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Call centre capitalism

Faline Bobier

July 22, 2018

Boots Riley is an American rapper, producer, screenwriter and film director. He was born into a family of radical organizers in Chicago and by the age of six he and his family had moved to Detroit and then to Oakland.

This is how he described his new movie in a recent interview: "It's an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing, called Sorry to Bother You."

Racism and capitalism

Anyone who's ever had to (barely) make their living spending long hours making calls in the cubicle world of telemarketing will be able to relate to the first few minutes of this movie. Cassius Green (or Cash in an obviously ironic short form), the young Black protagonist, brings in fake trophies and work experience to try and land a job at RegalView. It’s a sketchy telemarketing firm in Oakland where workers don't make a regular salary but are paid on commission, based on whatever money they can scam from people just like themselves, living equally hardscrabble lives.

Again, as anyone who's ever worked in the rigid environment of telemarketing knows, the main rule is "Stick to the script" or “stuss,” as Cash's manager insists. The whole mantra pushed by management is that if you work hard enough you can make it out of the sweatshop conditions of your fellow-workers and ascend to the upper reaches of the “Power Callers.”

And of course, if you're one of the chosen few, you get to take the elevator to the Promised Land, (with a seemingly never-ending series of numbers to be in punched in as the security code because this is, after all, a perk that must be safely guarded from the toiling masses). If you're one of the drones the stairs are good enough for you.

Cassius is played by 26-year-old Lakeith Stanfield, who was also notably excellent in Jordan Peele's recent hit Get Out. Both films are brilliant at uncovering and skewering the racism at the heart of American society. And just as Stanfield's character in Get Out is forced to "act white" by his “owners,” Cassius is counselled by his cubicle neighbour Langston (the inimitable Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” if he wants to make sales—the voice that implies “all my bills are paid, I don't have a care in the world, I am soooo smooth.” When Cassius and Langston use their “white” voices they are actually dubbed by a white actor.

The movie is partly about the situation of millennials who are also people of colour – Cash and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), who helps Cash get the job in the first place; his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), a struggling artist with a day job wearing ridiculous costumes and holding up signs in front of various businesses; and a young Asian telemarketer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who will eventually spearhead a union drive at RegalView.

But Riley doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying low-paying, super exploitative employment as for the young only. Capitalism is an equal opportunity exploiter and there are people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds in this workplace.


Cassius will eventually get the bigger picture when he makes it to the upper echelons of the “Power Callers.” He leaves his co-workers just at the point a fightback is beginning. At first, he is dazzled by the money to be made and the material goods this new job can afford him – better suits, a better car, a better place to live, the opportunity to pay back his uncle so he won't lose his house, but he also sees the pitfalls.

Whereas his telemarketer co-workers were multi-ethnic, including white workers, when he moves upstairs there are fewer brown and black faces. There are still the token Blacks, such as one of the managers upstairs who takes Cash under his wing and even introduces him to Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), king of all the wealth afforded him by the labour of others.

Lift is the psychopathic, racist, pseudo-hip founder of WorryFree, astutely played by Hammer, who said in an interview that Riley created a character who he got inside so much the actor started to wonder if he didn't share some of Lift's characteristics himself.

We see billboards and ads for WorryFree throughout the film. WorryFree provides desperate people guaranteed food and shelter in exchange for their “free” labour. They are housed in barracks and at all times must wear garish yellow uniforms.

There is a futuristic tone to the movie, but it's only ever so slightly futuristic, when you think of all the really existing horrors of actually existing capitalism: the humongous factories in China where workers' only liberation is through suicide, or immigrant workers who live in slave-like conditions and whose children have recently been put in cages, like the animals they clearly represent for America's rulers.

There is a nightmarish scene in the film where Cassius is invited to a party at Lift's home. Here in his domain Lift can openly express his racism and misogyny, covered as it is by a thin veneer of hipness. At one point, Cassius is more or less forced by his host to perform rap in front of a mostly white audience. He turns the tables on them somewhat unwittingly with what he thinks they really want to hear. It's a brilliant send-up of fake “wokeness,” which is really just racism in disguise.

But it's when the big reveal happens, when Cassius mistakenly happens on a room he wasn't meant to go into, that Lift explains what the end game actually is. It involves Lift using Cassius as a kind of token Trojan horse to betray his own, the people who have as little power as he does. This is when Riley's film veers into what could be called science fiction, but a science fiction that seems very close to possibility in a sick system where human beings are only worth something if they can increase the bosses' profit margins.

Go and see Riley's film. It's a biting and funny satire, an indictment of racism and capitalism, and a call to solidarity and for all of us to decide finally which side we're on.

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