This summer, a film written and directed by Boots Riley, of the Oakland-based rap group The Coup, surprised many with its box office success in the United States. Sharing its title with a concurrently-written 2012 Coup album, Sorry to Bother You stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) as protagonist Cassius ‘Cash’ Green, and Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Selma) as Cash’s girlfriend, Detroit.
The film explores the life of black youth in the post-industrial cities of the American west. Much like the vastly different films of a generation earlier, such as Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society, or the historical drama Fruitvale Station, Riley’s film captures the particular contradictions of black life in California. There are no acts of extreme fratricidal violence, nor is black life defined by exceptional moments of police terror in the film, though the latter features. Instead, focus rests on millennials Cash and Detroit as they struggle with unemployment, underemployment and meaningless work.
Riley’s film offers a radical intersectional analysis of the alienation of black labour and black bodies under neoliberalism. It opens with Cash, unemployed and facing homelessness, taking a job at telemarketing firm RegalView. Detroit, a skilled visual artist, has been reduced to working as a sign twirler, using her body to promote corporate interests on East Bay street corners. Riley challenges the division between traditional notions of respectable proletarian labour and the deviancy of the lumpenproletariat by showing how the shameless skills Cash learns as a telemarketer elevate him to the highest corporate level, and by discerning parallels between the body politics of Detroit’s sign twirling and sex work. From that point on, the plot unfolds in surprising directions, drawing on influences from Frantz Fanon to the Black Panther Party to reveal the contradictions of neoliberalism.
Similar to other recent surprise hits Get Out, from Jordan Peele, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Riley’s film builds on a history of black radical filmmaking that most recently recalls various 1970s genres but that also reaches back towards the early 20th-century tradition of ‘race films’. Its departure from the social realist/horror of Get Out and the Afrofuturism of Black Panther are notable, however, and result from the revolutionary communist worldview of Riley, whose activism preceded his career as a cultural worker.
The film has been described by some liberal American film critics as a dark comedy or an ‘absurdist’ film. Absurdist works of art are often defined by the inability of their main characters to find purpose or meaning in life. In that sense, the 1999 comedy Office Space counts as an absurdist film about labour. Sorry… takes a different track. It is best placed in the tradition of black revolutionary cultural work that Amiri Baraka titled ‘Afro-surrealism’, and that radical scholar Robin Kelley labelled ‘freedom dreaming’.
In his seminal work of cultural history, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Kelley articulates the centrality of cultural work to black liberation struggles. After charting his personal journey through black nationalist and organised socialist spaces, he draws inspiration from Aimé Césaire’s essay ‘Poetry and Knowledge’, settling on surrealism as the most radical of social movements.
Departing from social realism and orthodox Marxist political culture, Kelley writes that ‘progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine something different, to realise that things need not always be this way’. Poetic knowledge, or freedom dreams, Kelley concludes, ‘is not what we simply recognise as the formal “poem”, but a revolt: a scream in the night, an emancipation from old ways of thinking’.
Sorry… is arguably the most significant form of freedom dreaming to circulate in mass production and is in many ways a blueprint for black internationalist rebellion. It does not only display the absurdity of black life, but also presents the way forward: the unity of black people across class and gender lines, the rejection of the trappings of Eurocentrism, and internationalist cross-racial solidarity of workers. Here, Riley’s political programme reflects the writings of Afro-Trinidadian historian C L R James, whose 1938 books The Black Jacobins and A History of Pan-African Revolt are among the most important works of radical history.
For James, all people who capitalism seeks to exploit are members of the working class, and class struggle accordingly takes many forms, including cultural movements, the promise of the universal emancipation of Christian millenarianism, labour struggles and armed rebellion. James redefined radical notions of the working class and class struggle while correcting the long-standing exclusion of African people from Marxist theory. Like James, Riley abandons orthodox perceptions of class struggle in his chronicle of the labour struggles of his characters Cash and Detroit.
It is an unexpected perspective to find in a blockbuster film, but one that is consistent with Riley’s work and upbringing. The son of Black Power activist and civil rights attorney Walter Riley, Boots was raised in a highly politically active family. As a child, he moved through the most advanced cities of African-American radical thought, Detroit and Oakland. As a teen in the mid-1980s, he joined the Progressive Labor Party and the International Committee Against Racism (InCAR). He is a self-declared communist and was formerly a member of the Teamster labour union and a United Postal Service worker.
Riley’s geographical shifts are evident in the political vision displayed in his film. Reflecting the politics of Detroit’s League of Black Revolutionary Workers and Oakland’s Black Panther Party, Sorry… calls for a revolutionary movement of international workers’ solidarity that the most oppressed will lead. It is an urgent call. In the California Bay area, where his film is set, the average annual black income is $40,000 – less than half the $110,000 average that white Americans earn. Riley shows that the Californian dream is, for black people, a nightmare – much as Chester Himes described over 70 years ago in his semi-autobiographical novel If He Hollers Let Him Go.
Riley presents two responses to poverty and workers oppression: neoliberal individualism and multi-racial workers’ solidarity. Cash ascends to the top of the corporate structure by utilising his ‘white voice’ to negotiate neo-slave labour deals and weapons sales for corporate giant WorryFree. He earns enough money to save his uncle’s house from foreclosure, and to purchase a sports car and expensive loft apartment. Meanwhile, his multi-racial co-workers organise a wildcat strike demanding fair wages. For the protest to succeed, however, Cash must participate.
Other plot choices link the fight against gentrification and urban renewal to the neoliberal body politics of California’s culture industry. Riley evinces the alienation of black bodies under neoliberalism through the constant scrimmaging of Cash’s former high school football teammates and through the film’s final twist, which we won’t reveal but recalls the work of the late radical scholar Cedric Robinson.
Riley admits that the title of his film is a double-entendre, with ‘sorry to bother you’ signifying the subtle invasiveness of telemarketers as well as the film’s intended consciousness-raising message, which plays out at its end. Activated by his discovery of the truth, Cash attempts to alert the public. However, as the film notes, people presented with truths they are ill-equipped to challenge often consent to the new reality. For this reason, Cash – much like C L R James’ protagonist Toussaint L’Ouverture – abandons his life of privilege, organises people across class and ethnic divisions, and fights for collective struggle.
Importantly here, Riley shows the skills that underscored workers’ alienation being used for their liberation. Detroit becomes a radical graffiti artist, Cash’s public speaking rallies the masses, and – at the climactic showdown – the football players and an unexpected group provide the muscle necessary to defeat the police in armed struggle. While the RegalView workers achieve their goals of unionisation and better working conditions, Riley shows this as only the first step in liberation struggle. He concludes with the collective uprising of the most alienated of workers.
Although Sorry… has been well-received, like all great works of political imagination, its full effects have not yet been seen. After hearing Malcolm X speak for the first time, African-American poet Sonia Sanchez told him that she loved his words but did not agree with everything. Malcolm simply responded: ‘You will.’ The initial impact of Riley’s first film has been to promote support for unionisation, especially among youth of colour. As Sorry… is studied alongside the revolutionary black cultural works that preceded it, its true political promise will undoubtedly be recognised.