Rarely these days is a union organizing campaign and strike central to the plot of a movie, especially one that isn't set in the past. Rarer still is a movie that is firmly on the side of workers and their union.
Sorry to Bother You, the directorial debut of musician Boots Riley of The Coup, is set in the near future, or perhaps an alternate reality that is in most ways very similar to our own. Most of the action takes place at the telemarketing firm where the film's hero, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), works. The movie employs some surreal film techniques — such as showing Green literally dropping into the homes of the people he is calling — and has science-fiction elements. Still, most working people will recognize Riley's treatment of work, bosses, and the power of collective action as incredibly realistic.
Green is a young African-American man in Oakland, trying to both make ends meet and find meaning in his life. He is living in a garage he rents from his uncle, who in turn is in danger of losing his house to creditors if Green can't pay his rent. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is an artist who makes her living twirling advertising signs on corners. Green is envious of the fact that Detroit’s art gives her life meaning and purpose, but you also get the sense that he doesn’t quite understand it.
The film opens with Green securing a job with the telemarketing firm RegalView. In the hiring sequence, and in a subsequent scene where Green's supervisors try to motivate the workers using a combination of tough talk and “team” coaching, Riley captures the way low-level bosses in non-union workplaces demean and lord it over their underlings while simultaneously flattering themselves as being their workers’ friends and champions.
Riley also has a deft touch in describing the way race and class intersect. Langston, an older African-American worker played by Danny Glover, offers Green the advice to use his "white voice" when talking to customers (a conceit that is hilariously depicted in the movie by the use of autotuned-sounding voice-overs when Langston, Green and other African-American workers use their "white voice"). In coaching Green to find his "white voice," Langston instructs him to imagine leading a life free of material worries.
However, Langston makes it clear to Green that the "white voice" doesn't reflect the material reality of white people (there are white workers working for the same low wages at the telemarketing firm), but rather an idea of wealth. Green's "white voice" has no regional accent that might mark him as being an actual white working person from Vermont or West Virginia or Iowa, for example.
The white voices Green hears on ever-present TV commercials might be more familiar to UE members. These are the voices of workers so desperate and so beaten down that they've agreed to lifetime individual contracts with the Worry-Free Corporation — and have convinced themselves that lifetime guarantees of prison-like meals and dormitories inside the workplace are something to crow about.
The Worry-Free Corporation dominates the movie. TV commercials and billboards promise a life free of worry about bills. Green’s uncle, under threat of losing his house, considers signing up with Worry-Free. Worry-Free’s CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), is celebrated in the media in much the same way as CEOs from Jack Welch (GE) to Steve Jobs (Apple) to Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) have been in our own reality. His book is a best-seller, he is flattered by politicians of both parties, and he throws the most expensive, lavish parties in town.
Shortly after he is hired at RegalView, Green learns that his co-workers have started organizing a union, and the dramatic heart of the movie is the conflict between Green’s desire to succeed at work (it turns out that, once he masters the “white voice,” he is an extremely talented telemarketer), and his solidarity with his co-workers, including his friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler), who helped him get the job in the first place, and Detroit, who takes a job there in order to help with the organizing campaign.
One of the great strengths of the movie is that, while fully on the side of the workers, it treats Green’s drive for success with sympathy and understanding. The scene where Green joins a 20-minute work stoppage, even though it takes place as he is about to close a sale, is exceptionally well done. It gives us both a sense of Green’s inner conflict and of the power of workers standing united against the boss.
As the workers’ organizing campaign escalates into a recognition strike, Green is promoted into, essentially, a different bargaining unit of “power callers.” He professes support for his former co-workers’ ongoing struggle, but crosses their picket line in order to get to work. He makes enough money to pay off his uncle’s debts, buy a nice car and move into a nice apartment, but he is increasingly alienated from Detroit and Sal.
The political heart of the movie is revealed when Green discovers a shocking secret about the Worry Free Corporation, whose captive workforce he is now selling to other corporations. In a heady, fast-paced sequence that touches on viral fame, the ritual humiliation of reality television, and the craven worship of profit by powerful media and political figures, Green reveals this secret to the public and urges them to call their Congresspeople … and discovers that no one will.
His co-worker Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a leader of the strike, explains that people won’t just “call Congress” because they don’t believe that it will do any good. Working people, Squeeze explains, need to understand where they have power before they will take action. As Riley recently told Democracy Now:
I believe that since the beginning of the New Left, progressives and radicals have turned more to spectacle and gone away from actually organizing at the actual point of contradiction in capitalism, which is the exploitation of labor, which is also where the working class has its power. And we’ve gone in favor of demonstrations, that don’t necessarily have teeth, but they show where our head is at. And I feel like we have to put—give these demonstrations more teeth, by being able to affect the bottom line and say, you know—and say, “You can make no money today, or you can make less money and give us what we want.”
Green, Squeeze, Detroit and their co-workers hatch a plan to win the strike. They draw on everyone’s talents — reaching out to members of their community Green had previously ridiculed, and drawing on Detroit’s artistic skills and Green’s viral fame and inside knowledge. A climactic picket-line scene dramatizes, in a very powerful and ingenious way, the importance of uniting all member of the working class, across every imaginable difference.
A point that the film makes repeatedly, and forcefully, is how much bosses fear workers’ collective power, how conscious they are of workers’ potential power (even when the workers themselves feel powerless), and how they intentionally pursue strategies to both divide and mislead working people.
The surreal film techniques and science-fiction elements of Sorry To Bother You make it a different kind of labor film than, say, Norma Rae — but in many ways it is more of a labor film. Instead of using collective workplace struggle as the setting for an individual story, it uses an individual story to explain the necessity of collective workplace struggle, and of finding individual meaning in being part of a larger struggle. Every union member should see this film.