‘Sorry to Bother You’ Is Boldly Anti-Imperialistic
A surreal movie with real politics
Sorry to Bother You, an explicitly left-wing surrealist satire written, directed and produced by Oakland-based rapper Boots Riley has become one of the surprise box-office hits of 2018. Kicking off the year as one of the darlings of the Sundance Film Festival, the indie flick had one of 2018’s five best per-screen openings in limited release, going on to expand to wide release and earn back its budget five times over in just its first month.
Not bad for a movie that couldn’t find funding for six years.
Sorry to Bother You uses a sort of covert science fiction to present its satire, set in what appears to be a near-future or very slightly alternate history Oakland. What really sets the film apart, however, is a bold anti-imperialism that no other U.S. films — independent or otherwise — have put forward in recent years.
This is no surprise to fans of Riley’s self-described Maoist hip hop group The Coup, but with the success of Sorry to Bother You the message is reaching audiences that may have no idea about these controversies, thanks to media silence on them outside this film.
Very minor spoilers follow, but I won’t ruin the film’s big surprises.
Pointing out the existence of the military-industrial complex isn’t particularly radical, unless we consider Dwight Eisenhower to be a left-winger. What Sorry to Bother You does, however, is demonstrate the relationship between war-making and the economic fortunes of average workers.
Cassius Green, the film’s African American protagonist, works as a low wage telemarketer who rises to the top of his company, RegalView, thanks to his superb “white voice.” He is promoted to the rarefied status of “power caller,” the cornerstone of RegalView’s business.
The power callers do not sell encyclopedias like the rank and file telemarketers Cassius has been working among to that point, they sell weapons systems and slave labor to labor-intensive manufacturers. His initial tour of the power caller offices features a T.V. showing artillery and missiles firing.
The connection between manufacturing fortunes and the weapons industry is well made. At least 10 pecent of all U.S. manufacturing is involved in defense production, comparable to the auto industry. This does not necessarily take into account all of the services and industrial input invested into weapons making either, extending its impact on the U.S. economy.
The United States is far and away the world’s largest arms exporter, accounting for more than a third of global exports, a total of $80 billion annually. The U.S. economy is absolutely dependent upon the weapons industry.
We can see this in the fact that “defense” industries and aerospace manufacturing are among the biggest contributors to investment growth in the United States. Major investment companies State Street Global Funds, BlackRock and Invesco each offer exchange traded funds in the defense and aerospace sectors.
Over the last five years the S&P 500 has grown around 70 percent as of this writing, but State Street’s XAR fund has grown 123 percent, BlackRock’s iShares fund ITA has gone up 126 percent and Invesco’s PPA fund 113 percent. Without this explosive growth among the military-industrial complex the market as a whole would have been even less buoyant.
Obviously if the market struggles employers get stingy and all workers have trouble finding jobs, but it’s even more direct than that. Major employers such as Amazon depend upon military contracts. That company is in the middle of a growing controversy over a $10-billion data contract with the Department of Defense seemingly written so that only their web services division can meet all the bid requirements. One of their former lobbyists actually prepared the bid after entering “service” in the Trump Pentagon.
In an era when the Pentagon pays millions to influence the content of popular films — an especially pernicious tactic of the military-industrial complex — Sorry to Bother You dares instead to call out how every day workers are tainted by war profiteering. Cassius sees his life improve when he draws closer to defense sales, and even before then his seemingly unrelated job was dependent upon military industries. Riley’s film sends a clear message to U.S. workers.
Even more original and damning, however, is the film’s treatment of an especially important and brutal industry. The film’s female lead, named Detroit, puts on a performance art piece in a high-end gallery where she lectures the audience about coltan mining while they pelt her with ammunition casings, pigs’ blood, and dead cell phones. The scene is haunting, and may be one of the only mentions of coltan production in any popular film.
“Coltan” is short for columbite-tantalites, and is known industrially as tantalite. The element tantalum is essential for producing effective capacitors and resistors for electronics, especially for those intended to be lightweight. That means that essentially every smart phone, laptop, tablet and more or less every other consumer electronic needs tantalum — and particularly coltan. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, there is no ready substitute — without this mineral contemporary U.S. life is impossible, a point Sorry to Bother You makes.
More than a fourth of the world’s coltan comes from Central Africa, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Australia’s reserves have declined sharply in recent years, and the only significant alternative to DRC coltan comes from the jungles where Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia meet. In both Africa and South America coltan mining is associated with terrible human-rights abuses.
Sorry to Bother You focuses on African coltan production, and in the DRC control of this vital, valuable resource has fueled one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. The Second Congo War technically lasted only between 1998 and 2003, but violence has been ongoing ever since, with up to 5.4 million people killed and more than 4 million people still displaced in the DRC.
The country is ruled by the corrupt dictator Joseph Kabila who took over for his father Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001. Kabila’s family controls most of the coltan production in the DRC, making them fabulously wealthy even while the Congo is — according to the IMF — the second-poorest country in the world per capita. According to Amnesty International children as young as seven are forced to work 12 hour days for one dollar mining coltan, and in some instances they are worked as unpaid slaves.
Proper working conditions, fair wages, human rights, ending corruption and providing a share of profits to the public would dramatically raise the price of coltan and with it, the cost of virtually all electronic devices. This would undermine the profits of U.S. companies, especially the “FAANGs” responsible for virtually all stock market growth in the last few years — named for the first letters of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
This is probably why the United States military has supported the Kabila government, and it’s probably why a low budget independent film like Sorry to Bother You is one of the only places you’ll hear about coltan mining in popular entertainment. The U.S. Army helped establish a logistics school with the DRC military in 2015, provided intelligence training in 2013, and has regularly trained and advised their armed forces.
If all of this wasn’t enough, Pres. Barack Obama welcomed Kabila to the White House in 2014, enjoying dinner with him. Prior to that, Kabila was given the chance to hold a press conference with then-Secretary of State John Kerry. Riley has said that he wrote Sorry to Bother You while Obama was in office and that its damnation of this country’s problems is not specific to one party and certainly not new under Donald Trump.
The people of the Congo would have to agree.
As it stands, Sorry to Bother You is one film with a tiny budget up against a multi-billion dollar slate of films influenced and even funded by elements tied to the military industrial complex. Still, in a world where the powers that be are loath to admit just how reliant we all are on brutality abroad, where even those on the left decline to acknowledge how bad the problem is, it’s still a bit shocking to see a movie blowing up box offices while telling such truly inconvenient truths.