“Sorry to Bother You,” Art, Activism, and Oakland
Rapper Boots Riley’s directorial debut is a love letter to a late-capitalist battleground.
Warning: This article contains some mild spoilers for “Sorry to Bother You.”
In the first installment in our three-part series about Oakland on-screen, we discussed how the East Bay city bookends the main action of Black Panther, and proves crucial to the origin myth to its villain, Erik Killmonger. In this follow-up, we look at how the same place is used as the setting for Sorry to Bother You, a recent release that’s getting lots of well-earned buzz.
An offbeat masterpiece of darkly-comic-surrealist-dystopian-sci-fi-anti-capitalist-agit-prop, Sorry to Bother You follows the climb of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) through the ranks of a telemarketing agency, against a background of labor disputes, corporate oligarchy, police brutality, economic anxiety, and his own existential dread. Motivated by both the material urge to provide for himself and his family and the urge to excel at or be remembered for something, his ambitions take him (in a tricked-out elevator, no less) to the pinnacle of Silicon Valley’s greed and hubris.
Like Black Panther director Ryan B. Coogler, Sorry to Bother You writer-director Boots Riley has deep roots in Oakland. He has been active in political causes there since he was a teenager, often using hip-hop (he’s one-half of legendary Oakland duo The Coup) as a way to get his message out to the masses, especially young voters. He’s pushed back against increased neighborhood policing, the criminalization of youth, and gentrifying “no cruising” ordinances. And with song titles like “Kill My Landlord” and “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.,” he isn’t exactly shy about his anti-capitalist views. Sorry to Bother You is nothing if not a treatise, delivered by Riley through Cash, on what he’s learned in his years of art-making and community organizing.
In a recent A.V. Club interview, Riley and some of the cast waxed enthusiastic about the process of filming Sorry to Bother You on location, and all present emphasized how welcomed the project was by the people of the city, and how Riley’s community supported the production on many, many levels. “Being in Oakland is more true to my creative process,” Riley said of why he continues to live there, instead of moving to say, Los Angeles, as his film career has taken flight. But he is also quick to point out that the setting of Sorry to Bother You “is not necessarily Oakland as it really is; it’s some other Oakland.”
The further that Cash gets from this version of Oakland—eventually renting a very posh San Francisco apartment that will have anyone familiar with the region’s real estate market swooning—the further he gets from his relationships. His world becomes less vibrant and more isolated and lonely, and the so-called “white voice” he has cultivated as a success strategy begins to take over. Part of Sorry to Bother You’s strength is in how it conflates political and personal dynamics—for example, Cash’s ambivalence toward labor organizing in his workplace has very real consequences in his personal life. This dynamic must have been inspired by the filmmaker’s own relationship to the city and his commitment to making art an extension of his life, and thus an extension of his politics.
In a movie that seems to overspill the frame, at times, with its abundance of visual references and flourishes, it would be easy to miss one of the billboards in Cash’s neighborhood, seen first as an ad for WorryFree, the benevolent corporate overlords (and definitely not profit-over-people-driven slave peddlers, no way) that are his telemarketing company’s biggest clients, then seen again as defaced and re-made into a piece of protest art, complete with a new slogan about personal expression and freedom. Its time on-screen is brief in both instances, but the altered version appears to reference the very same iconic photo of Black Panther Party co-founder (and Oaklandian) Huey P. Newton recalled by the scenes of T’Challa, and then Killmonger, on the Wakandan throne in Black Panther. It’s both a nod to the city’s revolutionary roots and a powerful act of reclamation, of flipping the script instead of code-switching or assimilating.
That billboard is seen for a third and final time when Cash attends a party at the home of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Lift has had it taken down and brought in to adorn his wall as an ironic, edgy objet d’art—a move we’d call “Shkreli-an”, if Riley’s script hadn’t come along first. For Lift, Oakland, or “Oaktown”, as he calls it, is a place to plunder. Everything, from its graffitied ads (and the creative energy it took to make them) to its populace (including Cash’s uncle and landlord, Serge) is a resource to be mined. This parallels the artistic investigations of Cash’s radical fiancé, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) into capitalism’s dependence on slave labor from the African continent, Big Tech’s dependence on coltan (a mineral found in all smart phones and other tech) from the Congo, and our dependence on Big Tech and techno-capitalism.
The punchline of Lift co-opting the billboard (which may have been altered by Detroit herself) for his own amusement is but one cynical moment in a movie that drips with deliciously piquant cynicism, but it’s a telling one nonetheless, and one that reinforces the movie’s message that revolution takes time, commitment, and many, many battles with forces that will attempt to both brutally repress “the struggle”...and colonize it for profit. Throw a soda can at a scab crossing the picket line, and the soda company will try to hire you for their commercials. In other words, if you can’t beat them, compromise them—with money! Speaking of compromising, it’s now a matter of record that the FBI, as part of COINTELPRO, infiltrated the Black Panther Party many times as a means of exerting control, sowing discord within the ranks, and attempting to influence the movement. If this sounds eerily familiar to the plan Lift has for Cassius at WorryFree, that’s because it’s likely not a coincidence: Boots Riley worked to free Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther party member who was imprisoned based on one such informant’s testimony.
Like Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You (before the more shocking coda, that is) brings us back to the same Oakland block where the story began, and ends on a note of uncertainty or, perhaps more accurately, ambivalence. Both movies seem to conclude by saying, “The future is up for grabs.” In each case, Oakland is framed as the site where this uncertainty will play out, or rather, continue to play out. The difference is, because of movies like Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, and now Blindspotting, the world is watching—and appreciating—the city of Oakland like it never has before. Will that inevitably cause an influx of predatory interests, a spike in gentrification, and heightened surveillance and policing? Riley would suggest that yes, it will. The good news is, he’s also laid out a blueprint on how to respond.
Stay tuned for the final installment of our series, which focuses on depictions of Oakland in the movie “Blindspotting.” Until then, channel the corporate dystopianism of “Sorry to Bother You” with “Job Interview” and “Fear and Trembling,” now streaming on Fandor! And for more on the movies in this series, don’t miss our article on “Black Panther” and Hollywood’s Mythic Creation of a Continent and our video on “Black Panther’s” spiritual cinematic predecessor, “Blade.”