How do you even begin to satirize the times we’re currently living through? Our high school teachers, thinking us slow-witted, always made sure to explain that Jonathan Swift didn’t really want the Irish to consume their babies. But it wasn’t always made quite as clear that the British kept the Irish so impoverished — and regarded them as sufficiently subhuman — that if the David Brooks or Bari Weiss of the era had seriously made the suggestion, it might have raised an eyebrow, but no one would have been entirely shocked.
That’s why the satire worked. Swift’s A Modest Proposal pushed reality just past the point of plausible horror, but not much further. Roger Ebert famously lambasted Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, a story about minstrelsy becoming a contemporary ratings smash. The critic found it too far-fetched that blackface, of all things, would be the site of racial contestation. I imagine that if Ebert were alive today, he would concede (between fits of abject horror) that, in fact, Lee was prescient and maybe didn’t go far enough.
And so as we careen toward corporate fascism on a white-hot toboggan slicked with bacon grease, one might wonder exactly how to concoct a satire that won’t be invalidated by tomorrow’s next unhinged POTUS tweet. Oakland, Calif., artist Boots Riley, best known as the creative force behind the indie hip-hop consortium The Coup, has gone back to basics. It’s the economy, stupid — the black folks twirling signs on the street corner, struggling to make rent and occasionally having to face moral choices about just what lengths they’ll go to in order to get paid.
Sorry to Bother You follows the plight of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, also of Get Out and Donald Glover’s Atlanta), a guy who’s unemployed, driving a clunker with a perpetually smoking engine and living in the garage of an uncle (Terry Crews) who’s about to be evicted. Taking a cue from his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who sign-twirls on the side, “Cash” gets a job as a telemarketer. You yourself may have no experience in telemarketing, but you certainly have experience with telemarketing, so you can imagine just how well it goes for Cash. At first, he’s the guy you’ve hung up on a hundred times. But then a helpful old pro (Danny Glover) gives him The Secret: “Use your white voice.” (Cash’s white voice is helpfully dubbed in by David Cross.) Not only does Cash start making sale after sale — the mysterious world of the “power caller” also opens up before him, and quicker than you can say “Eyes Wide Shut,” Cash is ushered into the corridors of international (read: white) power.
Does Riley “go too far”? The main product being sold in the film — no spoiler here, it’s divulged fairly quickly — is slavery. First-world Americans are signing up for a labor force that covers room and board but demands a lifetime contract. This is only a small step beyond the prison-industrial complex, with inmates subcontracted out by private prisons for assembly work or … telemarketing. And if in the end, Sorry to Bother You’s brave new workforce turns out to be, well, something both more and less than human, consider it in terms of the dehumanization of international factory labor, people working in sub-sweatshop conditions, as if they themselves were extensions of their machines.
Yes, heady stuff. But I fear I may be making Sorry to Bother You sound like a drag, and it’s anything but. It’s a comedy with a lot on its mind, to be sure. But what Riley has accomplished with this film is notable because of all the ways it could fall flat but doesn’t. (Just think of the flaccid political comedy that SNL peddles on a weekly basis.) We are living in a historical moment that is, quite frankly, unbelievable — it seems more and more that life is simply beyond satire. Boots Riley begs to differ.
To disrupt the tidal wave of crap that crashes around us daily, we need to reach down deep into ourselves and find our black voice.