This review contains major spoilers for Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You. It’s well worth the watch, so come back to this after you’ve got to the theater!
In the recent film Sorry to Bother You, unemployed and indebted Cassius “Cash” Greene accepts a last-ditch job with a telemarketing agency. Ushered to a spartan cubicle in a room crammed with perhaps one hundred other telemarketers, he’s told to “Stick to the Script”: provide a standardized pitch on each call, and carry out the human interaction work a machine can’t quite manage yet. He soon learns, though, that acting like a machine gets him nowhere. Despite the company’s asseverations to the contrary, maximizing sales requires improvisation and creativity. When Cassius discovers how to use his “white voice” —rendered cleverly by a white voice actor— his success snags him a promotion to the luxurious upstairs “power caller” position.
But in his new professional world, awash in cocktail parties and compliments on his sexual prowess, Cassius doesn’t sell encyclopedias. He brokers arms deals and convinces companies to adopt the services of “WorryFree,” a company that provides cramped lodgings, mediocre food, back-breaking hours, but guaranteed work and income for a small price: a lifetime contract.
And Cassius is good at this. When the CEO of WorryFree hears about his performance, he invites him to an exclusive party as congratulations, presenting him as an authentic specimen of blackness for his white cadre, brought in from exotic Oakland — forcing him to tell gang stories he doesn’t have, demanding that he rap. These whims satisfied, the CEO then lets Cassius in on another whim of his, made real through his extreme wealth: because humans are insufficiently strong and obedient for WorryFree’s productivity goals, he’s developing a procedure to turn workers into brawny, compliant horse-human hybrids. WorryFree’s corporate targets will be more achievable with worry and freedom bred out.
There’s a lot at work in the movie, and I certainly won’t be able to speak to some of the racial aspects (see postscript for a couple notes on race, which is a major theme). But I can speak to the use of the horse.
In science fiction, questions of the boundaries of rights often involve machines: think Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, whom a researcher at one time proposes dissecting and replicating, a result Captain Picard argues would resurrect slavery. (See the episode “Measure of a Man.”) In Sorry to Bother You, however, the innovators’ gaze is warped not only by future-oriented myopia but by past-oriented rosy lenses: for millennia of human history, animal bodies were technologies. While they still are in some cases (see horseshoe crab blood, meat animals bred so large they cannot stand), in the industrialized West the average person has long been estranged from animal bodies. WorryFree remembers, though, and asks: why reinvent from scratch the basic materials evolution created for us? Why rewrite when you can remix?
Just as some blue-collar workers yearn for an impossible return to the seemingly immortal peak years of American manufacturing, however, WorryFree’s CEO is obsessed with romantic stereotypes of horses that hearken to a very particular historical moment, conflating it with all of human history. Humans have lived alongside, used, and bred horses for thousands of years, but the age of the workhorse lasted barely a century: about 1830 to 1920. As Ann Norton Greene’s excellent Horses at Work recounts, only when agricultural and urban machinery outgrew oxen’s abilities did horses come to the fore because, in short, they could more efficiently convert the energy they ingested into goods to sell. In addition, steam-powered railroads exponentially increased the volume of between cities but not within them, and horses almost exclusively filled the niche of intra-urban transit. As the century continued, we began to bred them for specific jobs: huge draft horses for industrial and transportation work, ponies for sunless mine work, thoroughbreds for racing. Entirely new industries arose to classify and grade horses and thus boost their sellability: societies to define and manage breed designations, professional veterinary medicine, horse importers, pedigree trackers. The demand for horse-bodied technology ballooned, the American horse population peaking between 1915 and 1920. Only the internal combustion engine displaced the horse. One technological innovation displaced a former.
This boom in animal technology and attendant new professions lent their rhetoric to the new human eugenics movement: preventing “undesirables” from reproducing (often by involuntary sterilization) and encouraging the unmarried to be just as selective in sexual partners as horse-breeders were with their stallions and mares. It is not hard to imagine them treating humans almost exactly like horses, but a couple things prevented it: slavery had been outlawed in industrialized nations, humans mature much more slowly, and human diversity and cultures tend to undercut predictions founded on guesses about individuals’ inborn natures. But Sorry to Bother You’s gene modifiers offer a workaround: just as we tailored horses’ bodies to our economic needs, why not tailor the human body?
It’s this aspect of the film that recalled to me C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. In this set of lectures, Lewis warns, for one, about the supposed “conquest” of “Nature” by scientific means. “What we call Man’s power,” he says, “is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. … [What] we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Technological advances do not obviate preexisting power relationships, and may simply enhance them. Turning to horses as technology, this is abundantly clear: the majority of today’s thoroughbreds descend from three Arabian sires colonialist Brits acquired about 300 years ago, the culmination of their quest for the uniquely-bred desert horses; horse breeding and deployment turned tides during even the American Civil War; and “perfecting” breeds for agricultural work was a matter of global economic importance. A telling demonstration of the utter dependence of commerce on horses was how intra-city logistics ground to a halt in cities across America in 1872 — all because of the “epizootic,” a virulent equine disease.
Lewis also warns against abandoning the idea of objective, universal moral principles: when we give up notions of “duty” and “good” (among others) as arbiters of our choices, those in power decide the values whereby choices will be judged. This does not bode well: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” Thus, while technological advances promise improvements in individual quality of life, their results threaten to subject us to others’ wants and whims: “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” The powerful, with the resources to harness the new technology and the bodies that operate it, have new outlets for their delusions and vices and can write their wealth-perverted wills into human bodies, as slavemasters did with lash and brand and rape and murder.
Lewis extends his gaze forward, hypothesizing what would these trends would mean, ultimately, for human bodies: “The final stage [of the conquest of Nature] is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.” And we should not assume that each of us will benefit from these changes: “The power of Man to make himself what he pleases means… the power of some men to make other men what they please.” Man will be “not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagines, by himself, but by mere appetite” of those who wish to alter humanity. Pray your employer doesn’t hear about transhumanism: he’ll see profit margins in disrupting your body.
And the kicker: what do these people slaver after? What does WorryFree’s CEO hope to get from the reworking of human bodies? What Marlowe’s Faustus desired: not knowledge, but the banal: “gold and guns and girls.”
Lewis, a man of his time and conservative background, tended to foresee vague, menacing government agencies, the “omnicompetent state,” as the agents of social and biological control — like the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., in his book That Hideous Strength. His contemporary Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, explored such a future, in which a “World State” enforces a human-modification program that produces entire human worker castes with artificially stunted capacities.
Sorry to Bother You, however, presents us with a world in which the profit motive, seeking ever-greater efficiency via maximal standardization and minimal human individuation, results in humans tampering with humanity itself. The amoral, self-absorbed, insulated wealthy, not state directives, shape the trajectory of human life. Ultra-capitalist WorryFree exemplifies all the attitudes that Lewis feared: the strategic reinterpretation of one’s lusts and greeds as altruism, the mistaken postulate that innovation is inherently synonymous with human gain, the alienation of a powerful elite from the rest of humanity to the point that it sees others as “Nature” to manipulate, (literally) animalize, and make technology.
In the Book of Mormon, King Mosiah abolishes the Nephite monarchy not out of a philosophical commitment to “liberty” as boundless self-determination, but because the concentration of moral influence in the gold-guns-and-girls King Noah had proven to lead an entire nation into temptation: “the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings.” Likewise, Lewis and Sorry to Bother You warn us that the concentration of economic power in the hands of too few people gives them a stage on which to make humanity play to please their all-too-human concupiscences. By showing the consequences of an unchecked profit-drive-made-flesh, the film casts new light on the immorality of widening wealth inequality: it’s not just a threat to human happiness or flourishing, but to human existence itself.
Others have noted the equation of black men and draft animals: viewed simultaneously (sometimes paradoxically) as strong but submissive, effeminate but sexually irrepressible. For instance, WorryFree’s CEO tries to lure Cassius into being the “MLK for the equisapiens” with the promise of an equine penis: a mix of racial prejudice and projection. Therefore, I’ll focus on other aspects. Katherine C. Mooney’s Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, resonated surprisingly strongly with Sorry to Bother You’s themes. Slaves who worked with racehorses were in a class by themselves: they held rare, irreplaceable knowledge and expertise that made them extraordinarily valuable, and often had privileges of travel, earnings, socialization, and recognition that few other slaves enjoyed; but they were still property. Similarly, Cassius’s promotion to “power caller” serves to estrange him from family, friends, and the black community, even as he shares his newfound riches with them.