Review by Michael O'Malley
So Seattle has a housing problem. Every city in the United States does. New York City has it. Nashville has it. My own home of Knoxville does, too. But Seattle at least had a plan: they would fund affordable housing by creating a new tax on Amazon, the fourth most valuable public retailer in the world and Seattle’s largest employer, thereby raising $75 million for affordable housing in the city (resulting in about 1,800 additional housing units, they estimated). Amazon didn’t like that, so they shut down construction of a new office that would have employed 7,000 Seattle residents. Seattle didn’t want 7,000 of its citizens out of a job, so they compromised with Amazon at a mere $45 million in taxes instead--for scale, Amazon made $177.86 billion in revenue in 2017. The compromised tax bill passed unanimously in May of this year. 48 hours after the passing of the bill, though, Amazon began pouring money into a campaign to oppose the tax, and by June, Seattle’s city council had voted, 7-2, to repeal the tax. This is just how things go now. What was Seattle going to do? It’s not like they’re more powerful than Amazon.
In Sorry to Bother You, the satirical and lightly (and then heavily) sci-fi film debut from writer/director Boots Riley, Oakland, CA, has a housing problem, too (to clarify, this is neither the satirical nor the sci-fi part of Sorry to Bother You). Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is four months behind on the rent on the room (garage) he rents from his Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), who is himself about to lose the house containing Cash’s room/garage because Sergio’s behind on mortgage payments. So Cash gets a job as a telemarketer at an opaque company called RegalView, a job, it turns out, Cash is very good at, provided he uses his “white voice” (i.e. David Cross’s reedy timbre hilariously overdubbed over Stanfield’s own dialogue--a gag in every sense of the word, including the silencing one). Cash is good enough that he gets promoted to the coveted Power Caller position, even while his struggling peers attempt to unionize and strike for living wages. But what is Cash going to do? Uncle Sergio is considering paying his mortgage by signing himself up for indentured servitude with the smiling visage of WorryFree, a corporation who claims to offer food and housing in exchange for its employees’ “lifetime contract” but whose critics rightly recognize as just slavery with the sleek, PR-savvy aesthetic of a Silicon Valley giant. It’s not like he’s more powerful than the landlords. Cash needs that Power Caller cash. So he crosses the picket line. Very long story short, it turns out that his job as a Power Caller involves schmoozing the very tech-bro CEO of WorryFree, Steve Lift (why are they always named Steve?), played by Armie Hammer, whose casting presents an interesting alternate history that envisions a world in which the Winklevosses had retained control of Facebook and went on to use the platform to sell slave labor across the world. And to cut an even longer story short, it turns out that Steve Lift, frustrated at how whiny regular workers are with their requests for living wages and healthcare and safe working conditions, has developed a race of horse-human hybrids to be the perfect labor force.
Sorry to Bother You is a very funny movie. I laughed a lot. It’s also endlessly inventive, from the constant rotation of the slogan-emblazoned earrings of Tessa Thompson’s Detroit (Cash’s on-again, off-again girlfriend--sample slogan: “Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb”) to the intricate manipulation of its mis en scène (e.g. when Cash makes a telemarketing call, his work desk literally drops into the living space of his potential client, who is of course in the middle of something [or someone] when they pick up). The movie is clever in very dedicated and hardworking ways, and I loved it.
But more than that, Sorry to Bother You is the exceedingly rare film premised on satire that actually sticks with the satire to its final minutes--especially rare is that this satire isn’t couched in a critique of show business. This isn’t the land of Tropic Thunder’s gruesome but ultimately schadenfreude-affirming depiction of celebrity and Hollywood callousness. Sorry to Bother You finds the exact wounds inflicted on American bodies by their own megacorporations and paints clown faces on the scabs. And it stings.
If a movie like The Social Network felt fresh for the way it punctured the vague sanctimonies of tech startups, à la Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” (a clause no longer included in the company’s code of conduct, by the way), Sorry to Bother You is every bit the follow-up, showing rampant techno-capitalism as a caustic agent destroying everything but the wealthiest parts of Palo Alto. This is it, The Social Network’s darkest-timeline sequel in that it posits that Mark Zuckerberg, after a few minutes of refreshing his Facebook page waiting for a girl to validate his pathetic hetero-male ego, stood up and decided to forget the warmth of human contact, he would make Facebook so entrenched in every facet of everyday life that nobody would dare tell him what to do or what data not to sell or which people not to exploit--the future is not, to quote another Detroit slogan, female ejaculation; the future is a world in which the richest companies on the earth--the tech companies--have become both so morally bankrupt and so necessary to modern life that virtually every one of our everyday decisions is a deal with a digital Mephistopheles, who both engineers whatever standard of living we’re calling “livable” while at the same time turning it into a pyramid scheme propped up by slavery.
But what are you going to do? The old institutions are dead and dying (unless they’ve been bought by Jeff Bezos), and they were corrupt anyway. The Murdochs are no friends of mine. I wrote this piece in a Google Docs tab open on a Google Chrome browser, because what else am I going to do? Use Microsoft Office? As if Microsoft isn’t itself a reprehensible company. OpenOffice? As if “information wants to be free” hasn’t wreaked all kinds of havoc on the spread of real information. Do I want affordable housing in Seattle? I guess I should stop buying things on Amazon--or should I? Won’t Amazon just lay people off if its revenue shrinks, and then where will we be? “The market will correct” is just a funny way to pronounce “homelessness.” Sorry to Bother You is astoundingly bleak, but it’s a bleakness that never loses sight of the moral imperative of its message. It’s a movie that simultaneously says, “Things don’t change” and “Thing must change”--to quote another of this year’s parade of searing cinematic social critiques: wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time. They don’t change, but they must--Sorry to Bother You is as wise as it is vitriolic.
So what can I do? The only thing Sorry to Bother You gives me: flip a middle finger at Jeff Bezos and the turtle-necked effigy of Steve Jobs I plan on burning when my iPod Classic finally kicks the bucket; laugh at the bitter, inane hilarity of the modern world’s injustice as I exercise my collective bargaining rights such as they are, until I’m homeless and the private security corps officer comes to beat in my skull, or I turn into a horse man with glistening, bulging biceps with which I can punch back and join the equisapian revolution. Whichever happens first.