‘Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” asked Professor Henry Higgins, prior to elevating a flower girl to the condition of a duchess, merely by fixing her elocution. The Anglo-Saxon verities of class and speech, as proclaimed in Shaw’s Pygmalion via the stage musical, are transferred to race in this anarchic satire on capitalism from the Chicago rapper and film-maker Boots Riley. It’s a funny, persistently startling and cheerfully offensive futureworld fantasy about a black guy called Cassius Green (pronounced “cash is green”) played with heroically unharshed mellow by Lakeith Stanfield.
Cassius is living in a converted garage and he is broke, which annoys both his rent-starved landlord and his girlfriend, aspiring conceptual artist Detroit (Tessa Thompson). His very last chance to earn some money comes when he gets a job at a call centre – that 21st-century mix of the factory and the workhouse – wearing his phone headset in his grim little booth, desperately trying to make cold-call sales. Something in his phone manner deters potential customers until the grizzled old-timer in the booth next to him, played by Danny Glover, tells Cassius to use a “white voice”. This he does, and is instantly a mega-selling sensation: all his cloying mannerisms and faux-casual friendliness, which were so awful from a black person, sound great in whitespeak, especially that ingratiatingly insincere declaration in the title.
Cassius is promoted upstairs to where the “power callers” hang out in workplace luxury, and where Cassius finds out the awful truth about the corporation of which this telesales company is merely a part – and its visionary CEO Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer. He also has a crisis of loyalty to his call-centre comrades, who are forming a union to fight for decent pay.
In its brashness and dystopian stylisations, Sorry to Bother You has obvious similarities to the movie-making of Spike Lee, and specifically his latest picture, BlacKkKlansman, about a black cop who by pretending to be white over the telephone is able to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. In the globalised world of marketing and direct sales, the imposture of voice is very important, and the illusion of white identity can give black workers a whole new opportunity – not for equality or prosperity, but for cultivating new, speciously reassuring mannerisms of domestic servitude.
Comics such as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and George Lopez have famously had material satirising the “white voice” and its earnest baritone, and how it is not neutral and value-free in the way that white people think it is, but a particular idiomatic style whose foreignness becomes obvious when it is mocked. From a quite different angle, but with equal satiric tactlessness, the white lady in Airplane! (1980) offers to “speak jive” to help the white flight attendant talk to the black passengers.
But the “white voice” is actually more surreal than this. Instead of Stanfield doing an impression, he is dubbed by an actual white actor: David Cross. Another power caller, known enigmatically as Mr — (Omari Hardwick) is dubbed by Patton Oswalt. And even Detroit, when she presents her site-specific performance pieces to an audience, has her Eliza Doolittle moment, finding that she is doing a posh white British voice, dubbed by Lily James.
Until the movie takes peculiar narrative left turns – with these theatrical and almost Brechtian effects, and furthermore taking in the crazy worlds of reality TV and social media with their various illusions of customer participation – its comedy is reasonably naturalistic and plain. The call centre has something of The Office, as presented by Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell, particularly in the uptight management figure of Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) who is called on to address the mulish troops.
It is when Cassius goes to the sinister upper floor that things get wacky and strange, and here is where the story could have run out of steam, over-reliant on weirdness. But a bizarre new twist keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s a Swiftian vision of the service industry’s evolutionary future, or perhaps anti-Swiftian.
Keeping it all together is Lakeith Stanfield, who has an easygoing way of behaving as if he has been recently, but uncomplainingly, woken from a light nap, even when he has sustained a head injury in mortifying circumstances that have made him a YouTube sensation, even when he is terrified out of his wits. Stanfield has a heroic lightness and calm.
Peter Bradshaw Guardian Dec 2018