TRENCHANT. FUNNY. BIZARRE
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, in what must be a break-out role for him), which is pronounced cash is green is a Black, easy-going down-on-his-heels slacker. He needs to get a job, partly to pay off his accumulated rents to his uncle (in whose garage he lives) and to justify the love of his partner (Tessa Thompson). His desperation is the catalyst for him to try to out for a job at a call-centre. This he does with a counterfeit trophy and a fabricated story as his resumés. The manager easily sees thru his BS. But, to the manager, this shows chutzpah.
And that’s all that’s needed: BS and fabrication.
But Cassius is lousy at the job…until he’s offered some timely advice from a grizzled ‘old timer’, (Danny Glover): “Speak in your White voice” he is told. And he discovers he’s superb at this mimicry of White speak. After all, it’s just another kind of counterfeiting. And so, to his cold-called listeners on the phone, the voice they hear is no longer that of an unsure Black (i.e “not to be trusted”) man, but that of a confident, preppy, believable White confidant. He may be selling merchandise, but his real success lies in offering his customers an ideal they can buy into…an ideal of stereotypical aspiration.
By changing identity, he changes his life: from impoverished loser to rich winner; from hesitancy to confidence. So it goes as you shape-shift from Black to White. This is broad, hammer-on-the-head satire (and so far, somewhat reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman). It’s wonderfully well done. Stanfield’s dead-pan, WTF demeanor is as pitch-perfect as his (cleverly dubbed-in) White voice.
The point is black and white clear: if a Black person is to get on in the White world (in this case, a future dystopian world), he’s got to remove as many traces of his Black identity as possible. (The writer has a field day here with pointed barbs at cross-overs, Will Smith and Denzel Washington). In a world that’s all about the money, White is the only way forward.
At what point however does the fake identity (which delivers the riches) begin to threaten the real identity? Is it possible to bridge the two worlds, not merely of White and Black, but of rich and poor; of managers and mere employees; and more acutely of the dishonest and the authentic?
There’s more to it than that. And almost as if the (newcomer) writer/director Boots Riley is imitating his apologetic cold caller, “Sorry to bother you…” there are deeper issues he must speak of. It’s really all about the money.
For even as Cassius is climbing the corporate ladder with his voice recognition con and an increasing self-centredness (The Whiter he identifies, the more estranged he becomes from his friends and his ecosystem), his partner and call-centre colleagues are fighting for the basics of a living wage, for greater income equality, for an end to the approaching apocalypse of slavery. The story suggests that there is a threat to identity even deeper than that of race. In this future world, an Amazon type fulfilment-centre seeks to institute the ultimate capitalist dream: unpaid labour exchanged for free board and lodge (i.e slavery).
This is no mere loss of identity, it’s a loss of humanity.
It is at his supreme moment of triumph, when in a glittering Wolf of Wall Street type party, complete with sex drugs, and rock ‘n roll, that Cassius realises just how little he matters, despite all the money he’s made. To the ruling class of gorgeous White women ‘cheering’ his success, he has no real identity. He’s nothing more than their stereotypical idea of the Black man: the performer with a penis like a horse and an intuitive knowledge of how to “bust a cap” and sing hip hop. “Nigga, nigga, nigga” he shouts (much to their delight).
And here, at the centre of the movie, with the realisation that to the White world, he is no more than Eldridge Cleaver’s “super-masculine menial”, the movie’s tone does an about turn. The story shifts from satire to surrealism.
I won’t give away what happens next, but the story becomes a dramatisation of the shift from the (cosy) belief that you have some control over your identity (and can simply create a fake one to get on in life) to the realisation that you’ve been suckered; that the only real empowerment comes perhaps from the overthrow of the whole damn status quo.
Arnie Hammer is the attractive master of all things, the dark status quo, the Jeff Besos of a post-racial, post-human future that is siren calling us all to a new slavery.
What starts with laughter ends with tears
It’s Christmas time. You’d better watch out
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. Dir: Boots Riley. With: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson (Creed II, Westworld), Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover, Steven Yuan, Armie Hammer. Cinematographer: Doug Emmett