It’s a good time to be an Oreo. Back in the days when I was a teenager, the black kids in Baltimore threw around that epithet with enviable ease. Oreo! Black on the outside, white on the inside. It’s a blunt insult, too blunt for skintones better rendered in shades of brown and a culture that deals in shade. The charge is impossible to refute, though: the second you deny it, some aspect of your denial becomes evidence for the claim, be it your nerdy recourse to logic in the face of the dozens, your weak comeback that hints at self-hatred—what’re you gonna do? Insult their blackness in turn?—or your whiny accent, which is likely what prompted the jibe in the first place. Simply to speak is to damn yourself. Woe unto you if you try to sound blacker.
Since the 1980s, sociologists and anthropologists have hijacked this playful signifying within the black community to explain the academic achievement gap, claiming that black students slack off because they equate “being smart” with “acting white.” This research has since been debunked. Indeed, no one knows better than black people that acting white—putting on the trappings of privilege, speaking as if you belong, as if you deserve to take whatever you want—has always yielded dividends in America. How do you think we got the Huxtables? (How do you think we got Bill Cosby?)
And now we have Donald Glover, who loves Star Trek and stars in Star Wars; Issa Rae, who raps her awkward-black-girl insecurities into the mirror and onto our screens; Michael B. Jordan, who stans anime and co-produced and acted in Fahrenheit 451. One of the most successful TV shows of late is Glover’s Atlanta, in which black culture’s internal variety and entanglement with white culture is on beautiful display in characters played by Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, Brian Tyree Henry, and Zazie Beetz. And the biggest film of 2018 thus far is Black Panther, a comic-book movie about an African kingdom whose claim to prominence is not music or sports but a technology program run by a nerdy princess named Shuri. We are solidly in The Era of the Oreo.
Acting white is the premise of Boots Riley’s raucous new film, Sorry to Bother You. Cassius Green (Cash for short), played with lithe, febrile grace by Stanfield, gets a job at an Oakland telemarketing company, RegalView. After several customers hang up on him, Cash gets some advice from a co-worker named Langston (played by OG Oreo Danny Glover): “Hey young blood. Lemme give you a tip. Use your white voice.” Cash brushes him off—people say he already talks with a white voice. Langston qualifies: no, not like Will Smith, not just sounding nasal, no. To have a white voice is to sound breezy, carefree, like you don’t really need the money. “It’s what white people wish they sounded like. What they think they’re supposed to sound like.” This a smart move on Riley’s part, akin to the one Ta-Nehisi Coates picked up from James Baldwin: to describe whiteness not as an identity but as the faith that possesses “those who believe they are white.” In the film, the rhetorical trope is made literal through dubbing: Cash’s white voice is played by David Cross. As his best friend Salvador (a sweet, dry Jermaine Fowler) says, “That’s some puppet master voodoo shit.”
What tumbles forth from this gag is a wild, campy romp. In desperate need of his namesake—Cash lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a car so wretched, so ratchet, that he operates the wipers by tugging strings threaded through the windows—he rides his white voice straight to the top floor, where the “Power Callers” work. The film’s central dilemma finds him torn between social mobility and a socialist movement, organized by another coworker Squeeze (a woke, low-key sexy Steven Yeun) and Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (the delectable, sloe-eyed Tessa Thompson). After the RegalView telemarketers strike, Cash breaks the picket line and soon loses his friends, his girlfriend, and his dignity—when a protester throws a soda can at his head, someone records the incident and posts it online. He spends the rest of the film as a meme, with a bloodspotted bandage wrapped around his forehead like a hipster sweatband.
Chaperoned by an eyepatch-wearing, white-voiced predecessor (played by a brooding Omari Hardwick and dubbed by Patton Oswalt), Cash’s success as a Power Caller leads to an invitation from RegalView’s biggest client, Worry Free. This company houses, feeds, and entertains its workers in a factory-like setting, and its marketing (“If you lived here, you’d be at work already”) recalls Silicon Valley’s persistent, perverse fusion of work and life. A wrong turn in a mansion at an exclusive company party leads Cash to discover that Worry Free is engaging in a far more perverse fusion (spoiler!)—of humans and horses. California—in filmic terms, always on the edge of the country, the future, technology, sanity—has once again birthed a monstrosity: “equisapien” laborers genetically modified to be “bigger, stronger,” and well-hung, to boot.
Lit by California’s neon sun and neon signs, flecked with bright colors that bespeak black aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s—think the hip-hop groups TLC and Salt-N-Peppa, or the Friday movies—Sorry to Bother You has been described as indebted to music videos. But it feels more like a brilliant cartoon to me: dubbed voices, slapstick violence, dumb jokes, over-the-top gestures. Kate Berlant is excellent as marketing consultant Diana DeBauchery, with her rolling eyes and heaving bosom. (“What is ‘capital’?” she smirks, making spastic finger quotes.) The film masterfully uses the cartoon logic of repetition too, extending certain sequences to hilarious—and discomfiting—effect.
So, when Diana first takes Cash up to the Power Caller floor, she presses a seemingly endless series of numbers into the security pad to access an elevator, which then rallies them to their work day by praising their sexual potency at length over the intercom. When Cash refuses to join the strike, he and Salvador engage in a hysterical rap battle, but of faux-pacetic encouragement rather than insults, one-upping each other with smarmy corporate-speak: “Best wishes!” “I hope your year is spectacular!” “It’s on me!” “No it’s on me!” At the Worry Free party, the CEO (a perfectly cast, buoyantly obnoxious Armie Hammer) insists that Cash spit some lines and starts up a rally cry among the white guests: “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” they chant for an awkwardly long time. Each bit is less like a running joke and more like if a joke were a run-on sentence—and, notably, most of them are pointed at white people, or rather, at the strained enthusiasm of their efforts to convince themselves of their whiteness.
Indeed, smuggled inside Riley’s rollicking mashup of surrealism and sci-fi is a cutting critique of race and class. It is a satire in the original, Greek sense—a satura, or medley, of forms that use humor and exaggeration to ridicule the vices of society. The film gives us a model for how to reconcile its unapologetic silliness and its political seriousness with its most appealing character, Detroit, whose empty New Age koans about “being present” are redeemed by her fierce, zany, brazen works of art. She makes her own earrings: little sculptures like a gold man in an electric chair and a sequined cock and balls, or big bubble letters with two-part messages like KILL KILL KILL/MURDER MURDER MURDER and TELL HOMELAND SECURITY/WE ARE THE BOMB. In one art performance, she decries the mining of coltan in Africa, then asks audience members to throw bullet casings, cell phones, and water balloons filled with goats’ blood at her barely clad body. She and a crew of art activists called the Left Eye install a kitschy sculpture in front of RegalView: the CEO of Worry Free fucking a horse from behind. Detroit sidles up to onlookers the next day and tries to influence their interpretation: “Maybe the artist is being literal.”
Detroit, like Riley, makes the kind of political art that critics might call “obvious” or “didactic”—it hits you over the head. But literalism is the bedrock of satire, along with reductio ad absurdum: taking something to its logical conclusion. Many of us first learned about satire by way of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that the solution to the problem of Irish famine was to eat babies. To make something utterly literal pushes through to the other side of the real—this is why satire so often bleeds into surrealism, as in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (a working man is a bug). But this kind of satire relies on a certain plausibility, too: its absurdity is an index of how idiotic, how ludicrous the current political reality actually is. Hence the mantras of Trump’s America: It must be hard to write satire right now. I thought this was The Onion at first. You can’t make this shit up.
Sorry to Bother You uses its literalism to canny effect. Left Eye is an allusion to TLC, but it also refers to a group of leftists. A popular TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me covers contestants in actual shit. When the partygoers exhort Cash to rap, he flails around and eventually just starts saying “nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga nigga nigga shit” to appease them. Well, precisely. The film’s action is made literal, too, through delightfully low-budget special effects. When Cash makes calls, his desk appears to drop right into customers’ homes. As his fortunes rise, his own cluttered home in his uncle’s garage cracks open—furniture and decor shed their dingy skin to reveal shiny new selves—until it has been replaced by an apartment straight out of Dwell, all clean lines and white planes and muted artwork. To cast off poverty like this might seem like a gimmick. To house workers in warehouses then spotlight them on a show called NTV Spots might seem hyperbolic. But spend one day with me in the Bay Area, where Boots Riley and I both live and where Sorry to Bother You was filmed, and you’ll realize how brutally accurate all this is, how mashed up against each other the mansions and the tents are over here.
In this sense, the movie is not just Marxist but materialist at heart. The dubbed voiceovers and the equisapiens both literalize figures of speech that have a sordid political history. To “talk white” is to ventriloquize a white actor’s voice. To turn workers into horses makes concrete the idea of the slave laborer as “packhorse” or “workhorse.” Hovering behind this absurd plot twist is a semantic history of oppression. Mulatto—a black and white human named for a mule, half-horse, half-donkey. Stud—the word for a horse who impregnates thoroughbreds, widely used to refer to black male slaves. This figure also plays with the legacy of horse-men in satire: from Shakespeare’s Bottom to Swift’s superior race of horses (the Houyhnhnms) in Gulliver’s Travels to BoJack Horseman. The film’s low-hanging horse dick jokes invoke those original hoofed hybrids, too, the satyrs, whose name is often mistaken for the origin of satire because the satyr plays were in fact satirical: tragicomic burlesques that used phallic props and priapic pranks to send up the intervention of the gods—the lazy, wealthy debauched One Percenters of their time—in human affairs.
But I don’t want to freight this carnivalesque jaunt with too much European historical baggage—or reinforce the tendency of reviews to frame it only in relation to white artwork. This film is black on the inside, too, reaching back through hip-hop and black cinema to a deep tradition of black satire: George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), which literalizes racial passing with a machine that turns black people white; Sun Ra’s standoff between blaxploitation and race pride in Oakland in Space Is the Place (1974); Richard Pryor pretending to be a deer in Live in Concert (1979). Fran Ross, who worked for the too-brief run of the Richard Pryor Show, published a novel in 1974 about a biracial super-heroine whose quest to find her father mirrors the Greek myth of Theseus. Full of vagina jokes—including a rubber “wedge” called the Maidenhead® that a potential rapist’s erection bounces off—etymological digressions, cartoonish violence, quirky diagrams to categorize shades of blackness, and a horse-dicked male prostitute named Kirk, Ross’s novel epitomizes the humor and the power of taking race “relations” literally. I like to think that it’s one ancestor to Riley’s rambunctious hybrid of a film. Its title, by the way, is Oreo.
Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is now in theaters.