Sorry To Bother You offers rich lessons in seeking radical social change

Sorry to Bother You
Written & directed by Boots Riley
In cinemas now

This review includes mild spoilers.

As an Australian living abroad, incidents of Australians being racist and/or misogynistisic that attract attention from international media outlets are frequently forwarded to me in anticipation of a seething refrain.

My response is typically motivated by a mix of rage and embarrassment, as well as a deep concern for how racial capitalism has been almost completely normalised. I am deeply concerned by the fact that not only is our social and political climate ill-equipped to address racism, it seems to perpetuate an anti-historical form of consciousness that quickly becomes fertile ground for white supremacist ideologies, misogyny and classism.

My partner, also Australian, is far better than I at focusing on the aspects of Australian society that have been able to grow progressive ideas and movements — even in a milieu of creeping white supremacy and abhorrent asylum laws. It is with my partner’s optimistic will and my critical lens that I sat down to reflect upon two recent incidents of racism.

The first was an incident of blackface in Tasmania when three young white men dressed as US tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, and Kenyan-born AFL star Aliir Aliir. The incident followed a misogynistic and dehumanising cartoon of Serena Williams printed by the Herald Sun.

The second incident, or non-incident, may have gone unnoticed by many readers because it is an absence; a thought-provoking film that looked like it would not get to play.

Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by radical African American artist and activist Boots Riley, is a low budget film that rocked North American box offices this year, grossing more than US$17 million.

But for much of the year, it looked like Australian audiences would not get to see Riley’s film, because it was not picked up for distribution, a situation that sparked an online petition. It was eventually announced the film would get a limited theatrical release on November 29.

The film centres on the lives of three young racialised workers who experience a profound-yet-complicated moment of radicalisation, when the call centre they work at engages in a campaign for better working conditions.

Set in present day Oakland, California, the protagonist Cassius Green (played by Lekeith Stanfield) seems to have found a way out of poverty when he gains employment as a telemarketer.

Cassius, or Cash, taps into his “white voice” and is quickly promoted to the coveted position of a “power caller”.

This grants him wealth and access to elites. Cash’s rise, however, comes at the expense of his co-workers and partner, Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson), whom he betrays in is his rise to success.

Influenced by magical realism (or surrealism, depending on where you sit), the film offers a complex critique of the ways in which capitalism is a racial system.

Given that Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman both played to Australian audiences, what makes Riley’s film so different, such that it looked like it would not get a release here?

Riley, who wrote the film during the Obama years, is a well-known hip hop artist, who proudly describes himself as a communist and whose ideas are linked to the anti-imperialist tradition and Black power movements. Riley has a long history as a radical community organiser, working with Black communities and migrant farm workers.

Sorry to Bother You brings Riley’s politics to life with a hilarious and uncompromising critique of our current moment. What is clear from Riley’s depiction of the present day is that race and class are ever-changing and distinct, yet always interdependent.

Australia’s political power may not parallel the imperial reach of the United States; nonetheless, the lessons from Riley’s film can help us to fight against the social conditions that normalise racism. The film can help us to grapple with the fact that parts of our society continue to think that dressing in blackface is just a bit of harmless fun, or that calling Adam Goodes an “ape” is not all that different than calling someone a pig or an ass.

Two key ideas from the movie can help us to think about these incidents with greater clarity. Let’s call them the bootstraps myth and the many forms of slavery.

Cash, a young Black man from a working-class family, is able to lift himself out of poverty through ingenuity and hard work. Cash embodies the myth that poor racialised people simply need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work a little harder.

This is not the story Riley is telling. Instead, once at the top, with power and wealth, the inner workings of capitalism are revealed to Cash. He sees with terrifying clarity that his success is built upon violence. His access to white middle-class power is hinged on his willingness to dispossess and dehumanise others.

When prominent racialised people, such as the Williams sisters or Goodes, are mocked and dehumanised, the bootstraps myth often finds renewed strength. We are taught to see powerful racialised people as overcoming their disadvantage, but what of the class system that created their disadvantage?

We need to understand, as Riley clearly does, that the bootstraps myth is only a partial reality. Yes, capitalism has created the conditions for a select few racialised people to gain access to power, political influence, wealth and fame. But it has simultaneously created a deepening racialised divide between rich and poor, global south and north, east and west.

Capitalism has not countered violence against Indigenous and racialised communities, it has intensified it. What we can learn from Cash’s rise to the top is that anti-racism and individual success are easily confused, but are not one and the same.

Slavery is an ever-present theme in Riley’s film, and a plot point that seems to suggest that the film is playing with temporality or dipping into science fiction. In Riley’s Oakland, working-class people are tricked into a reality TV-style work camp, and a new breed of genetically engineered sub-human worker is being held in captivity.

The new forms of slavery are set against two powerful monologues by Detroit (Cash’s partner). Detroit, a radical activist and performance artist, uses her art to question the colonial relations that dispossessed and enslaved African peoples forming the foundations of anti-black racism.

Slavery, in Riley’s film, has a past, a present and future. It is an evolving and responsive social relation. It changes with the desires of the capitalist class, and divides working people into categories of more and less human.

As Riley shows us, slavery cannot be viewed as just a historical event that ended with the passing of laws. Australia has its own history of enslavement that does not fit the definition of chattel slavery, but it was nonetheless enslavement.

Indigenous people, dispossessed of their land, had their wages stolen, and families torn apart. The state justified this act by dehumanising Indigenous people, making them wards of the state. This point is important because anti-Indigenous racism is our history of capitalist extraction, dispossession and dehumanisation.

Let’s return to Adam Goodes for a moment. In 2013, when Goodes was called an ape by a young football fan, he acted with resilience by responding to the girl’s taunts by seeking an apology. Many expressed support for Goodes, others have claimed the young girl did not understand what she was saying.

Whether she knew it or not, she was drawing on a powerful history of pseudo-science (often called scientific racism) that was used to justify colonial land theft and enslavement. Scientific racism compared non-white people to apes and beasts, constructing them as fit for hard labour but not self-determination.

When young people dress in blackface or call Indigenous people apes, they are revealing our colonial roots in the present day. If we want a decolonised future, then we must know and teach our past.

One of my favourite characters in Sorry to Bother You is Squeeze (played by Steven Yeun). Squeeze, a union organiser, has great one-liners that make you think about social change and how you want to participant in the world. He asks Cash: “Do you want to be a leaf floating downstream, or a rock that splits the stream in two?”

Meaning, do you want to accept your situation or seek to radically alter the course of history? A key tenet of community organising introduced by Squeeze is that if you show people a problem with no solution, they will simply accept the problem.

Taking Squeeze’s sentiments to heart, I want to leave you with a very simple idea. Learning our history of colonial genocide is the only way we can build an anti-colonial future.

Let’s stop glossing over our colonial history and racist present. Let’s read and discuss the radical history of social struggle that birthed internationalist and anti-colonial movements. Let’s understand that blackface, racist cartoons and dehumanising chides are not simply the acts of individuals.