Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, an innovated theory of society as a hyper-site for ridicule and conformity is nothing short of fascinating. A product of magical realism, the film employs protagonist Cassius Green— a melanated black body who attempts to negotiate the western subject by way of capitalistic ambitions as resulting in a literal black dehumanization that turns the black body into a human/animal hybrid exploited for labor. A societal object, running towards capital, casts the black body into a fatal predictability that ultimately seizes black humanity.
The quest for visibility and purpose gradually moves from the background to the forefront throughout the film. In the film’s background is reality show “I got the Sh*t kicked knocked out of me” — a popular show where guests volunteer to various forms of public humiliation. The show is reminiscent of the show “Fear Factor,” a popular series in the early 2000s where contestants performed a myriad of acts from eating cow testicles to having rats crawl all over their bodies for two minutes. The show in its fact and fictive representations illustrates the allure of ridicule to those with a self and esteem seized by a ruthless culture that thrives on such baseness. In hindsight, the show appears a physical representation of the great lengths one will endure for their place amongst the white lights that veil the red venom of white supremacy.
Cassius Clay or Cassius Green
The film provides cause to question whether protagonist Cassius Green is named after the late Cassius Clay who preceded the body it was initially assigned to in death. While watching the film, I could not help but wonder whether Cassius Green was who Muhammad Ali would have been had he not experienced a cultural awakening? Nevertheless, it seems an oversimplification to render this film a cautionary tale of black assimilation. Rather, the film functions as a meditation of the fatality of the black follower. To follow whiteness as a black man or woman is to be lead off a cliff. To follow whiteness as a being of black form, is to imbue a predictability that makes you everything and everyone that you should not be. Cassius predictably though is one that leaves the reader questioning. His acquiescence to white supremacist culture, comes after he has already taken a step over a cliff. He is so far gone though, that he sees his step of a cliff as the step off the elevator that issues an allusive upward mobility. Cassuis’ desire to win at the white man’s game by any means necessary, attracts the negative attention from his oppressors that truss in his trust in them. Cassius exudes this trust in snorting a line of coke that will ultimately transform him. Cassius invests this white powder off a plate with s horse on it, foreshadowing the transformation that is yet to come.
The film provides further contemplation that many of us have had over the years but a query that not enough have asked themselves let alone the world. What force lies behind those who have made a prodigious contribution to our collective? Why are some of our leaders killed but not others? Cassius, after climbing the ranks of predictability, is offered an opportunity to lead the inevitable revolution of the oppressed man/animal hybrid. He is presented with an opportunity to be “A Man Amongst Horses,” an opportunity he has already accepted by walking through the door. This depiction illustrates the “black leader” as often the prediction of the white oppressors designed to pacify the masses with illustration not liberation.
Cassius Green, A Lost Boy in a Man’s body
Viewers meet Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) as his morning thoughts reveal a common quest of trying to turn life into meaning. Green desires to make something of himself. He desires purpose—to make a mark on the world. Sorry To Bother You illustrates that attempting to make a mark on that which you do not understand, is setting the world up to brand you with its brutality.
Essentially, Cassius Greene is the quintessential “lost” melanated body who is not on a quest for blackness, but whiteness— a quest guised as conventional success. His desire is best manifested in the starry gaze he affords the elevator that takes employees up to the “higher” level. These employees, who are essentially his co-workers, dress flashier and hold themselves with a pseudo confidence. Greene forges credentials that prove superfluous for an entry-level telemarketing job that will change his life forever. The job initially confirms his feelings of inadequacy, but once senior employee, Langston gives him the key—Greene opens the door to opportunity, or what he eventually learns is slavery. This key is a “white voice.” Greene’s adaptation of “the white voice” is the selling point of the movie, a point that coincides with the now cliche phrase that “anything is possible when you sound white on the phone.” The viral status of the phrase reflects the societal predilection for ideologies that articulate or maintain white as central—an ideology performed in the white voice overs that persist throughout the film. Riley challenges the ideology of the white voice by posing query as to whether it exists at all.
Through Langston, Sorry to Bother You presents whiteness as an ideology, as a wish rather than a reality. Whiteness is something that needs bodies to believe in it, to reinforce and thereby prove its existence. Every body in the film functions as a tool of whiteness, even those who seem most vested in its abolishment. All desire a piece of a white pie, they desire it in different manifestations, depicting whiteness as a pervasive disease that has affected all. Though mastering the white voice, Langston does not gain upward mobility. This lack of upward mobility is easily attributed to choice afforded by Langston’s knowledge of what lies on the other side.
Foreshadow: The Path Less Taken
Greene’s fate is eerily alluded to by a senior co-worker played by veteran actor Danny Glover. In a conversation about what it means to be a “power-caller,” Glover compartmentalizes the sales of these superstar employees as “holocaust,” words that should foreshadow the misfortune that awaits a lost Cassius, but escapes rather than admonishes him.
Langston’s words are not all that escape the film. Angst as a character, despite appearing in number of scene, remains vastly under developed. Like the man that appears in the background via photograph with a variety of expressions who appears to be Cassuis Green’s father, Glover’s character appears almost phantasmal. The black man and the Cadillac, the Cadillac a symbol of the black man’s dream—the black man’s desire to culminate what was outlined for him by his oppressors. This black male figure appears in the background of the film to personify his place in the background of society, in the backdrop of the world, in the back of the minds of their sons and daughters, their lives long forgotten by a world who rendered their birth and burial with the same indifference. Though Green finds community with his boss, a nameless black man dressed to mirror the caricature he embodies, their connection is one of sell outs. They connect as hollow shells of what could of been, but instead what was and is a white supremacy. In their quest for fictive power, they became predictable. Their predictability results in their profitable praise a profit the enslaved are paid for their subjugation.
Squeeze, the Non-Black Person of Color As Head Activist
A relationship that does carry throughout the entire movie, is the relationship between Cassius and his pseudo activist associate Squeeze. Cassius meets Squeeze shortly after starting his position, and is quickly recruited to the movement. At first Cassius is excited, excited to be a part of something, but when he is given a chance to move up the ranks, he does so. This process, though initially portrayed as positive, sets off the downward spiral in which Cassuis is unable to remove himself. Cassuis’ severance from the movement is depicted with a sort of implied scrutiny, a scrutiny undercut with the reality that Cassuis battle is unlike that of his non-black person of color coworker.
So though Squeeze both articulates and seems to act as if his struggle mirrors that of his black colleagues. Squeeze’s struggle is a single struggle, an oversimplification he extends to his followers in his protest against his boss. As a person of color without color, Squeeze can negotiate what the black body must take. His solutions therefore, are self-serving, and a means for the black body to escape the battle only they can and must take in order to ensure liberation.
What’s interesting about the dynamics portrayed in the film, is that Cassius Green represents the contemporary black men who possesses more freedom in his unemployment than his climb up the corporate ladder. The film depicts Green as seduced to want to be something else while those around him desire to be like him. This point speaks directly to Squeeze, the organizer for the employee strike. His request is for a means to live similarly to those for whom he works. Squeeze desires a seat at the table, and perceives his desires as commiserate to his black and white coworkers. A willing migrant, Squeeze wants to make good on the promise of the American Dream, a promise never made to those whose bodies afforded the commerce of western wealth. A seat at the table will not garner freedom for the black man or woman, as the very table is held up by the dismembered legs of their ancestors. Squeeze illustrates the non-black person of color as seizing black allies when convenient, and perhaps most importantly, the non-black person of color’s not so secret envy of blackness. Squeeze’s desire to be like the black man manifests in his desire for Cassuis’ romantic partner, Detroit. This desire is seen in the company who employs Detroit for her labor and Squeeze who despite seeing Detroit and Cassuis’s love for one another first hand, desires to replace Cassius. Squeeze conceals this desire from Cassius, but is quite forthcoming of his intentions with Detroit. The black female body has habitually been a form of conquest, a means for oppressors to mark their objectification of the black man.
Detroit, The Black Female Lead
Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson in her recurring role as love interest to a significantly darker skinned man, narrates what appears to be the black female experience. Detroit, intelligent and outspoke, speaks loudest in her accessories–seemingly a commentary of black female fashion as a narrative of its own. This ambiguity angers me, as my medication on Detroit appears once again to be a black woman searching for herself in a world that flourishes in this obscurity.
Though Detroit speaks of Africa’s exploitation as the muse for her her art exhibition, she does so without overt attachment. She is far more her tie-dyed hair and burnout persona, perhaps to intentionally depict the displaced African as viewed intersectionally. I personally find the racially ambiguous black woman as largely played out. In an industry with only a handful of brown skinned black men, the continual omitting of a black woman of the same hue suggests what the media perpetuates daily—the myth that blacks of a sun-kissed hue do not love one another.
Detroit, like the systemized City, is sullied by the forces of white supremacy. She appears a “free spirit” but she isn’t free at all. Her situation appears perhaps most devastating because unlike her male counterparts, she seems to understand her oppression. Her art exhibit is anchored in the systemic rape of Africa, a mutilation she emulates in her presentation of the work. During her exhibit Detroit wears a costume that depicts hands grabbing her breasts and genitals, recites a poem, and allows the audience to toss items from batteries to sheep blood at her as she recites a monologue. As bizarre as the scenario sounds, its depiction is reminiscent to the dynamic many black female superstars offer at their concerts. The sight is hard to watch, as a nearly nude black Woman stands on a platform reminiscent of an auction block, where she is ridiculed, mentally defiled, and utterly broken before monetarily consumed by her oppressors.
Detroit festers the bounds of her defilement in a reckless sexual encounter with Squeeze, the Asian activist who functions in the same circle as Cassius and those from her Oakland community, hours after her breakup with Cassius. This depiction cheapens Detroit, countering what previously functioned as intellect as a devotion to diversifying the ways in which she is exploited and mutilated. The sexual merging of black and Asian bodies could also represent the Asian conquest and exploitation of African bodies and goods.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the film is a horrified Cassius jumping in to save his beloved in her humiliating demonstration. Confronted with the physical manifestation of what he also does for a living, this scene is especially significant because it illustrates that it is often far easier to acknowledge the problematic behavior of others, than to acknowledge your own—which is a common side affect of post traumatic slave syndrome.
Green with Envy or Naivety?
It is a point of wonder whether the Greene in the protagonist’s “sir” name is representative of naivety or envy. My argument would be that his character represents a medley of the two, a naive jealousy that cripples him in fomenting a meditation on what he does not have, rather than making due with all that he does. Greene’s quest for freedom, as something handed to him by his oppressors, is not freedom at all but what the oppressive chokehold of white supremacy needs marginalized bodies to believe is freedom to ensure the black collective is never freed. Greene, like all bodies within the black collective, was born with the tools necessary to engender his liberation. It is only in the contemporary enslavement of the black body, the labor force that tells individuals that they are nothing without a job, a 401K, an expensive car, and other worthless material items, that the marginalized body displaces the purpose of their oppressors in place of their collective purpose.
Though named after an apologist phrase, the film is anything but apologetic in its critique of conformity and the poisonous attributes of a society that are largely normalized. The film diverges from the usual depiction of conformity as the road to success manifested in the Ivy League, 1percent, and the countries’ most revered professions. The film suggests that what the world projects as the light, is a darkness for dark people— a dark hole to which the melanated body loses sense of self and never emerges as human. The film is the contemplative exercise missing from contemporary pop culture, the admonishment needed to steer our kids towards self and away from the demons of conformity.
Perhaps the most resonant depiction of the film is the nameless character played by Omari Hardwick. Green meets this character in his rise from entry-level to higher-level executive, a character whose voice and name is oppressed in the system to which he has sold his soul. We hear Hardwick’s actual voice moments before Green takes the substance that ultimately turns his body into what his mind has already become—an animal. Hardwick’s character represents what becomes of the assimilatory black body, it becomes dismembered, erased in a violent consummation of anti blackness where the once black body is not only not black, but completely void. Hardwick’s character is a necessary character as he embodies what so many within the black collective see far too often in those who are presumed to have made it— at the expense of exchanging self for status.
In short, the film illustrates that the essential component to freeing black bodies from capitalism is acknowledgement that the black body is in fact capital. Green was capital the minute he measured himself by the white man’s measuring tape—long before he even considered a telemarketing job. May this be a lesson to all of us, the dangers of merging our double sight into the single vision of white supremacy.
Black Power ❤
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Excellent review CC! 👍🏿