Satire is a cup of tea that fits not everyone’s taste. It also speaks truth to those who are ready to receive it. But to those who are not, it most often speaks nonsense. One of the great satires of recent cinema is Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Although satire can and often makes us laugh, it does not fit entirely in the story archetype of comedy as described by story archeologist Christopher Booker. He tells us in his book, Seven Basic Story Archetypes, that comedy has as its formal design, the swapping, mistaking or hiding of identities centered upon a main character’s blinding egocentricity. Thinking of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) or Kevin Hart’s upcoming film, Night School (2018), immediately allows us to grasp Booker’s description of comedy and its primary feature of an egotistical main character.
By contrast, satire is based upon a logical fallacy, the slippery slope. The slippery slope fallacy is a strategy of argument where one person takes the moderate issue and position of another person and pushes them to an absurd extreme as a means of discrediting that position and issue. I’m sure those of us of a certain age remember our mothers asking us, “If everyone jumped off of a cliff, would you do it, too?” This reasoning was usually used to keep us from doing something or going someplace of which they disapproved. This is a culturally specific form of the slippery slope fallacy. But while it is a discredited argumentative strategy, its use as a dramatic tool forms the basis of satire. All satire takes an aspect of reality (politics, relationship rules, language, etc.) and exaggerates it to an absurd extreme.
Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and its nuclear apocalypse, but only after the delivery of one cinema’s greatest punchlines. In this Cold War satire, when the Russian ambassador and U.S. General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) come to fisticuffs, the U.S. president tells them, “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here; this is the war room!” In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick and co-writer Terry Southern crafted their adaptation of the Peter George novel to use the slippery slope fallacy to exaggerate the then current political Cold War rhetoric of nuclear missiles as deterrents to world war. This idea of not physically fighting in a room designed specifically for global warfare is a satirical use of irony that underscores the absurdity of paranoid politics and global warfare.
Merely exaggerating an aspect of reality is not the total formal mechanism upon which satire is built. The best satires also have within their dramatic structure an incredulous character who bears witness to the absurdities in disbelief and often willfully tries to stop the madness, tell others about it or joins in and becomes mad themselves. Recall that in Dr. Strangelove, Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers in one of three stunning roles) puts all of his efforts into stopping Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who has gone completely insane from continuing his delusion of starting World War III. For all of Mandrake’s efforts, the die was cast, and no one could escape the absurdity of stockpiling nuclear weapons as insurance for world peace. Because of the use of exaggeration of an aspect of reality that is germane to our everyday lives and an incredulous character whom we encourage to stop the madness, satire can be used as an artistic weapon to criticize the ideologies, pogroms and injustices of power of the ruling classes, hypocritical clergy, obedient civil servants and totalitarian regimes.
Satire always has a target, but only those in the audience who can appreciate the exaggeration as a critique rather than an attempt at humor find it enriching. This is not to drive further the elitist wedge between those who consider themselves “woke” and those considered “sleep,” but this observation was made merely to acknowledge satire has a specific target, but the audience has the option to take the critique or leave it. If Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove targeted the absurdity of the Cold War arms race and nuclear deterrence, then Sorry to Bother You is a full-on assault upon the illusions of black upward class mobility in a white-controlled transnational global economy.
Ostensibly, Sorry to Bother You concerns the corporate rise of telephone sales caller Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and his best friend, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), who all end up working for Regal View telemarketing, a telephone sales company that specializes in cold calls to sell products and services to annoyed and annoying consumers. Sorry to Bother You is a thematically profound and stylistically dynamic satire that draws on ironies and contradictions of race and class in America as corporate and personal greed distorts them.
One of the great ironies the film satirizes to powerful, critical effect is “the white voice.” The notion of “the white voice” reaches deep into the cultural ligatures of white supremacy that bind themselves around the behavior and comportment of black folks as a mental constraint and a race-specific cultural boundary. The social truism that one gets better service and attention over the phone from white-controlled companies and institutions if one suppresses the spoken vernacular and cadences associated with black people is so deeply ingrained within the black community that seeing it discussed and performed in Sorry to Bother You has a powerful effect upon black spectators like myself. For me, I instantly recalled hearing my mother use “the white voice” for the first time when I was a young boy as she was talking on the phone to someone from the telephone company. It never occurred to me to ask why she, and later my stepfather, would affect these television show-like voices when interacting over the phone with the representatives of various institutions, corporations and companies that were almost invariably controlled by white people. Perhaps it never occurred to me to ask because it was simple enough for me to deduce that since black people are so often subject to a second-class form of service and citizenship that sounding white on the phone was but a logical consequence of finding a way to undermine that status to survive the obstacles of white supremacy.
One of the many great moments in Sorry to Bother You is when one of Cassius’ co-workers, Langston (Danny Glover), quickly explains the contextual frame that defines “the white voice.” He says it is a voice that from its cadence, timbre and locution suggests with certainty that,” All my bills are paid, and I have no cares in the world.” It is the voice of white privilege unencumbered by financial, food, health or housing insecurities that are considered essentialist characteristics of being poor and a minority in America. It is how one sounds when you don’t live paycheck to paycheck. It is a stress-free voice that mines too much joy in small talk and whose cadence betrays a specific obliviousness to the history of racial terrorism and targeted oppression. It is whiteness as it is often still represented on network television commercials.
The character of Cassius becomes an expert in his use of “the white voice” which allows him to climb the corporate ladder in rapid succession and inevitably leads to his identity crisis and his alienation from his girlfriend and the unionizing efforts of his best friend. This makes Sorry to Bother You a strident but highly entertaining critique of both the long-held capitalist illusion of “worry-free” upward class mobility (i.e., less problems with mo’ money) and a form of weapons-grade irony that exposes the trap of acting white to achieve the benefits, services and civility that ideally should be extended to all, but is prejudicially not. Talking white over the phone is appeasement to white supremacy, not a circumvention of it. It is the use and explanation of “the white voice” that makes Sorry to Bother You the cinematic heir of Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 social satire film Putney Swope, where the controversy over the eponymous black character’s voice dubbed by the white director threatened to obscure the ironic critique of “the white voice.”
Lakeith Stanfield plays the incredulous character at the center of the film’s satire brilliantly. Not since Don Cheadle upstaged Denzel Washington in Carl Franklin’s masterpiece adaptation of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) has an actor brought something so original to the dramatic palette of black male representation. Stanfield plays the character with an edge of desperation that seems ready to explode at any moment during the film, but he carefully calibrates his performance in such a way that it adds a layer of suspense to the film’s boldly unpredictable plot. Stanfield is one of a trio of recent young black actors including Daniel Kaluuya and Michael B. Jordan who have re-mastered the art of emotional underplay and bring a new style of behavior to the representation of black males in the cinema that challenges the old thug and street hood clichés that still haunt us from the ’70s and ’90s.
There is a new level of emotional sophistication and psychological sensitivity these actors are bringing to black film, and our practice within this art form is benefiting enormously from their non-cliché performances. Neither macho nor effeminate; neither brutish nor overly intellectual, these are deliberately different and dynamic performances of black masculinity that reveal the complexity of the black male beyond previous cinematic stereotypes, but they are performances which are still profoundly authentic. It is a new authenticity in black male acting wherein which Stanfield’s work is its most accessible model.
Another target of the satire in Sorry to Bother You is transnational global corporate capitalism, and it is savagely satirized in this film with a trenchant use of the slippery slope fallacy. Without spoiling the movie, it depicts a not-too-distant dystopian future with low wage jobs, abrupt bank foreclosures and deep class divisions based on income and material wealth where a one-size-fits-all solution has been discovered. In this corporate-controlled world, a new company called Worry Free advertises extensively that its workers live and work on the company grounds with food, clothing and shelter provided by the company with the proviso employees surrender their worldly possessions to Worry Free and agree to work the rest of their lives for this transnational corporate giant. It is merely slavery by another name.
With the recent announcement that Apple Inc. is the first U.S. company to reach a trillion dollar market value, we are stupefied by such an enormous market value for a high-end technology company. We are seduced into forgetting that much of that market value was made over an extended period of changing rules, questionable ethical practices and manipulating tax loopholes to keep profits hidden. Apple uses offshore bank accounts to contribute less to the U.S. economy in taxes. Before its stringent policy against the use of conflict minerals that increase and sustain wars in African countries like the Congo, Apple used them in the manufacture of its products like the iPhone. In 2010, before its corporate oversight and U.S. government oversight, Apple used components manufactured in China under inhumane conditions where Chinese workers would kill themselves rather than work another day under those conditions. Apple’s trillion dollar market value did not come without hidden tragic costs and questionable ethics, not unlike the questionable ethics of the fictional company Worry Free in Sorry to Bother You.
What gives the satire greater savagery is the white male charismatic CEO of Worry Free named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), modeled after Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs, if not in appearance then at least in that eternally optimistic and cunning ethos that is an essential characteristic of wealthy and privileged white males. The satirizing of an overly exploitative transnational corporation in Sorry to Bother You reveals how easy it is to rationalize oppression and ignore ethical boundaries when massive profits and bedazzling technological advances are obtained in the exchange. In the film, it is Lift’s idea of making real the mass oppression of the lower classes as “beasts of burden” that leads to Cassius’ mental and spiritual rejection of his newfound wealth and to re-connect with his girlfriend, Detroit, and his best friend, Salvador.
The final aspect of Sorry to Bother You is not a necessary component of the dramatic paradigm of satire, but, in my opinion, is a dominant component that often contributes decisively to whether a satire fails and becomes a patronizing sermon or succeeds and becomes a cogent critique of power and the status quo. This component is a fully realized and dramatically dynamic central emotional relationship. Whether the primary emotional bond is a romantic one or a fraternal/platonic one, the best satires, have at their core a central emotional relationship that is changed by the knowledge of the exaggeration through the circumstances of the satire. In Sorry to Bother You, it is the fully realized and dramatically dynamic romantic relationship between Cassius and his artist/activist girlfriend, Detroit, that goes through the stresses and changes of the increasingly dark and perilous circumstances of the satire. This is one of the most original and striking views of black relationships onscreen since perhaps Barry Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008).
Unlike previous views of black romance, Detroit is a smart, sexy and politically committed character who doesn’t kowtow to male insecurities to keep a relationship, but instead, she exists as an equal partner in an emotional, mental and physical union of strength between two people who also happen to have sex together. Actress Tessa Thompson brings something indelible to the screen as a forceful but not overbearing, intelligent but not insulting, sexy but not defined by sex, black woman. She is ‘woke’ but not ‘rote.’ It is this central relationship that changes and emotionally broadens during Sorry to Bother You, and even though the relationship breaks up and comes back together during the story, it is filled with moments that show a different side of black romantic life. Here we are miles away from the nightmarish imperfection of the brutish Ike Turner (Lawrence Fishburne) and the passivity of Tina Turner (Angela Bassett) in What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), and we are still farther away from the dreamlike bourgeois perfection of Love Jones (1997).
By contrast, Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000), which many consider to be one of his best satires on race, suffers, in my opinion, because the central emotional relationship between Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) and Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) is one-dimensional and lacks a plausible emotional logic (a re-occurring flaw and distraction in many of Lee’s films, including his latest, BlacKkKlansman). If Sloan Hopkins is the incredulous character within this satire that exaggerates the performances of black actors for television ratings as a form of minstrelsy, then her role and the attached relationship are woefully underwritten. Without a strong central emotional connection, Bamboozled turns more into a sermon on black respectability politics and minstrelsy than it is a satirizing of late ’90s television networks like UPN and The WB which used ‘low-humored’ black programming to stay in the rating game and then ditched that black programming once the fledgling networks became strong enough to compete against ABC, NBC and CBS).
Boots Riley has created one of the most stylishly imaginative and presciently critical satires in recent cinematic history. It is a film that boldly speaks truth to the deeply embedded illusions of black class mobility and white-controlled global capitalism. But, most importantly, Sorry to Bother You is a satire that happens to be as funny and entertaining as it is unsparingly critical of the ruling class and the status quo.