for Black people. Central to Ali’s’s life story are his triumphs in boxing matches in the midst of the U.S. civil rights movement (1954-1968). Only later, when he won a championship in 1964 and became a professional boxer, could Ali become more outspoken about his dissent to the Vietnam War and his conversion to Islam. As Michael Ezra points out, “whatever Clay’s decision, he had to realize that there was a strong relationship between his choice of management, his cultural image, and his ability to make money,” which indicates that it was not enough for him to “be the best boxer,” but he must “win a degree of public acceptance if he was to become champion and get rich” (17). In other words, as a Black boxer, he was aware of the fact that “whites controlled the big money in professional boxing,” but he could not “transcend” his racial identity, nor could he hope to have many Black people as his guides (17).

The Cassius in the film is remarkably similar. His friendship, love, and solidarity with other workers come into conflict with the source of his income, who is the CEO of WorryFree, Steve Lift, who is the biggest client of the telemarketing company Cassius works for. In contrast to many films which deal with economic rights, especially “nationally grounded approaches [which] elide race in favor of class,” as Leshu Torshin rightly points out, “[w]ith gestures to slave labor and with a White Voice literally provided by white actors, race is never incidental to Sorry’s anticapitalist story” (30). It is no exaggeration to say that Cassius is a trickster, since he deceives his customers with his talent of using a white voice. Yet how he becomes distinguished from his friends in the union through his sudden promotion, specifically on the first day of the protests, is as complicated as Ali’s equivalent commentaries on the ongoing civil rights movement when he needed a wealthy (presumably white) sponsor.

We are not able to fully comprehend this character in the context of race and economic inequality (which is not very different from Ali’s 1960s) as long as we read the film’s Cassius as just a scab. Hence the iconic name “Cassius” is deftly used as an allegory: it indicates the character’s racial identity and concomitant troubled inclusion into white society, as well as his socioeconomic status. The white voice enables him to enter dominant society but at the expense of others—not only his coworkers fighting for their legal rights, but also slave laborers in the developing world who belong to companies owned by first-world CEOs, and even the Equisapiens. However, Cassius is not yet aware of the ways in which he can use his mimicry skills to disrupt the very culture he assimilated into. I now turn to Detroit’s performance, which hints at the possibility of Cassius’s rebirth into a great hero like Muhammad Ali.

Detroit’s ruse as a prelude to futurity

Since Dear White People (2014, directed by Justin Simien) came out, the actress Tessa Thompson has become identified with the role of the outspoken, strong-willed Black activist; this archetype appears in Riley’s film as well, as evidenced through Thompson’s playing character of Detroit. Detroit deviates from the conventions of the “wokest” Black activists by using an overt mystification of Africa as homeland—the single essentialized identity at the core of Pan-Africanis—as a “mask.” According to Riley’s script, at a distance, Detroit’s depictions of Africa might just look beautiful, but when taking a closer look, we can find diverse figures mingling together in the sculptures of Africa that appear in the film:

“There are 20 colorful 20-foot sculptures of Africa made with wood, metal, and found objects. Some are mounted, some are unfinished on the floor. There are slogans and items with references to music, literature, and political movements intertwined in the sculpture. There are also life-sized statues of people standing on the floor, looking at the Africas as if they were art connoisseurs.” (Riley 41)

The references to music, literature, and political movements in these sculptures suggest that these heterogenous elements constitute Africa as having a uniform identity. The way Detroit creates her art with wood, metal, and found objects is worth ruminating on, since these materials are not brand-new, but have been disposed of somewhere else, perhaps in numerous places, and then gathered to shape Detroit’s works. This resonates with the “common practice in the literature of the baroque” that Benjamin is enthralled by, which is “pil[ing] up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle, to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification” (Benjamin 178). The disorderly display of the sculptures also suggests their purposelessness, which is linked to the motto “art for art’s sake” that stands against presupposing inherent values in art. The life-sized statues may also indicate Detroit’s intention to have her audience freely engaging with the artworks, and they even foreshadow the riot combined with art at the climax of the film.

Detroit is an activist. Notice an incendiary message on Detroit’s earrings: “Tell homeland security we are the bomb.”
Like the sandwichman, whom Walter Benjamin refers to as the last incarnation of the flaneur in The Arcades Project, Detroit is holding a sign which literally says “Signs!” This serves as a disguise for Detroit, allowing her to conceal her identity as an activist. It is important to note that Detroit deviates from the conventions of the “wokest” Black activists by using overt mystification of the homeland of Africa, the single essentialized identity at the core of Pan-Africanism, as a “mask.” From a distance, her depictions of Africa might just look beautiful, but when taking a closer look, we can find diverse figures mingling together in the sculptures of Africa that appear in the film.