Watching Boots Riley’s incredible debut film, Sorry To Bother You, reminded me of that infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad from last year.
You remember the one. There’s conflict brewing between protesters and policemen. You can feel a riot is about to start, but lucky for us, Kendall Jenner arrives bearing gifts: Good old American Pepsi! She hands the beverage to a police officer and the tension falls away.
The commercial was met with widespread criticism for a number of reasons (that’s not how cops act!), but one complaint was that Pepsi attempted to co-opt the rise of activist movements across the country following the election of Donald Trump. It presented protest, not as a necessary and useful means to change society, but as a fashion choice.
In Boots Riley's film we have another scene that a includes protestors, policemen, and a soda can, and the similarities are more than artificial.
~~~~~ Spoilers ~~~~~
Sorry To Bother You is about Cassius Green, a young black man hired at a telemarketing company who quickly rises in the ranks by using his “white voice” on the phone to make more sales. But just as he is promoted to the prestigious position of Power Caller, his colleagues begin protesting to form a union. This means Cassius has to cross the picket line with police protection in order to get to work and at one point, a protestor chucks a soda can at him.
Then things get really crazy.
A video of the incident goes viral. The woman who threw the can becomes a celebrity. Merchandize mimicking the moment — fake afros with soda cans in them — start popping up everywhere.
What began as a legitimate social movement against the capitalist hierarchy, has now been caricatured, simplified into just another product that serves a financial end. People don’t have to actually help the original protest. They can just buy the merch and show “solidarity.”
This taps into what philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls the purest form of “cultural capitalism.”
Žižek argues that, as consumers, we have the conflicting desires to obtain products while also feeling the need to protest the negative effects of that consumption. We want clothes, cars, electronics, ect., but we don’t like that having these things means that other people are worked to death in factories, or that the environment is destroyed.
But in today’s capitalism, Žižek says, “more and more the tendency is to bring the two dimensions together in one and the same gesture. So that when you buy something, your anti-consumer duty to do something for others, for [the] environment and so on is already included into it.”
He points to a Starbucks marketing campaign where they used the slogan, “It’s not just what you’re buying, it’s what you’re buying into.” Your money didn’t just buy a cup of coffee, it also went to support Fairtrade coffee so that farmers earned a higher wage.
And while there is obviously nothing wrong with charity in and of itself, what’s being sold here is not the cure to a problem, but the feeling of having participated in curing a problem. And as a result, the exercise only perpetuates the issue. The underlying causes of these problems remain unaddressed, and so these gestures are self-serving, masking egotism with the appearance of altruism.
As Žižek sums it up, “You don’t just buy a coffee… In your very consumerist act, you buy your redemption from only being a consumerist.”
You can watch Žižek's full argument in the video below.
In the same vein, Pepsi wanted to turn their drink into an activist symbol and cash in on a trend. And so we end up in the ridiculous scenario where PepsiCo executives dream about their product being embraced as the calling card of (potentially) anti-capitalist movements.
Likewise, the people of Sorry To Bother You can buy a Cassius Green Afro and show their support for the union, reaping all the social capital aligning yourself with a popular movement reaps you, without having to do any of the hard work. They don’t have to write their congressmen or volunteer their time. Just buy a thing. Doesn’t that feel good?
This is just one of the ways that the film explores capitalism’s remarkable ability to control activist movements formed against it.
The end game plot of the film involves a Silicon Valley-type CEO named Steve Lift who wants to genetically transform his (literal) slave labour force into half-human, half-horse workers (beasts of burden, get it?) But, knowing that doing something so obviously inhumane will inevitably lead to an uprising against him, he wants to plant Cassius within the ranks of the “equisapiens” so that he can be their Martin Luther King figure. Not a real MLK-figure mind you, but a disingenuous one. One owned by a corporation.
This is reminiscent of a few other stories that are also critiques of capitalism. In the 1976 classic, Network, Howard Beale rants and raves against the corporate machine, but his superiors are perfectly willing to stoke his fires up until the moment he starts to lose them money. At that point, they play one social movement against another by having a group of communist rebels assassinate Beale.
I've been talking about Network a lot recently. The top video is a video essay I made on the writing of the film, and on the bottom, is a podcast I went on to analyze the themes of the movie.
A more recent example is the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In that dystopian society, Bing finally snaps and threatens to kill himself with a shard of glass while on a reality TV show, demanding that he get a few minutes to state his complaints. He lambasts the entire structure of their society and every injustice it produces in one cathartic speech, but his words don’t lead to sweeping societal changes.
No, instead, the reality TV producers like his passion so much, they give him his own show where he can rant some more without harming the rest of the system. They even begin selling digital versions of Bing’s shard of glass that citizens can buy for their online avatars.
What Network and Black Mirror have in common is the acknowledgement that these systems of power are well-armed to handle the protests of individuals. Instead of silencing Beale or Bing, they amplify their voices and profit off of them, ultimately corrupting them into the system itself.
Sorry To Bother You takes this observation one a step further.
Instead of just profiting off of whichever voice rises to critique the system, this new breed of capitalist leaders epitomized by Steve Lift are anticipating the inevitability of activist uprisings. They understand the threat it poses to their position, and are willing to use all means at their disposal to delegitimize activism as a concept.
Director Boots Riley has said that he considers art and activism to be one and the same. His film is a call-to-action, a rallying cry to those dispossessed by capitalism. So, what solution does the film posit? Well, unlike Network and Black Mirror, which end with the system defeating the outspoken individual, Sorry To Bother You ends with mob violence. We’re made to assume that that violence will ultimately lead to an overthrow of capitalism and a more just society.
But will it? Will it in their world or in ours? This is where the message of the film truly becomes uncomfortable, a bother. If any peaceful protest of capitalism is vulnerable to having its symbols and its leaders hijacked by the very system they are meant to protest, what other option is there?
This film does not offer one, and that might be the bleakest sentiment I’ve ever seen in a comedy.