“Forestalling the Extinction of the Black Rhino”
Critics are rightfully singing the praises of Sorry to Bother You, the astonishing debut film of Boots Riley. Yet what is drawing people’s attention—the film’s plot about a young African-American man, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) joining a telemarketing company and being told to find his inner “white voice”—withholds the film’s astonishing second half, a frothy brew of intertextuality that roams from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). In Sorry to Bother You, Riley has produced an elegant Absurdist drama reconstructing Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959) to critique the insanity of living in Trump’s America.
Sorry to Bother You begins as a very funny satire of a world in which Jeff Bezos has become the richest person on the planet, all while Amazon’s workers must urinate into cardboard boxes to make their packing quotas. Riley’s film echoes both Michael Tolkin’s The New Age (1994), another bitter satire about telemarketing, and Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006), a science-fiction comedy about the stupidest people becoming the most powerful in society.
Cassius, nicknamed Cash, begins the film down on his luck. To get to his new job at the telemarketing company, he has to buy gas for his car, telling the station attendant to give him “40” on his pump. In the film’s funniest sight gag, he drops a quarter, a dime, and a nickel into the tray.
Cash proves terrible at selling via cold calls. A kindly elderly man, Langston (Danny Glover) explains to Cash that he must use his “white voice.” Cash tries, plugging his nose and doing a pretty good imitation of Richard Pryor parodying the way WASP-y rich people talk. However, Langston insists that this is still not going to enable him to be successful. Cash must find his true “inner” white voice. From this point onward, white comedians overdub the African-American actors whose characters are using their new-found voices. David Cross dubs Cash’s voice, while Patton Oswalt serves as the voice of Cash’s new mentor.
Using his white voice, Cash quickly gets promoted to “power caller,” relocating to the penthouse floor, now handling transactions for millions of dollars. Cash starts selling the workforce created by WorryFree, a company that enslaves people in exchange for never having to purchase food or shelter for the rest of their lives. One day, the CEO of WorryFree, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), a Steve Jobs run amok, invites Cash to a party. Shortly after sniffing cocaine with the executive, Cash excuses himself to go to the bathroom. Out of a stall falls a human being painfully morphing into a what Lift explains is an “equisapien.” Hobbled by the limitations of his workforce, Lift has invented a powder that, once inhaled, transforms humans into powerful beasts, half human and half horse.
Cash’s horrifying moment in the bathroom recreates one of the most traumatic in all of Walt Disney cinema; in Pinocchio, while on Pleasure Island, the ne’er-do-well Lampwick is transformed into a donkey such that he may be shipped to the salt mines to toil his life away, as punishment for his laziness as a bad little boy.
The reverberations between Sorry to Bother You and Pinocchio are forceful. After the financial failure of Pinocchio, Walt Disney brutally fought the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild, laying off its members, extracting work out of the remaining animators for as little cost as possible. Amidst Bezos’ company’s echoing of Disney’s poor labor practices, Sorry to Bother You revolves around Cash’s friends struggling to form a union of telemarketers. Cash realizes he has betrayed his friends by going to work for Lift only after his encounter with the terrors of WorryFree’s diabolical science experiments.
Sorry to Bother You charts the collapse of the animal/human boundary via a string of literary and film intertexts. The film echoes George Orwell: tired of the equisapiens’ howling in pain, Lift tells them to shut up or he will turn them into glue, the fate that awaits Boxer at the hands of the greedy pigs in Animal Farm.
As its capstone achievement, Sorry to Bother You reconstructs the post-World War II Absurdist drama, Rhinoceros. In Ionesco’s play, a drunken and slovenly Frenchman, Berenger finds himself in a world where at first quietly and then unmistakably, everyone in town turns into a rhinoceros. This is the powerful endgame of Boots Riley’s film: Cash becomes convinced that Lift has given him the equisapien powder, not cocaine.
It at first appears Lift is telling the truth: Cash leaves and reforms his life. He apologizes to his friends and assists in their fight for unionization and against WorryFree’s enslavement of people. He reunites with his girlfriend Detroit, returning to the garage in his uncle’s house where they lived together in poverty at the beginning of the film. However, when Cash accidentally bumps his nose, he turns around to reveal the beginning of his face’s transformation into that of an equisapien.
In the midst of the end credits, the film delivers its final maneuver, its strongest irony. In full revolt, the equisapiens break into Lift’s house to exact revenge. At the door, Cash apologizes, “sorry to bother you,” echoing his horrid life as a telemarketer, now radically directed at destroying the tech economy guru largely responsible for ending any chance at human dignity left for the workers of the world.
In new global circumstances, Sorry to Bother You rewrites the allegorical structure of Rhinoceros. For Ionesco, Berenger stands as a pathetic hero, trying desperately not to follow the herd of Fascists running rampant over his small European town. His final shout, “I’m not capitulating,” leaves us with doubts: Given that everyone else, including his best friend and his girlfriend, have succumbed to rhinoceritis, will Berenger be able to resist for much longer? Riley’s Berenger, the laconic, weed-smoking Cash, ends by embracing, not resisting, his transformation. It is his only tool for fighting back against the capitalist machine engulfing us all.
This inversion of Ionesco is driven by the two texts’ different forms of anti-Fascism. The 1959 play looks back upon a Europe already destroyed by its disastrous embrace of Right-wing politics. For his part, Riley’s film takes place amid the United States sinking into a Fascist state that a few years ago would have been unthinkable by all but the most cynical thinkers.
After having delivered the equisapien powder to Cash, Lift insists he watch his company’s new advertising campaign. For the commercial, Riley uses Claymation to highlight the benefits of WorryFree. Echoing Marshall McLuhan, Lift argues that human beings from the start have been enhanced by their evolutionary predilection for tool usage. We see monkeys inventing weapons to crack open the skulls of their rivals.
The sequence replicates the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which a monkey famously uses a bone as a deadly weapon, then tosses the object into the air, transformed into a space ship. Kubrick is America’s most misanthropic filmmaker: what scientists see as evolution, he sees, in critic Pauline Kael’s wonderful formulation, devolution.
For Kubrick, the future of humanity is apocalypse, as our use of more sophisticated tools will only allow our animal instincts to wreak more dangerous self-inflicted wounds on each other and our future. With Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley positions himself in the direct lineage of Stanley Kubrick, an auspicious a debut as that of any young American filmmaker in two generations.