By Steve D’Arcy
[Note: this contains some plot spoilers.]
Those who avoided reading Karl Marx’s three-volume, 2,500 page magnum opus, Capital, in the improbable expectation that someday a movie version would come out, have finally got their wish. Boots Riley’s film, Sorry to Bother You, may indeed be the most marxist film ever made.
Riley’s remarkably ambitious film is, in fact, many things: a critique of the “sign-spinning” role of the ‘culture industry’ under capitalism, a challenge to the self-understanding and the self-importance of activist subcultures, an attempt to dramatize a way of thinking about working-class consciousness in a cultural setting where 70% of Americans think of themselves as “middle class,” a meditation on the complicated relation between dignity and both performance and the refusal to perform, and a self-critical exploration of the temptation of film to replicate uncritically the “scripts” or conventions of bourgeois ideology instead of exposing their deceptive and self-destructive character — and much more besides. But here I want to focus especially on one dimension of this complex, multidimensional cinematic achievement: the film’s attempt to restate the argument of Marx’s Capital.
Consider, in particular, the metaphor at the very centre of Marx’s book: the passage, across a threshold, from the surface domain of “circulation,” into a “hidden abode,” the behind-the-scenes domain of “production.” Marx puts it like this:
Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags [the capitalist] and by the possessor of labour-power [the worker], we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere [of circulation or buying and selling], where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all people, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making. (Marx, Capital, I, ch. 6)
This hidden abode of production, Marx points out, is not about ‘consumers’ making ‘choices,’ or people seeking ‘opportunities’ to obtain ‘satisfaction’ by entering into ‘contractual arrangements’ — the jargon of capitalism’s flattering self-understanding. No, in this hidden abode, we move from the surface of choice and contract, to the deep structure of capitalism as a form of coercion, domination, and exploitation.
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding. (Marx, Capital, I, ch. 6)
The remarkable “plot twist” in Sorry to Bother You follows Marx’s logic to a tee, even to the point of taking literally Marx’s formula, “a change in the physiognomy [i.e., facial configuration] of our dramatis personae.” Marx’s metaphor refers to the shift from the free and equal preference-motivated consumers making choices, to the dominated labourers pressed into the service of powerful exploiters. In Riley’s film, the “physiognomy,” the very bodily structure and physical features of the system’s work-horses, is transformed visibly, so that the characters or “dramatis personae” turn into horse-people, reduced to their capacity to carry the load of capitalist production.
It is worth recalling that Marx refers to child factory workers as “work-horses” in Capital, I (chapter 10, section 6). Later in the book, Marx cites an observer of South American mine workers who notes that their bosses “treat them like horses.” Riley is no doubt right to see this metaphor as an illuminating condensation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, combining as it does the idea of workers as victims of the system who are exploited for their productivity, but also as bearers of the power to ‘buck’ the system, and thereby to embody a special kind of nobility and even a super-human strength, as drivers of the process of their own liberation.
Like Marx’s Capital, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You places class and class struggle at the very centre of its worldview. In particular, it proposes a way of thinking about “class consciousness.” In this conception, most people are workers, yet they don’t identify with their status as workers, regarding working-class membership as a kind of danger or threat to their self-image and social aspirations. Membership in the working class is a reality that many workers want to conceal from themselves as well as from others. Famously, or infamously, in US culture to be identified as working-class is widely perceived as a kind of humiliation, which is why so many American workers consider themselves to be “middle class,” not working class.
In this film, those hoping to elude the threat of being revealed as a worker try to escape this fate by exploring various officially authorized avenues of escape: one can try to “get ahead” by seeking “success,” pursuing the promise of affluence; one can try to rebel in the performative mode (“Left Eye”), pursuing the promise of a unique anti-systemic efficacy; one can try to retreat into creativity and artistic performance, pursuing the promise of imaginary liberation from forms of domination that are all too real. All of these avenues are adopted by leading characters in the film. As Riley presents them, though, these are all evasions, motivated by the false promise that one can find dignity, protection from the perceived humiliation of being working-class, in scrupulous compliance with some script about how we’re supposed to live in order to be ‘special’ or to gain approval or recognition. Again and again, though, the characters crash into the reality that these performances of being special all end in the very humiliation that they are supposed to insulate them from.
Ultimately, the characters find that the only way to secure their dignity is to be honest — to stop performing — and accept the reality of their “dehumanization,” as a kind of opening toward a dialectical reversal. According to Marx, workers “have a world to win,” but the world can only be won if we first of all accept that we have “nothing to lose.” Marx tried to capture the dialectical character of this predicament, the working-class situation, in the idea of “radical chains”: a state of being “which has a universal character by its universal suffering” and which becomes fully human only because it starts from a “complete loss of humanity,” such that its liberation has to be a revolution which changes everything. (These quoted bits are from Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.”) And so it is that in this film, only the most humiliated, dehumanized, but also the least fake characters — the equisapiens — actually live dignified lives. But they live out dignity, not quite because “all labour has dignity,” as Martin Luther King would say, but because the authenticity of their revolt, which is about power, not performance, enacts precisely the kind of freedom, solidarity, and autonomy that capitalism’s systems of exploitation and oppression try to deny them.
Arguably, anti-capitalist revolt has proven more difficult, and pro-capitalist ideology has proven more attractive to workers, than Marx’s Capital had led us to expect. The problem of ideological attachment to the system has for this reason been a central theme of Marxism for the past 100 years. This theme is also taken up by Riley’s film, as characters adopt strategies of resistance that seem only to confirm their stubborn attachment to or complicity with the system they are supposed to be opposing. The Left Eye ‘culture jamming’ group — a bit reminiscent of Banksy, perhaps — is depicted by Riley as sincere in motive, and to that extent admirable, but at the same time woefully incapable of having its intended effect of undermining capitalist hegemony. On the contrary, the film’s main villain, the prototypical Bay Area ‘disruptive entrepreneur’ Steve Lift, actually seeks out Left Eye protest images and displays them in his mansion, as edgy cultural collectibles. In a parallel failure, when the system’s work-horses deploy their power to defeat the police vehicles that had initially defeated the strike tactics introduced by Cassius Green, the clueless activists imagine that they themselves are responsible for act of the equisapiens, which the activists imagine to be a confirmation of their supposedly inspiring organizing work. Cash’s sometimes partner, Detroit, goes so far as to call Cash the “mastermind” behind a victory that he not only didn’t orchestrate, but didn’t even see coming.
But Riley does not really look down on these failed resistance methods, from a holier-than-thou posture. He says even to himself, as Marx puts it in Capital, “De te fabula narratur,” that is, “This story is also about you!” Indeed, Riley is at his most interesting and subtle when he exposes the work itself, his own film, to the very objection he levels at other forms of cultural politics. “Stick to the script,” the workers at the call centre in Sorry to Bother You are repeatedly told by their bosses. But this, after all, is itself a line in a script. And this is one of the many signals in Sorry to Bother You urging the viewer to be critical, not just of the film’s obvious targets — capitalism, liberalism, and the aspiration to be something “more than” a worker — but also of the form and medium of the critique itself. It is no accident that, when the film’s capitalist villain tries to discourage Cassius Greene (pronounced “cash is green”) from identifying with his fellow workers (“equisapiens”), he does so by showing him a film. Indeed, at the heart of Riley’s movie is a kind of pervasive self-deprecation of artistic form as such: art is fundamentally performance, and performance — Riley wants to argue — is always tempted to become a kind of fakery in which we ultimately demean ourselves by pretending to be something we’re not, or rather pretending not to be what we are: “use your white voice”; “I know you can rap,” “you can be a power caller,” and so on.
When we express ourselves in the mode of performance, “it sounds like a voice-over,” as one character says, drawing our attention (in a bluntly Brechtian mode), on the one hand, to the fact that as we watch the film we’re listening to voice-overs, and on the other hand, to the fact that the voice-overs aren’t just actual voice-overs, but they are voice-overs that sound like voice-overs, that is, performances of what-performances-are-supposed-to-be-like. The very difficulty of extricating ourselves from performance, to tell the simple truth about ourselves, even to ourselves, is underlined again and again. As Marx puts the point in Capital: “[I]n their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted form.”
Of course, there is, crucially, a third film that we’re shown by Riley. In addition to the meta-film itself, Sorry to Bother You, and the capitalist self-justification film, there is also the equisapien backstory ‘exposé’ video, taken on a phone. In many ways, understanding the relationship between these three films — the work of art itself, the capitalist propaganda film, and the proletarian honest self-revelation (“I’m suffering!”) film, is the key to understanding Riley’s vision and his conception of the relation between art, truth, performance, dignity/humiliation and class. (The lifting of the garage door near the end is a kind of fourth film, albeit in the mode of — very literally — street theatre; and the overall plot consists mainly in a series of performances, punctuated by occasional refusals to perform, although some of these ostensible refusals to perform prove also to be stuck in the mode of performance, or sticking to the script, to which characters often find themselves to be — in a word that is ever-present in this film, like a haunting spectre — “glued.“)
The suffering of working-class people — on blunt display in the exposé phone-video — is not merely a plot development affecting “dramatis personae,” fictional or fictionalized characters. On the contrary, the suffering that capitalism inflicts is all too real. In this sense, Riley’s story about capitalist work-horses who suffer and revolt is in a very important sense “based on a true story.” Or rather, it is itself a true story. But notice the paradoxical quality of the expression “true story.” Is it a story or is it true? Can it be both? Riley’s film embodies a hope that yes, you can tell the truth about capitalism, so that — as Marx put it — those who hear the story are “at last compelled to face with sober senses [their] real conditions of life, and [their] relations with [their] kind.”
Ultimately, this is Riley’s most audacious ambition, in Sorry to Bother You: to create a film that breaks out of the cinematic enclosure, that defies the constraints of culture-industrial sign-spinning, and that “bursts asunder” the fetters of artistic form in order to attack — rather than simply to narrate — the workings of the capitalist system. This ambition requires him, however, to change his audience, to sober up our senses.
Can a film be true? More to the point, can a film about capitalism avoid being recuperated by the system as just another commodity to make money for the culture-industry? Predictably, Riley sides with Marx, who said: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question…. Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”