Patrick Mulcahy on showing genuine concern for workers’ rights
Watching contemporary American cinema is, for the most part, a depressing experience. ‘America First’, the mantra of President Donald J. Trump, is not something that can be easily packaged as entertainment for global audiences. Instead of American films reflecting a transcendent moral purpose, they end up like ‘Mile 22’, in which the majority of the heroes are killed and the one survivor has his arrogance popped. Hollywood films have always to some extent focussed on the value of working together towards the common good. Yet there is, perhaps uniquely in American history since the 1970s, profound disagreement about what that ‘common good’ might be. President Trump unapologetically sows distrust of the media, whether dismissing ‘fake news’ or any kind of criticism of his leadership. Because he does not represent an ideal, having humiliated his opponents with the tactics of a serial bully and appealing to base responses of misogyny and racism, the heroic narratives that Hollywood might put out in his name seem rather hollow.
The best American films of 2018 (BlacKkKlansman, The Kindergarten Teacher, Can You Forgive Me?) have been preoccupied with fakery. Chief among these is Sorry To Bother You, a broad satire of racist corporate America from 47-year-old rapper-turned-filmmaker, Raymond Lawrence ‘Boots’ Riley. Boots as he prefers to be known is also the author of Tell Homeland Security – We Are The Bomb, which attests to his unequivocal in-your-face sensibility. His film focuses on Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) who gets a job as a telemarketer in spite of failing to convince the interviewer of his achievements. It is his attitude and hunger that the company wants, and ruthlessly exploits. Cassius scores more sales when he adopts a white voice (he is over-dubbed by David Cross). Whilst his colleagues plan industrial action, Cassius gets promoted, selling weapons of mass destruction and a form of institutionalised slavery, propagated by the company ‘Worry Free’. Just when you think you have the film pegged, it steps up a gear in the second half by showing the development of a dehumanised workforce.
Riley takes his cue from Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and others, making no attempt at naturalism. Cassius lives in a garage with his sign-twirling artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) – the comedy reveal is the first of many pleasures. However, the film’s social concerns are very real: Cassius needs to make rent and can barely afford to run his car. His first attempt at selling over the telephone is a ‘coup du cinema’ as Cassius’ office slides down into the front room of the cold-callee who picks up the phone and promptly slams it back down. The brutality of the response is exacerbated by their proximity in the frame. It is only when Cassius mirrors the sentiments of those whom he calls does he have some success.
Some of the humour doesn’t work – for example, the tortuously long number that Cassius has to type in when he accesses the ‘Power Caller’ elevator for the first time and the TV game show (‘I Got the S-t Kicked out of Me’) that consists of people being subjected to violence. However, it really scores on detail.
Satire isn’t meant to be comfortable and the film tests the audience when Detroit invites humiliation at her opening. Cassius himself becomes a YouTube sensation after a can of soda hits him in the head as he breaks through a picket line.
The satirical point comes through loud and clear: American workers are sleepwalking through the gig economy into a form of slavery, essentially owned by their employer. They literally surrender what is left of their humanity to make a buck.
Riley isn’t especially taking aim at President Trump; he wrote the screenplay towards the end of Barack Obama’s first term as President – it was published as a stand-alone text in Dave Eggers’ ‘McSweeney’ magazine in 2014. Rather, he shows where worldwide capitalism is going, literally effacing the individual.
It is not the funniest film of 2018, but Sorry To Bother You is authentically troubling, asking us to reconsider our relationship to our employers and to entertainment. Some of its satire goes by the wayside but its genuine concern with workers’ rights stays with you, making it the most political American film of the year.
‘Sorry To Bother You’ opens in UK cinemas on 7 December 2018