‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a study of the Black working class and the seductive appeal of capitalism
That is what capitalism does to us. It reduces our value to our labor.
by Brittany Lee Frederick
This essay contains spoilers for Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You features a “dystopia” that is not at all foreign to working class Black America. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who has just been hired by Regal View telemarketing, is encouraged by Langston (Danny Glover), an older and more senior worker, to use his white voice to make more sales. When Cash doesn’t understand, Langston says, “It’s sounding like you don’t have a care, ‘I don’t really need this money.’ It’s how white people wished they sound.”
Cassius “Cash” Green, whose name reminds us how desperate he is to improve his finances, really does need the money though. He and his fiancé Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are living in his uncle’s garage and his uncle can’t afford his house payments. Trying to keep a roof over all of their heads, Cash tries out a white voice and finds himself quickly rising in the ranks at work, soon earning the promotion to “Power Caller” where he becomes a major earner as opposed to a minimum wage employee.
Since this isn’t The Wolf of Wall Street or The Social Network, Cash finds himself constantly battling with his own morals. We get a sense of his own existential angst in one moment when he cuddles Detroit in bed and asks her what the point of working, paying bills, and living is when eventually it’ll all be meaningless. Detroit, barely listening, remarks, “When I kiss you, it’s not for posterity’s sake.” She urges him to live in the moment. Of course, the problem is that, for the Black working class, the present can be just as terrifying as the future.
The movie feels especially poignant because so much discourse since Trump’s election has been focused on “the working class” and why they would vote against their own interest. Of course, by the working class, mainstream media always means white, blue collar workers. The argument has been made that these people were too uneducated to know who to vote for. People simply don’t want to acknowledge that, in reality, they voted for the candidate who offered them a sense of pride and superiority in their whiteness.
Sorry to Bother You is about the real working class. It is multiracial, but predominately Black and brown. It is multigenerational, politically active, and intelligent. They are aware that the system is stacked against them and they work together on union efforts for better working conditions.
Although Cash ends up betraying the union efforts from his colleagues, their efforts for labor rights are central to the plot, and they serve to reinforce Cash’s dilemma. They force him to question his responsibility to himself, his uncle, and Detroit, and weigh them against his responsibility to the other workers at Regal View.
The film is defined by these tensions–between himself and his community, his fear of the future and fear of the present, and most significantly, his desire to reach areas of comfort that are blocked to him by his Blackness and poverty.
Before Cash is promoted to Power Caller, he looks in envy at the golden elevator that takes the Power Callers up to their much more lucrative job. He isn’t so noble as to only be thinking about his family’s well-being and that of his people. He also wants to make it big for himself. That is what capitalism does to us. It reduces our value to our labor.
When Cash is promoted and he crosses his former coworkers’ picket line, he yells, “My success has nothing to do with you!” But we know it does, because his success comes at their expense.
It’s Cash’s masculinity, in many ways, that traps him at RegalView. He feels solely responsible for providing for his family and he wants to feel powerful. The relationship between masculinity and capital accumulation is only accented by his first ride up in the golden elevator, when a woman’s voice comes over the speaker to praise his masculinity and sexual prowess.
It’s that hyper-masculine need for praise, power, and control that drives his desire to beat the odds and achieve the elusive American Dream, as well as what makes it possible for him to make big sales to the world’s billionaires.
Detroit, a Black queer-coded femme whose name is a fitting reminder of her anti-capitalist pro-Black politics, eventually breaks up with Cash for selling out. In doing so, she helps him to see the intersections of the systems that bind us.
As the film progresses, Cash loses his ability to control when he uses his “white voice.” Although at first he felt like he was in control of his own situation, he soon realizes he is nothing more than a puppet to the company.
After a video of Cash crossing the picket line goes viral, his best friend remarks, “You’re like the Ariana Grande of disloyal n***as.” Here, we see the modern manifestation of Malcolm X’s description of the house negro. Even though he has finally made it to the house, he certainly isn’t free.
I’d argue that Boots Riley sees redemption for Cash, and for all of us working under capitalism, in placing more value in our interpersonal relationships instead of our economic ones.
In the end, Cash is once again struggling to get by. Still, there is something valuable about seeing the Black working class on screen that prevents the film from being too bleak. Despite all these systems have done to us, we’re still here.
Brittany Lee Frederick is a writer and PhD student based in Boston, MA. She’s interested in Black arts, culture, and history. Follow her on Twitter @Britt_LF.