Hollywood films are about special people. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Tony Stark, T'Challa, Roy Kroc — they're protagonists because they're smart, or brave, or wise, or intelligent, or some combination of all of those things. Hollywood heroes succeed because they are virtuous and talented and they live in a meritocracy, where virtue and talent are rewarded.
We like to think we live in that meritocracy too, which is why so many people insist that Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett have risen to the top through their brilliance and insight and hard work. Boots Riley's near-future sci-fi comedy “Sorry to Bother You” is skeptical, though. Meritocracy, the film argues, is a myth that buttresses predatory capitalism and injustice. To get to a better world, we need to join together to resist all those folks who think success means stepping on someone else.
Hollywood heroes succeed because they are virtuous and talented and they live in a meritocracy, where virtue and talent are rewarded.
The budding meritocratic protagonist of “Sorry to Bother You” is impoverished sad-sack Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield). Cash lives in his uncle's garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and walks with a characteristic slouch, as if he's expecting the world to spit on him. But he's got big dreams, just like all those other Hollywood protagonists. And just like those other protagonists, the movie chronicles his change in fortunes. He gets a job at RegalView telemarketing and soon starts succeeding at capitalism like a boss.
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The twist is that Cash's success isn't due to hard work or talent. A coworker advises him to start making calls using a "white" voice (provided by David Cross). This is not so much the voice of actual white people, but the voice white people wish they had — self-confident, careless, breezy. Cash has essentially weaponized the phenomenon known as code-switching.
Cash's white voice is magically effective, and soon he's been promoted to the elite ranks of "Power Callers." The Power Callers work on an upper floor, and instead of peddling useless telemarketing crap, they sell global clients more valuable commodities. Specifically, they sell weapons systems and slave labor provided by a shady company called WorryFree. WorryFree dragoons desperate, impoverished people into unbreakable contracts, providing them with prison-like food and shelter in return for a lifetime of unremunerated labor.
Cash is understandably thrilled with his newfound wealth; He pays off his uncle's debts, buys a new car and moves out of the garage into a hip new pad with lots of light and the latest AV equipment. But most importantly, he now is able to view himself as a meritocrat. Cash tells Detroit repeatedly that he's finally found something that he's good at. He's no longer a nobody — he's a protagonist making his mark on the world due to his own skills and drive. Money doesn't just buy stuff; it buys affirmation, self confidence and self-respect. Even the computerized elevator that takes Cash to the Power Caller suite tells him how sexy his pheromones are.
Cash at first thinks his white voice is the equivalent of Luke Skywalker's force or Tony Stark's genius. It's a power he deserves. But it isn't. His success isn't due to virtue or genius. Instead, it's a combination of weird luck (other sellers’ white voices don't work nearly as well) and a willingness to betray himself and his morals. Detroit disgustedly tells Cash that success has made him less interesting. Instead of hanging out with friends who care about him, his wealth and power lead him to party with WorryFree's coke-snorting, casually racist CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who thinks all black people are gangsters who rap. "Is he one of the good ones?" Lift asks before shaking Cash's hand.
In “Sorry to Bother You,” being a successful meritocrat is inseparable from screwing other people over. To be better than everyone else, everyone else has to be worse off than you.
In addition to being racist, Lift's question is symbolic of a meritocratic worldview in which most people (and particularly most black people) are bad and only a few are good and worthy of a handshake. Lift is wrong, of course. All those Power Callers and CEOs aren't virtuous meritocrats. They're just the people who have managed, through a combination of greed, luck, racism and personal cruelty, to get their hands on the whips.
The alternative to meritocracy in the film is solidarity — specifically labor solidarity. The RegalView telemarketers stage a work stoppage to demand higher wages, and then move on to a full-blown strike. Cash's promotion takes him off the shop floor, but his success doesn't change the fact that his coworkers and friends still can't afford rent or food.
In most movies being a special protagonist is presented as a way to help and save everyone; you gain the magic superpower and rush off to do good. But in “Sorry to Bother You,” being a successful meritocrat is inseparable from screwing other people over. To be better than everyone else, everyone else has to be worse off than you. If you want to get that corporate suite, you've got to be willing to cross the picket line.
The movie ends with a vision of multi-racial (and even multi-species) revolt. It's an unapologetically radical film — and a film that understands how the narrative structure of most Hollywood films is deliberately designed to exclude radicalism.
Empowerment fantasies about special individuals encourage people to dream of outdoing their peers and leaving the rabble behind. Only when Cash accepts that he's not inherently better than anyone else is he finally able to stand with — and help — all the other people who aren't special either. Meritocracy is a scam; don't buy it.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."