SEEMINGLY, ONLY IN CAPITALIST AMERICA does anyone continue to view art as an effective means of moral or political protest — of “raging against the machine.” The problem with this is that all art, or at least all modern art in America, high and low (in this article, we’re dealing with the low), is easily commodified by the “machine” — i.e. capitalism. Yesterday’s punk rock anthem is the soundtrack to tomorrow’s car insurance ads. Big-budgeted films on revolution and class conflict win gilded awards at big-budgeted award ceremonies attended by the upper-class. Isn’t this the lesson taught by the success of Duchamp’s urinal “fountain”?
Did no one tell Tom Morello that the machine is fueled by rage!?
To Boots Riley, the first-time writer and director of Sorry to Bother You (2018), to “rage against the machine” is to rage against capitalism. And, yet, as Camille Paglia says, “Capitalist and artist are parallel types: the artist is just as amoral and acquisitive as the capitalist, and just as hostile to competitors.” Because I agree with Paglia, much of what follows from here on out is essentially a long-winded accusation of hypocrisy towards a film that I otherwise enjoyed watching. It’s also perhaps worth noting that I also agree with many of the *points* expressed in Boots’ film (yes, I, too, prioritize human dignity over corporate interests); but that this film treats itself seriously as a work of anti-capitalist protest is annoying, not to mention counter-productive — like shrink-wrapping a book on the eco-dangers of plastic …in plastic. (The book is titled F**k Plastic: 101 Ways to Free Yourself from Plastic and Save the World. Look it up.)
As a protest film, Sorry to Bother You is enjoyable but not *eye-openly* bothersome, as the title promises, however tongue-in-cheek. Plus, let’s not fool ourselves here: today’s predominantly liberal film critics are bothered more by the simple, screwball antics of an Adam Sandler comedy than by the pedantically “woke” gestures of socially conscious corporate entertainment, despite the inherent hypocrisy of the latter. By satirizing the screwball antics of American capitalism, Sorry to Bother You does the typical hipster thing of secretly unironically enjoying American entertainment while outwardly feigning an ironic distance from the subject matter, allowing us to simultaneously participate in and self-exonerate from the cardinal sin of simply, moronically “having fun.” As an ironic gesture that requires no genuine ethical commitment, satire has become the American Marxist’s strategy to enjoy the spoils of capitalism guilt-free.
Exhibit A: Sorry to Bother You.
Sorry to Bother You is a “socialist-must-see” indie film that “is earning so much money and critical acclaim,” as phrased by the socialist magazine Jacobin. The film stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) as Cassius Green — Cash Green, baby — a down-on-life Oaklander who desperately needs a job to forestall eviction from his uncle’s garage. An existential lack of purpose and self-worth lead Green to work as a telemarketer for no hourly pay. For a humiliating, brief bit of screen-time, Green meekly subsists on commission-only payments, until he realizes he has a gift: a convincingly happy-go-lucky “white voice” (dubbed over by actor David Cross). What follows is a quick ascension through the telemarketing ranks at RegelView, much to the chagrin of his low-ranking coworkers, who organize a union protest for better pay, and his activist-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who resents Green’s “morally emaciating” high-paying “Power Caller” position that assists in the sale of arms and slave labor for the corporation WorryFree.
At its bare bones, Sorry to Bother You is a We’re Not Gonna Take It! story, but with a twist: Cassius Green does take it, and he takes it all the way to the top, where the movie’s jumbled third act spirals into horrific, horsey, sci-fi dystopia.
Because of its overt Marxist ethos, Sorry to Bother You stutters by its own success. The critics praising this film only worsen its stature as a genuine article of protest. In Eileen Jones’ “‘Crazy’ Anticapitalism,” an analysis/review on Sorry to Bother You published in Jacobin, she writes:
There’s no broader context to this glowing appraisal. Eileen Jones, a film professor at U.C. Berkeley, earnestly measures Boots Riley’s success by his earned wealth and fame. Even the phrase “a new star in the heavens” reveals Jones’ contradictory penchant for personality; the pop cultural fascination with the rags-to-riches celebrity, a key villain in the Marxist’s hostility towards “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” individualism.
Jones’ self-unaware praise frames the bizarro socialism-via-capitalism picture that Sorry to Bother You paints. Granted, Sorry to Bother You isn’t exactly a monumental blockbuster achievement, nor is it monumentally good enough to really deserve such scrutiny — both Jones’ and mine. I feel I’m somewhat blowing my load on an otherwise mid-level neoliberal film. But whatever — I’m still taking this opportunity to ask the BIG PICTURE question here: How do you — can you — value anti-capitalist art in America without delegitimizing it? And also: Why does anti-capitalist art thrive so well under capitalism?
In his writings on art under capitalism, Stephen Hicks notes three observations (paraphrased as such):
- Artists, art genres, art materials, etc. have proliferated over the past century, as have the amount of money people spend on art.
- The past century has been exceptionally pro-capitalist, pro-business.
- Most artists are anti-capitalist or anti-business.
The final observation highlights the strained dynamic between art and capitalism, wherein anti-capitalist art rampantly expands via rampantly successful capitalism. In this configuration, anti-capitalist populism becomes a corporate marketing strategy; the social justice credo of “normalizing the margins” functionally translates to “broadening our target demographics.” This offers a mechanistic view on the spiritual hollowness of neoliberalism, which sustains consumerism by rebranding art/entertainment as pure articles of “wokeness,” thereby amplifying the free market feasibility of aired resentment towards the free market.If the infamous Kylie Jenner Pepsi ad did anything other than piss everyone off, it revealed that corporate America views social activism as the current consumer zeitgeist. If America’s supposed social activists actually practiced what they preached, they’d lose their best means of preaching. And so, too, would American neoliberalism lose a significant chunk of capital: its anti-capitalist art.
As an anti-capitalist film, Sorry to Bother does offer to a genuinely fun take on protest cinema. It’s clever, colorful, well-produced, well-acted, and well-directed — an impressive feat from first-time director Boots Riley, who’s better known as the frontman of communist rap group The Coup. Aesthetically, Sorry to Bother You has a unique, consistent personality: from the makeshift garage-bedroom, Cash’s bottom-level starting point, to the gilded halls of the Power Caller suites, Sorry to Bother You matches its theme of protest with an off-kilter funkadelic style that simultaneously beckons and goads the viewer, like neon-lit graffiti. Editing-wise, the film’s logic-breaking action matches the film’s transgressive, subversive message. Its cartoonish surrealism breaks the laws and structures of Newtonian reality, envisioning the literal in symbolic dimensions: the film literally dubs a white voice over Cassius Green to symbolize his “white voice”; telemarketing calls physically transport the caller to the receiver’s home living room, a visual metonymy for the invasive forces of advertising. It’s Kafka meets Afro-surrealism meets (eventually) sci-fi horror. With this genre hybrid, Sorry to Bother You creatively rule-bends the standards of popular cinema, stoking an energy of revolt that manifests plot-wise in the on-screen workers’ union protest — and, eventually, violent revolt.
But by the third act, Sorry to Bother You sacrifices its artistic momentum for the activist’s rally-cry. Ultimately, Boots Riley needs the activists to win more than he needs a cohesive film, even if the established character motives and entanglements don’t totally align with a “Workers, Rise Up!” ending. The third act shock-twist — half-human, half-horse hybrids!? — generates enough WTF! for Boots Riley to misdirect the audience as he redirects the narrative towards a cheaply satisfying ending. With this, the plot abandons a suddenly irrelevant character beef, involving an affair between Cash’s girlfriend Detroit and the protest leader (Squeeze, played by Steven Yuen), as the workers — horse-human “equisapiens” included — unite to topple the cocaine-snorting CEO (Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer) who’s suddenly the center of all their problems. Cassius Green’s unresolved personal problems give way to the film’s latent “The Personal is the Political” ethos before finally asserting, with the emergence of CEO Steve Lift, that the political is personal. In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), the unnamed narrator overcomes his “invisibility” — from people failing to see past his skin color — by rejecting all externally imposed identities. In Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green remains a tool throughout the entire screen-time — a tool used by RegelView, by WorryFree, by his girlfriend, by the media, by his unionizing coworkers. That Cassius Green doesn’t eventually tell everyone around him to go fuck themselves by the third act is a fault in his character, despite the inherent likability of Lakeith Stanfield.
This all isn’t to say that the subjects of Boots Riley’s protest are illegitimate. Corporate capitalist America is loudly killing the soul in many ways that Sorry to Bother You addresses: the surging feudalism of American rent economy (as satirized by the prison-like WorryFree housing), the default racism of “normalizing the margins” (all raciolinguistics must code-switch and conform to a nasally, WASPy “white American” dialect to achieve professional success), the transhumanist experiments on the public by Big Pharma (Sorry to Bother You doesn’t exactly go into “Big Pharma” territory, but the critique is there in the drug-induced “equisapien” plot point), etc., etc. These are legitimate causes for protest.
Yet, even so, by choosing this medium for his message, however impressively low-budgeted, Boots Riley has simultaneously denigrated his art to his activism and his activism to the inactivities of art. As such, Boots Riley’s art is not an effective protest but rather a limply symbolic gesture of protest — and a gesture that, like all symbolic gestures of protest in the social media age (to Boots’ credit, he wrote this screenplay before all the #Resistance shenanigans), has already been mediated and monetized by the power structures it seeks to resist. Regardless, Sorry to Bother You is a decent film, but there’s nothing groundbreaking here in terms of both art or propaganda.