[Blackstudies-l] ‘Sorry to Bother You’: Boots Riley’s Trojan Horseplay (Review in the New York Review of Books by Namwali Serpell) - showing at the Little Theatre

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Mon Jul 23 11:47:56 EDT 2018

 ‘Sorry to Bother You’: Boots Riley’s Trojan Horseplay
Namwali Serpell <https://www.nybooks.com/contributors/namwali-serpell/>
Tessa Thompson as Detroit and Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Boots
Riley’s *Sorry to Bother You*, 2018

It’s a good time to be an Oreo
Back in the days when I was a teenager, the black kids in Baltimore threw
around that epithet with enviable ease. *Oreo!* Black on the outside, white
on the inside. It’s a blunt insult, too blunt for skintones better rendered
in shades of brown and a culture that deals in shade. The charge is
impossible to refute, though: the second you deny it, some aspect of your
denial becomes evidence for the claim, be it your nerdy recourse to logic
in the face of the dozens, your weak comeback that hints at
self-hatred—what’re you gonna do? Insult their *blackness *in turn?—or your
whiny accent, which is likely what prompted the jibe in the first place.
Simply to speak is to damn yourself. Woe unto you if you try to sound

Since the 1980s, sociologists and anthropologists have hijacked this
playful signifying within the black community to explain the academic
achievement gap, claiming that black students slack off because they equate
“being smart” with “acting white.” This research has since been debunked
Indeed, no one knows better than black people that acting white—putting on
the trappings of privilege, speaking as if you belong, as if you deserve to
take whatever you want—has always yielded dividends in America. How do you
think we got the Huxtables? (How do you think we got Bill Cosby?)

And now we have Donald Glover, who loves *Star Trek* and stars in *Star
Wars*; Issa Rae, who raps her awkward-black-girl insecurities into the
mirror and onto our screens; Michael B. Jordan, who stans
and co-produced and acted in *Fahrenheit 451*. One of the most successful
TV shows of late is Glover’s *Atlanta, *in which black culture’s internal
variety and entanglement with white culture is on beautiful display in
characters played by Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, Brian Tyree Henry, and
Zazie Beetz. And the biggest film of 2018 thus far is *Black Panther*, a
comic-book movie about an African kingdom whose claim to prominence is not
music or sports but a technology program run by a nerdy princess named
Shuri. We are solidly in The Era of the Oreo.

Acting white is the premise of Boots Riley’s raucous new film, *Sorry to
Bother You*. Cassius Green (Cash for short), played with lithe, febrile
grace by Stanfield, gets a job at an Oakland telemarketing company,
RegalView. After several customers hang up on him, Cash gets some advice
from a co-worker named Langston (played by OG Oreo Danny Glover): “Hey
young blood. Lemme give you a tip. Use your white voice.” Cash brushes him
off—people say he already talks with a white voice. Langston qualifies: no,
not like Will Smith, not just sounding nasal, no. To have a white voice is
to sound breezy, carefree, like you don’t really need the money. “It’s what
white people *wish* they sounded like. What they think they’re supposed to
sound like.” This a smart move on Riley’s part, akin to the one Ta-Nehisi
Coates picked up from James Baldwin: to describe whiteness not as an
identity but as the faith that possesses “those who believe they are
white.” In the film, the rhetorical trope is made literal through dubbing:
Cash’s white voice is played by David Cross. As his best friend Salvador (a
sweet, dry Jermaine Fowler) says, “That’s some puppet master voodoo shit.”

What tumbles forth from this gag is a wild, campy romp. In desperate need
of his namesake—Cash lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a car so
wretched, so ratchet, that he operates the wipers by tugging strings
threaded through the windows—he rides his white voice straight to the top
floor, where the “Power Callers” work. The film’s central dilemma finds him
torn between social mobility and a socialist movement, organized by another
coworker Squeeze (a woke, low-key sexy Steven Yeun) and Cash’s girlfriend
Detroit (the delectable, sloe-eyed Tessa Thompson). After the RegalView
telemarketers strike, Cash breaks the picket line and soon loses his
friends, his girlfriend, and his dignity—when a protester throws a soda can
at his head, someone records the incident and posts it online. He spends
the rest of the film as a meme, with a bloodspotted bandage wrapped around
his forehead like a hipster sweatband.

Chaperoned by an eyepatch-wearing, white-voiced predecessor (played by a
brooding Omari Hardwick and dubbed by Patton Oswalt), Cash’s success as a
Power Caller leads to an invitation from RegalView’s biggest client, Worry
Free. This company houses, feeds, and entertains its workers in a
factory-like setting, and its marketing (“If you lived here, you’d be at
work already”) recalls Silicon Valley’s persistent, perverse fusion of work
and life. A wrong turn in a mansion at an exclusive company party leads
Cash to discover that Worry Free is engaging in a far more perverse fusion
(spoiler!)—of humans and horses. California—in filmic terms, always on the
edge of the country, the future, technology, sanity—has once again birthed
a monstrosity: “equisapien” laborers genetically modified to be “bigger,
stronger,” and well-hung, to boot.

Lit by California’s neon sun and neon signs, flecked with bright colors
that bespeak black aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s—think the hip-hop
groups TLC and Salt-N-Peppa, or the *Friday* movies—*Sorry to Bother You* has
been described as indebted to music videos. But it feels more like a
brilliant cartoon to me: dubbed voices, slapstick violence, dumb jokes,
over-the-top gestures. Kate Berlant is excellent as marketing consultant
Diana DeBauchery, with her rolling eyes and heaving bosom. (“What *is
she smirks, making spastic finger quotes.) The film masterfully uses the
cartoon logic of repetition too, extending certain sequences to
hilarious—and discomfiting—effect.

So, when Diana first takes Cash up to the Power Caller floor, she presses a
seemingly endless series of numbers into the security pad to access an
elevator, which then rallies them to their work day by praising their
sexual potency at length over the intercom. When Cash refuses to join the
strike, he and Salvador engage in a hysterical rap battle, but of
faux-pacetic encouragement rather than insults, one-upping each other with
smarmy corporate-speak: “Best wishes!” “I hope your year is spectacular!”
“It’s on me!” “No it’s on *me*!” At the Worry Free party, the CEO (a
perfectly cast, buoyantly obnoxious Armie Hammer) insists that Cash spit
some lines and starts up a rally cry among the white guests: “Rap! Rap!
Rap! Rap!” they chant for an awkwardly long time. Each bit is less like a
running joke and more like if a joke were a run-on sentence—and, notably,
most of them are pointed at white people, or rather, at the strained
enthusiasm of their efforts to convince themselves of their whiteness.

Indeed, smuggled inside Riley’s rollicking mashup of surrealism and sci-fi
is a cutting critique of race and class. It is a satire in the original,
Greek sense—a *satura*, or medley, of forms that use humor and exaggeration
to ridicule the vices of society. The film gives us a model for how to
reconcile its unapologetic silliness and its political seriousness with its
most appealing character, Detroit, whose empty New Age koans about “being
present” are redeemed by her fierce, zany, brazen works of art. She makes
her own earrings: little sculptures like a gold man in an electric chair
and a sequined cock and balls, or big bubble letters with two-part messages
THE BOMB. In one art performance, she decries the mining of coltan in
Africa, then asks audience members to throw bullet casings, cell phones,
and water balloons filled with goats’ blood at her barely clad body. She
and a crew of art activists called the Left Eye install a kitschy sculpture
in front of RegalView: the CEO of Worry Free fucking a horse from behind.
Detroit sidles up to onlookers the next day and tries to influence their
interpretation: “Maybe the artist is being literal.”
Stanfield as Cassius and Armie Hammer as Steve Lift in *Sorry to Bother You*,

Detroit, like Riley, makes the kind of political art that critics might
call “obvious” or “didactic”—it hits you over the head. But literalism is
the bedrock of satire, along with *reductio ad absurdum*: taking something
to its logical conclusion. Many of us first learned about satire by way of
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that the solution to
the problem of Irish famine was to eat babies. To make something utterly
literal pushes through to the other side of the real—this is why satire so
often bleeds into surrealism, as in Kafka’s *The Metamorphosis* (a working
man is a bug). But this kind of satire relies on a certain plausibility,
too: its absurdity is an index of how idiotic, how ludicrous the current
political reality actually is. Hence the mantras of Trump’s America: *It
must be hard to write satire right now. I thought this was *The Onion* at
first. You can’t make this shit up*.

*Sorry to Bother You* uses its literalism to canny effect. Left Eye is an
allusion to TLC, but it also refers to a group of leftists. A popular TV
show called *I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me* covers contestants in actual
shit. When the partygoers exhort Cash to rap, he flails around and
eventually just starts saying “nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga nigga nigga
shit” to appease them. Well, precisely. The film’s action is made literal,
too, through delightfully low-budget special effects. When Cash makes
calls, his desk appears to drop right into customers’ homes. As his
fortunes rise, his own cluttered home in his uncle’s garage cracks
open—furniture and decor shed their dingy skin to reveal shiny new
selves—until it has been replaced by an apartment straight out of *Dwell*,
all clean lines and white planes and muted artwork. To cast off poverty
like this might seem like a gimmick. To house workers in warehouses then
spotlight them on a show called *NTV Spots* might seem hyperbolic. But
spend one day with me in the Bay Area, where Boots Riley and I both live
and where *Sorry to Bother You* was filmed, and you’ll realize how brutally
accurate all this is, how mashed up against each other the mansions and the
tents are over here.

In this sense, the movie is not just Marxist but materialist at heart. The
dubbed voiceovers and the equisapiens both literalize figures of speech
that have a sordid political history. To “talk white” is to ventriloquize a
white actor’s voice. To turn workers into horses makes concrete the idea of
the slave laborer as “packhorse” or “workhorse.” Hovering behind this
absurd plot twist is a semantic history of oppression. *Mulatto*—a black
and white human named for a *mule*, half-horse, half-donkey. *Stud**—*the
word for a horse who impregnates thoroughbreds, widely used to refer to
black male slaves. This figure also plays with the legacy of horse-men in
satire: from Shakespeare’s Bottom to Swift’s superior race of horses (the
Houyhnhnms) in *Gulliver’s Travels* to *BoJack Horseman*. The film’s
low-hanging horse dick jokes invoke those original hoofed hybrids, too, the
*satyrs*, whose name is often mistaken
<https://www.etymonline.com/word/satire> for the origin of *satire *because
the satyr plays were in fact satirical: tragicomic burlesques that used
phallic props and priapic pranks to send up the intervention of the
gods—the lazy, wealthy debauched One Percenters of their time—in human

But I don’t want to freight this carnivalesque jaunt with too much European
historical baggage—or reinforce the tendency of reviews to frame it only in
relation to white artwork. This film is black on the inside, too, reaching
back through hip-hop and black cinema to a deep tradition of black satire:
George Schuyler’s *Black No More *(1931), which literalizes racial passing
with a machine that turns black people white; Sun Ra’s standoff between
blaxploitation and race pride in Oakland in *Space Is the Place *(1974);
Richard Pryor pretending to be a deer in *Live in Concert *(1979). Fran
Ross, who worked for the too-brief run of the *Richard Pryor* *Show*,
published a novel in 1974 about a biracial super-heroine whose quest to
find her father mirrors the Greek myth of Theseus. Full of vagina
jokes—including a rubber “wedge” called the Maidenhead® that a potential
rapist’s erection bounces off—etymological digressions, cartoonish
violence, quirky diagrams to categorize shades of blackness, and a
horse-dicked male prostitute named Kirk, Ross’s novel epitomizes the humor
and the power of taking race “relations”
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iB25eDhWImc> literally. I like to think
that it’s one ancestor to Riley’s rambunctious hybrid of a film. Its title,
by the way, is *Oreo*.

*Boots Riley’s **Sorry to Bother You** is now in theaters
<http://sorrytobotheryou.movie/>. *
July 21, 2018, 7:00 am
Panther’: Choose Your Weapons
Namwali Serpell
Runner’s Immaterial Girls
Namwali Serpell
Schuyler: An Afrofuturist Before His Time
Danzy Senna

© 1963-2018 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.

Maria Helena Lima
Department of English
Comparative Literature Director
James and Julia Lockhart Professor, 2014-2017
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