Media review by
Amy J. Wan
Riley, Boots. (2018). Sorry to Bother You. US: Annapurna Pictures.
Literacy scholars with a penchant for anti-racist and anti-capitalist popular culture should watch Boots Riley’s 2018 dystopian satire Sorry to Bother You, an outrageously entertaining film that shines a light on language use and its implications for status, economic issues, and race. Because the movie’s intersectional, anti-capitalist critique aligns with scholarly work that engages social justice, translingualism, cultural rhetorics, and community literacies, Sorry to Bother You (STBY) is essential viewing for those of us who study language, race, class, and economics. It not only makes the ideological arguments behind our scholarship accessible to a general audience, but also shows how the lines of compromise that emerge as we navigate economic survival are not far away and that where we land in relation to those lines depends on our deliberate decisions and practices.
STBY follows the economically precarious Cassius (aka Cash, played by Lakeith Stanfield) as he finally lands a steady job as a telemarketer. After much flailing and numerous hang-ups, he is advised by Langston (Danny Glover), his colleague in the adjacent cubicle, that as African-Americans, they must use their “white voice” to succeed at selling to unsuspecting potential customers over the phone, a medium in which all visual cues to identity are erased. This white voice isn’t a Will Smith voice, as Langston describes it, but something else, something more—a voice that embodies the enviable ease of privilege that makes it possible to convince the person on the other end of the line to buy whatever product you happen to be selling. Using a white voice (literally—dubbed by white comedian David Cross), Cash becomes wildly successful, gets promoted, and sets off the rest of the movie’s plot that vividly illustrates the consequences of his individual success. What unfolds is a layered and impactful gut-punch about the consequences of selling out, first with the use of the white voice and then a host of career and personal decisions that follow.
The film relays these smart and political themes in a way that does not leave viewers completely demoralized and hopeless by the closing credits, but it also doesn’t shy away from representing current realities in the United States today like the prevalence of the “gig economy” and racism. Riley communicates the urgent need to respond in a way that might be relevant to what is reflected in our own highly adjunctified university workplaces, and STBY powerfully illuminates the compromises that accompany economic success. The combination of anti-capitalist and pro-organizing messages relayed through what Riley characterizes as magical realism makes the movie incredibly engaging—politically, visually, and emotionally. In a New Yorker profile Riley explains, “You think it’s a film about a telemarketer with self-esteem issues, but then it ends up being something else” (Hitchens, 2018). This “something else” is an unflinching look at race and class in an honest but playful way that urges viewers to consider their own choices and complicity.
The movie lays bare the question of power and ideology behind the white voice, with Riley connecting that voice to the possibility of gaining individual privilege but not structural change. And the movie reflects what can happen once you cultivate your white voice—not just the acquisition of privilege, but also the potential distancing from your home community that happens once this individualized success is gained. When Cash starts earning money, his life becomes less precarious, and he’s soon able to move out of his uncle’s garage to an upscale, urban apartment. But, he also starts to become alienated from the other relationships he had—with his significant other Detroit (Tessa Thompson), his best friend (Jermaine Fowler), and his new co-worker who is trying to organize the workplace (Steven Yeun). Cash is understandably seduced by the promises of stability and success dangled by his boss, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The party-bro owner of RegalView, Cash’s telemarketing employer, Lift also owns Worry Free, a company that sells a guarantee of food and shelter in exchange for a lifetime of labor. In the world of the film, people sign up for Worry Free because it provides a stable existence in a society where mere existence, let alone comfort and success, has become increasingly more precarious.
STBY’s critique is consistent with Riley’s 20-year career as the front man of the politically incendiary, class-conscious, hip-hop act The Coup, as well as his self-characterization as a communist. In this, his first film (originally published as a screenplay by McSweeney’s in 2014), Riley offers a treatment of language that reflects his political commitments. It can also be seen as a filmic representation of theories of raciolinguistics. In “Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education,” Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (2015) describe raciolinguistic ideologies as those that “conflate certain racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency unrelated to any objective linguistic practice. That is, raciolinguistic ideologies produce racialized speaking subjects who are constructed as linguistically deviant even when engaging in linguistic practices positioned as normative or innovative when produced by privileged white subjects” (p. 150). Those in the know will nod when each character’s choice of which racialized voice to use becomes bound together with hierarchical expectations that are shaped by race, class and economic precarity, and gender. For example, even though his white voice leads to acceptance into by the upper ranks of Worry Free, Cash doesn’t ever stop being constructed as a Black body, particularly in one telling party scene where Cash is coerced to rap when he is seemingly the only black person in the room. During a different party, one of the white voices we hear has a British accent; through this character, Riley demonstrates that it’s not all accents that Americans don’t give status to, but rather certain accents associated with people of color.
By illustrating the seductive nature of success, particularly in contrast to Cash’s economic uncertainty at the beginning of the movie, Riley shows how the small, ostensibly inconsequential compromises that lead to stability, or even financial success, are consequential in the aggregate. Cash eventually ends up on the rarified upper floor of his office building with the big accounts, selling Worry Free to high-paying clients. On this floor, which is spare and beautiful in comparison to the cramped cubicles of the RegalView telemarketing job on the lower floors, Cash’s labor has less friction. The setting and its perks soften the hard edges of this work. But on the floors below, labor organizing is beginning.
Interestingly, compromise is part of everyone’s story. Cash’s girlfriend Detroit advertises local businesses on street corners to earn money but she’s also an artist. Detroit serves as Cash’s conscience as he makes his choices along the way, which is why it’s so shocking to hear her own voice shift to a tony British accent at her art opening, the space where she has more at stake and where she wants success. The film is all compromises and seemingly impossible choices. By the end, Cash starts to question his decisions, but is it too late? Are they irreversible? All of these compromises can be justified by “appropriateness” or what can seem like objective measures for language use, which Flores and Rosa (2015) describe as masking “the racism inherent in dominant approaches to language education” (p. 154). But, Riley is clear about what is lost when individual actions are guided only by what’s appropriate. Voice is tied to whiteness and capitalism, but can also be tied to community and solidarity, if only one would choose them.
Our academic world involves a similar set of binds. As individuals move through graduate education and the faculty ranks, we develop our voices as scholars, shaped along the way by messages about what is publishable and appropriate. As in the film, this often leads to individual achievement, as opposed to structural change. This narrow sense of voice and appropriateness actually impoverishes the kind of scholarship that can be done and what gets published and circulates. In the face of this reality, maintaining a multiplicity of scholarly voices against the singular academic “white voice” is an imperative act of resistance, and a high-wire act that scholars of color in particular need to navigate, although this navigation is also familiar to many other people, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized from these spaces as well as first-generation academics.
Higher education in the United States has long struggled with the desire to create access while simultaneously wringing its hands over linguistic diversity, such as in the Open Admission debates of the late 1960s and 1970s. The kinds of voices we’re collectively enforcing as scholars and teachers, especially the many of us who are teaching first-year writing or other classes that study language and writing, must be understood as either being complicit in or resisting these raciolinguistic ideologies. Compounding this tension in contemporary classrooms is a growing international student population, domestic bilingual students, and other transnational student populations. Sorry to Bother You does not overtly address discrimination in relation to linguistic diversity; rather, it caustically demonstrates how privilege, race, and language operate to provide the illusion of systemic advancement on behalf of people of color.
The film also illustrates how complicated it can be to resist that illusion, particularly for those in economically precarious positions. Because feelings of alienation from the neoliberal, highly corporatized university are quite common, STBY’s portrayal of choosing between solidarity and individual achievement in the face of the precarity can be instructive for those in higher ed’s version of the gig economy with its over-reliance on adjunct labor. While it is tempting to focus on our own individual circumstances, it is important to remember the power we have as teachers, scholars, and mid-level administrators (Writing Program Administrators and Writing Center Directors) and, as the movie argues, the power we have collectively. Specifically, it is the power we have in relation to others in the space of the university—our students, other teachers, particularly part-time labor, and staff—that we can cultivate among these stratifications, questioning the types of labor practices we enforce or even benefit from and recognizing the ways that language practices and race are interwoven into this system.
If one can draw a call to action from STBY, it likely lies in the importance of solidarity, of speaking up, and of finding spaces that you can influence, as LA Paperson (2017) argues in A Third University is Possible. There are significant consequences to Cash’s choice to turn his back on those organizing his workplace, not necessarily in terms of the effectiveness of the organizing effort, but in his own alienation from those who used to be his community; his white voice, whether actively being used or not, begins to prevent him from being able to speak to his own.
The movie is not subtle, and it shouldn’t be. There is truth in its absurdity; consequences in STBY are clearly dire representations of the buying in, selling out, alienation, and upheaval that comes with the erasure of our voices and the complicity that often accompanies success. These are urgent times in which the survival of so many are at stake. While we may feel powerless, like some omnipotent structure is acting upon us, Riley reminds us of ways that we do have power in our own individual choices as well as the power we have together.
Flores, Nelson & Rosa, Jonathan. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149–71.
Hitchens, Antonia. (2018, Aug. 29). The many voices of Boots Riley. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-many-voices-of-boots-riley.
Paperson, LA. (2017). A third university is possible. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P.
Amy J. Wan (she/her/hers) is Associate Professor of English at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She teaches classes on writing and pedagogy. She is the author of Producing Good Citizens: Literacy Training in Anxious Times (2014). Her current project analyzes how to create spaces for change and resistance within the global US university through a historical and contemporary study of policies addressing access, diversity, race, and language.