The power of absurdism in ‘Sorry to Bother You’
There’s a sequence late in Boots Riley’s breakout summer hit “Sorry to Bother You” when protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, “Get Out”), the once down-on-his-luck telemarketer turned rising company star, is faced with a Faustian opportunity from international super-corporation C.E.O. Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, “Call Me by Your Name”). Given a taste of the untold riches that follow selling one’s soul, Green must decide to what extent his values (versus his wallet) will drive his decision. Now, such an epic crucible could be portrayed simply enough — a check on the table and a C.E.O.’s outstretched hand — but in wonderful “Sorry to Bother You” fashion, Riley doesn’t make it that easy.
In a film built around a telemarketer’s supernatural ability to perfectly code-switch into his “white voice” (the movie magic of the scenes supplied in a dubbed voiceover from David Cross of “Arrested Development”), the bar for what is considered shocking begins to climb. For Riley to get his point across, to really drive his message home, he doesn’t hold his punches.
The absurdism of “Sorry to Bother You” is a matter of form following function. Riley’s film is an extended conceit on the financial divide in our country, a cavernous separation that has only grown in recent decades. The absurd, real-life disparity in resources between those who have and those who do not is represented by fantastical, reality-bending sci-fi events and societal developments in the film’s alternate U.S.A. It’s not a new idea to use blown-out-of-proportion analogies when working towards social change (see “A Modest Proposal”), and while I doubt Riley will ever be Jonathan Swift, his methodology is true. Creating space for dialogue by expanding the conversation past what is real and true and already proposed can bring in new eyes and ears. Shocking, absurdist pieces of art can’t solve any problems directly (probably), but they no doubt can help to bring the championed issues closer to the forefront of people’s minds.
Additionally, Riley’s absurdism has a unique effect when carrying the weight of such real-life absurdities. In the film, without getting into too many spoilers, Lift’s idea for an army of workers under lifetime contracts who work and eat and sleep all in the factory (for efficiency, of course), sounds like a horrid breach of everything humane and acceptable in modern society. It’s the prospective distance between what is shown on screen — the nasty, unacceptable acts of a business magnate who has freed himself from all moral ties — and what we see in our own world that gives us the opportunity to ask “How absurd is this, really?” It’s those kinds of questions that make “Sorry to Bother You” a valuable piece of social criticism.