sorry to bother you

‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a Capitalist Success Story

in Culture by

THE ARTIST IS A CAPITALIST. I believe this — or, more accurately, I believe: a good artist is a capitalist. Here’s what I mean by that: a good artist, one worth not only studying but robbing, is a highly competitive individual with a substantial ego.(suicidal self-deprecation notwithstanding) 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.” Oscar Wilde says, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” Marxism and its political variants are unkind to the individual, namely the competitive individual, whereas a successful artist in America is inherently indebted to capitalism — even if said artist strongly identifies as an anti-capitalist activist, as many artists do.

E.g., as Boots Riley, the successful writer-director of Sorry to Bother You, does.

AMERICAN VULGARIA spoiler warning

Sorry to Bother You is an anti-capitalist indie film and a capitalist success. The film stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get OutSelma) 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 CrossI used to argue that Dave Chappelle had the best comedic “white voice” but that’s never been true. The obvious answer is obvious: David Cross.
). What follows is a quick ascension through the telemarketing ranks, 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.

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.

It’s fucked up, it’s fun, and, sure: “Everyone is talking about it!”

Tessa Thompson murder kill earrings
Tessa Thompson plays Detroit, an activist-slash-artist / Annapurna Pictures

Because of its overt Marxist ethos, Sorry to Bother You stutters by its own success. It’s a similar problem Ta-Nehisi Coates faced when his remarkably anti-white Between the World and Me garnered near-unanimous praise from white liberals. In Eileen Jones’ “‘Crazy’ Anticapitalism”, an analysis/review on Sorry to Bother You published in left-wing magazine Jacobin, she writes:

“This socialist-must-see indie film is earning so much money and critical acclaim that the press is all over Riley — including one of those reverent profile pieces in the New York Times that lets us know there’s a new star in the heavens.”

[Jacobin]

Read that again: “This socialist-must-see indie film is earning so much money…”

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 — i.e., his capital value. Even the phrase “a new star in the heavens” reveals Jones’ contradictory penchant for personality; the pop cultural fascination with the famed celebrity — which contradicts the socialist’s devaluation of the individual. (As such, the socialist celebrity is a role ripe with self-contradiction.)

Jones’ incoherent praise frames the bizarro socialism-via-capitalism picture that Sorry to Bother You paints. It’s a paradox I don’t question sarcastically: How do you — can you — value anti-capitalist art in America without delegitimizing it? And also: Why does anti-capitalist art thrive so well in a capitalist country?

In his research on art under capitalism, Stephen Hicks notes three observations (paraphrased as such):

  1. Artists, art genres, art materials, etc. have proliferated over the past century, as have the amount of money people spend on art.
  2. The past century has been relatively capitalism-and-business friendly.
  3. 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. It’s a somewhat startling paradox: 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 activists as profitable consumers. If America’s supposed social activists actually practiced what they preached, they’d lose their best means of preaching. And so, too, would American capitalism lose a significant chunk of capital: its anti-capitalist art.

As an anti-capitalist film, Sorry to Bother is worth the money. It’s clever, 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 is gorgeous: its colorful, funkadelic style simultaneously beckons and goads the viewer, like neon-lit graffiti. Stylistically, the film’s logic-breaking action matches the film’s transgressive, subversive message. Its cartoonish mode of surrealism treats the literal as symbolic: 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 location, a metaphor for the telemarketer’s invasion of privacy. It’s Kafka meets magical realism meets Afro-surrealism. 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’ protests.

Omari Hardwick as Mr. Blank
Omari Hardwick as “Power Caller” Mr. Blank / Annapurna Pictures

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 shocking third act twist — half-human, half-horse hybrids!? — generates enough WTF!  for Boots Riley to misdirect the audience as he redirects the narrative. With this, the plot abandons suddenly irrelevant character beefs as the workers — horse-humans included — unite to topple those evil, money-grubbing CEOs. This redirection not only weakens the story, it cheaply subordinates the film’s art to the director’s activism.

Yet, this has a contrary market effect: anti-capitalist consumers spend money to consume Boots Riley’s anti-capitalist message. On the bigger picture framing the silver screen, we see the success of Sorry to Bother You condensing the cash-flow of many into the hands of the few via a free market exchange.

With that, I join the socialist-must-read magazines in their applause.

Post-Script

The hypocritical tension between American activism and art grates, and much more to the latter’s demise than the former’s. If you’re paying attention, you can feel this tension in Sorry to Bother You — an otherwise bold, fun, risky debut film that castrates its full artistic potential for a contrived, childish, fuck-the-guy-who-pays-me activism. None of which delegitimizes the liberal’s valid push for humane worker conditions. But as the socialist George Orwell discovered: hatred for the rich does not equal love for the poor.

Boots Riley did not topple any evil, money-grubbing CEOs. He never killed his landlord. He does not represent “working-class” citizens.

Boots Riley dropped out of film school to create art. He made music, he wrote a screenplay, he directed a movie. With his unique artistic vision, Boots Riley proved himself a talented artist — and by his artistic merit Boots Riley, the individual, garnered substantial wealth and fame. It’s a classic capitalist success story; one that ends with Boots Riley, the anti-capitalist artist, comfortably sitting atop his anti-capitalist gold, while U.C. Berkeley chows down on his massive Marxist horse-cock in the name of taking down “The Man” — or something.

But yeah so anyways: I rate Sorry to Bother You a four out of five stars.


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Alexander Blum
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Alexander Blum

Very good piece – the contradiction of the anti-capitalist artist is that their ultimate function is to accrue capital and be exalted above others…

Laddie Lemons
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Laddie Lemons

Another piece whose argument boils down to “how can u be a communist if u make money lol???”. BOOORIIING.

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