The film Sorry To Bother You on the face of it explores the world of the underemployed working in call centres. However as Aranyo Aarjan writes, it has much to say about capitalism and the nature of workplace struggle
Note: this article contains extensive spoilers
Recent years have seen some of the least inspiring films pull in the megabucks often off the back of just one very good trailer or meme. Anyone remember Prometheus? Surely no one has forgotten Suicide Squad’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ trailer. The atrocious Bird Box is also still fresh on everyone’s minds. Yet every now and then, rarely in fact, there is an exception to the rule, and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is one of them.
Sorry To Bother You tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green, a young Black man in a fictionalised surreal version of Oakland, California, who gets a job in telemarketing and works his way up the corporate ladder, sacrificing his humanity, quite literally, along the way. The film is unapologetically Marxist at its core, overtly declaring in favour of a collective workplace struggle and direct action, as well as intersectional solidarity.
Given its politics then, it is a little surprising that a film such as this did so well in the US, with its historical aversion to socialism, and how unfavourably trade unions and organised labour are generally represented in American popular media.
On the other hand, it shouldn’t perhaps be so surprising, considering the recent resurgence of socialism in Trump’s America, as the grassroots popularity of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows, in addition to countless labour movements and strikes that have taken place over the past two years. This looks to be part of a broader global trend towards a rejection of the neoliberal consensus, and in that context, Sorry To Bother You is a most relevant film for our troubled times.
In its satire of our contemporary capitalist society Sorry To Bother You is nothing if not unsubtle, and that is precisely what makes it so effective at conveying its message. However, the subtlety it lacks in its portrayal of capitalism is more than compensated by the nuances in its astonishingly accurate depiction of life working in a call centre. And this is where the film really struck a chord with me personally.
“Call centres… are a perfect illustration of the way in which human labour is itself commoditised through easily quantifiable metrics like conversion, contacts per hour and time spent working. You are even symbolically chained to your work station by your headset”
A call centre is a strange place to work. I began working in one doing charity fundraising more than three and a half years ago as a side hustle while I was trying to get into the media world working at a TV news studio. It was originally intended as a part-time gig while I worked myself into my desired field, but before long the TV work dried up, and I was left phoning up pensioners for £2 a month direct debits as my main source of income.
When I first started the job, I was immediately struck by its anachronistic nature. In an era of smart phone apps and live video-assisted gym sessions direct to your bedroom, the idea of a stranger ringing you on your personal number, who attempts to summarise infinitely complex issues, in order to obtain bank details for a regular financial commitment, seems outdated. Yet somehow it survives, despite the many seismic shifts in the industry over the past few years, including the glorified hit-pieces courtesy of the Daily Mail in 2015, which triggered the closure of several call centres, and the introduction of GDPR last year.
In many ways, call centres are also a distilled embodiment of the nature of work life under capitalism. If the goal of a consumer capitalist society is to maximise the efficiency with which never-ending transactions between capital and commodity occur, call centres the boiler rooms which facilitate those transactions. However they are also a perfect illustration of the way in which human labour is itself commoditised through easily quantifiable metrics like conversion, contacts per hour and time spent working. You are even symbolically chained to your work station by your headset.
Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Sorry To Bother You
Despite their commonplace presence however, they are rarely depicted accurately, if at all, in popular media. And here, Sorry To Bother You gets the minutiae spot on. The film starts off with a scene in which Cash has brought a counterfeit Employee of the Month award and high school trophy to an interview for a job which, as his boss plainly states, isn’t exactly “mapping the human genome”. In fact, as he says, as long as he can read and has initiative, he’s hired. There is a recognisable look of both gratitude and relief on Cash’s face as he is given permission to subject himself to an ultimately menial task for the sake of self-preservation.
Our ability to participate as members of our consumer society is dependent on our ability to consume, which is in turn determined by our financial means. When you are unemployed, you are deprived of those means, and therefore also your sense of self-worth, through your exclusion from society. Therefore, Cash starts out as a man thoroughly submerged by his depression. He is living in his uncle’s garage unable to even pay the rent. Before leaving for his first day at the job, he tells his girlfriend that she can apply too, something anyone who has worked in the call centre has similarly said to a friend, given their revolving door recruitment practices. He arrives at his office and shown to his cubicle by his line manager, who tells him to not be lazy, and above all, to “stick to the script.”
Sorry To Bother You employs no shortage of heavy-handed visual metaphors. When Cash is on the phone, his desk is shown to drop directly into the presence of whomever he is calling, accentuating the invasive nature of the job. His manager also tells him that if he does well, he can get to be a “power caller” on the top floor, “where the callers are ballers, where they make the real money.” They even have their own literal golden elevator to the top. In any target-driven sales environment, as in many other workplaces, workers are given the carrot of making much more money for doing essentially the same job.
Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You
Even though charity fundraising isn’t ostensibly a sales job, for all intents and purposes, it is (although what is sold is hard to define; perhaps a temporary relief from guilt?), and I was told something similar when I started the job. For a while I was even doing well enough to be making a decent wage. However, this position can only be reserved for a select few “high-performers” for a company to be profitable, and ultimately it only serves as a means of alienating workers from one another and disincentivising collective workplace action because hey, if I get mine, why should I worry about what the next person makes? This is made clear in Sorry To Bother You when the workers all perform a disruption by putting their phones down to demand higher pay, and Cash is called aside into the office and promoted to Power Caller.
The film uses as a framing device the idea of the “white voice”. Here, “white voice” represents an inversion of the anxieties black and brown people face on a daily basis on the merit of arbitrary markers like skin colour and name. The first thing you say in a call is your name, and mine is certainly strange and foreign-sounding. My first name is pronounced aw-RON-no. A lot of middle England thinks my name is Oliver. Many have gone out of their way to complement my excellent English and assimilated-though-hard-to-place accent. Is it South African? Compare that to the experience of some Tom Smith or other.
The film reaches its climax when Cash is invited to the party of Steve Lift, CEO of WorryFree, a megacorporation that hires its employees on lifetime contracts (thus eliminating the need for wages of course), a discernable reference to the Amazons of this world. One of the problems capitalism always encounters in its quest to commoditise labour capacity is that it is always inseparable from its carrier, and therefore the human resistance to becoming commoditised.
So at the party, Cash inadvertently stumbles upon the horrific solution that Lift has arrived at to overcome this obstacle. Outraged, he takes it upon himself to profess this secret to the rest of the world, but ironically in doing so, WorryFree ends up skyrocketing in value, as the establishment, both red and blue, join hands to worship at the feet of Lift’s genius innovation.
“Trade unions in the West have seen their power drastically curtailed by four decades of neoliberal policy, and nowadays the nature of employment is radically different from the secure and permanent jobs of yesteryear“
The only avenue of action remaining for Cash at this point is to join his co-workers in striking against Regalview, his employer, enlisting the support of various parties we have encountered throughout the film. Even though the riot squad is brought in to break up the strike, they join forces to fight back. By the end of the film, Cash comes back to his garage, now refurbished, and the workers at Regalview have unionised. Direct action is therefore the only action.
Trade unions in the West have seen their power drastically curtailed by four decades of neoliberal policy, and nowadays the nature of employment is radically different from the secure and permanent jobs of yesteryear. We don’t have a union at my call centre, and barely anyone who works there is a member of an external union either. There was a ‘forum’ for fundraisers, where grievances are aired through a few representatives (I was one for a short while) to management, and most frequently nodded along to without any further action.
The thought of initiating collective workplace action is a daunting one, especially when faced with the prospect of being able to break out of the miserable minimum wage labour cycle through individual performance. However, what makes Sorry To Bother You a truly remarkable piece of work is that it somehow manages to capture the zeitgeist of the popular disaffection with capitalism and the need for labour movements and endows it with genuine hype. Can the tools of the status quo ever really be used to instigate its overthrow? Will any resistance inevitably be co-opted, commoditised, turned into a meme? I don’t know the answer to those questions. All I know is, as I left the theatre, I felt all hyped up to ring in the revolution.
Aranyo Aarjan is an Indian guy in London trying his best to not be a large millennial failson. He writes about politics and culture, but mostly about late-stage capitalism in one way or anotherFollow @aarjanistan