You Say You Want A Revolution?

The anti-capitalist film, Sorry to Bother You shows the way—an excerpt

By Briahna Gray

This movie differs from classic “rags to riches” tales like The Pursuit of Happyness—a moving film, but one which celebrates a poor man’s journey from homeless to stock broker without critiquing the relationship between concentrated wealth and a dearth of affordable housing, or the absurdity of a “meritocracy” that would hinge a family’s survival on a parent’s ability to dazzle an interviewer with a Rubik’s Cube. The Pursuit of Happyness is touching because it shows one man overcoming impossible odds. Sorry to Bother You is moving because it shows that we don’t have to beat those odds alone.

This framing is no accident. As Riley explained in a series of recent interviews, he’s not interested in performative art or performative politics that aren’t rooted in broader movements. “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,” he recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! “We’ve gone in favor of demonstrations that don’t necessarily have teeth…and I feel like we have to give these demonstrations more teeth by being able to affect the bottom line.”

Riley critiqued an anti-Iraq War “die-in” in an interview with Build. The protest, he said, was enacted with the expressed purpose of making people “aware” of the carnage caused by the war. But “everybody knows the war is fucked up,” said Riley, “they just don’t think they can do anything about it. So there’s a different question that needs to be answered by the artists.” He added, “Art has a place, but it has to be connected to actual movements.” That connection is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel revolutionary.

After seeing the film, I struggled to recall an instance in which a labor strike had been represented at all in mainstream cinema—much less depicted heroically as in Sorry to Bother You. Although other examples exist, the only one I could remember without resorting to Google was Norma Rae, a 1979 biopic in which Sally Field played Crystal Lee Sutton, who successfully organized a strike at a southern textile mill.

Sorry to Bother You may make more of an impact than Norma Rae precisely because it’s not a film “about” organizing, which might come across as didactic or inaccessible to audiences who don’t see themselves as political, or who’d rather avoid a biopic on a Saturday night. By embedding his message in the Trojan horse of satirical comedy, Riley has made the indignity of wage labor a part of the public conversation, including among a multiracial demographic that has been excluded from media narratives about the progressive movement, even as we drive it.

The diverse cast challenges the myth that class struggle must come at the expense of nonwhite interests—an increasingly popular characterization among liberals who’ve argued against breaking up the banks because it won’t cure racism, who’ve undermined a “new” New Deal on the basis that racial disparities marred the original, or who’ve implied, even if unwittingly, that the recent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado were somehow at odds with the interests of people of color. But its equally relevant for working-class white audiences for whom a genuinely worry-free “white voice” is inaccessible, too.

Of course, the class struggle is most urgent for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, which, due to a legacy of racism, is disproportionately nonwhite. As Terry Crews explained when asked why he took the role:

“It reminded me of so many people I grew up with in Flint, Michigan. They’d given up all of their dreams, everything they wanted in life for the security of the factory, and it turned on them. They told you you’re gonna have health care for life, you’re gonna have this for life—everyone was told the same thing: This is for life, y’all. And it went 15 years. And it was over. And everybody was like, ‘What do I do now?’”

Earlier in the interview, Crews summed it up precisely: “This is the movie we didn’t know we needed.”

Today, when the country is being led by a cruel megalomaniac who has been empowered by a decades long, corporate-funded attack on democracy, hope can seem elusive, even naive, and political art can seem similarly hollow. Yet when art connects to movements, it transforms superficial hope into something weighty with possibility: a plan.

The Intercept, July 25, 2018