‘Subject yourself to this:’ ‘Sorry to Bother You’ and white voice through the lens of Frantz Fanon

Annapurna Pictures/Courtesy

Spanning a wide range of the genre spectrum, “Sorry to Bother You” encompasses comedy, magic realism and even science fiction. With its heavily relevant economic and social themes and extremely eccentric imagery, the film takes audiences on one hell of a trip. The vivid colors, quirky fonts and other comedic aspects of this film might fool people into accepting it as a typical family-night run-through, but the satirical quality and cynicism it delivers makes it an unforgettable cinematic educator.

Directed by Boots Riley, “Sorry to Bother You” revolves around Cassius Green, a Black telemarketer who attains career success and is promoted to the mysterious position of “power caller.” He quickly realizes that he is expected to sell for WorryFree — a company that employs people under an unyielding contract to work for room and board rather than a salary in a modern configuration of slavery — and he subsequently falls into a destructive realm of confusion and self-doubt.

The film rightly achieved financial success and raving reviews, and one of the most innovative aspects of the film was the modernized form of identity confusion called “white voice.” Though the protagonists of Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are both played by Black actors, they at times employ the “white voice” of dubbed-over, white, occasionally British actors. The effect on-screen is immediately jarring and comedic — when Cassius’ more experienced co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), first explains what white voice is, he suddenly breaks into a high-pitched, shrill voice that greatly contrasts from his actual one. All gravity is gone from both his voice and from his person, yet he sells so much the better for it.

…the satirical quality and cynicism it delivers makes it an unforgettable cinematic educator.

The implication is clear: The United States is not just the land of success — it is the land of white success, and to achieve that success, you must be white or possess white qualities.

To certain viewers, this concept is a familiar one, serving as a sort of “well, duh” moment as the on-screen characters’ fortunes are changed simply by the level of virtue associated with their vocal projection. But here, white voice is not an abstracted notion. It is directly juxtaposed against the image of the Black individual, and its status as visual evidence makes it all the more powerful.

“Sorry to Bother You” introduces white voice as a direct response to the white gaze. The job of telemarketing itself eradicates reliance on the sense of vision and face-to-face interactions. Cassius Green can freely use his white voice without worrying about being “hailed,” a term coined by Louis Althusser and elaborated on by Frantz Fanon.

Fanon described four steps to racial objectification in “The Fact of Blackness,” a chapter in his book called “Black Skin, White Masks.” The first of those is the “hail,” the moment when a police officer shouts, “Hey, you there!” and an individual turns to answer the call.

According to Althusser, human beings are hailed into subject positions, and they are interpellated if they both recognize and accept this subject position. The subject position, in this case, is not necessarily a negative one to be in — it may even be self-affirming. Fanon sees that for the Black individual, on the other hand, hailing induces the opposite effect: rather than being hailed for their actions, they are hailed because of their identity and outer appearance. Once the Black individual is hailed and forced to respond, they become objectified under the scrutiny of the white gaze that called to them for no other purpose than to otherize. They experience not the shift from object to subject but rather the opposite.

Just as Cassius employs a white voice to further his effectiveness in sales, the narrative utilizes the motif of the “white voice” to highlight methods of othering that extend beyond the skin.

Because skin color is so immediately confrontational, it is easy to enact prejudice without even listening. The scenes of telemarketing eliminate the option of gaze within the narrative while preserving it for the movie’s own audience, forcing moviegoers to face this discomforting distinction of pre-emptive racism.

In order to avoid this degradation, the Black characters in “Sorry to Bother You” all resort to their voices that bypass the visual laws of the racial/ epidermal schema. The white voice is a survival instinct; a skill that disenfranchised Black people had to adopt in order to simply pay rent and eat a meal. Cassius ends up in a negative feedback loop; he is incessantly forced to use white voice more and more as he moves up the corporate ladder.

This paradox — that a Black individual succeeds because he disavows his own Blackness — is the second step of Fanon’s racial objectification: being for others. The Black man then becomes alienated from his own identity and begins to mull in self-hate for indulging a group of people who have branded him as inferior. White voice only perpetuates institutionalized racism in white society. In the middle of the film, after his promotion, Cassius goes on the television program “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!” The show itself a metaphor for perpetualized racism and self-inflicted violence — it is not, after all, called “They Kicked the  S#*@ Out of Me.” The promoted Cassius got “it,” it being the key to success in white America, but he also gets it.

Once the Black individual is hailed and forced to respond, they become objectified under the scrutiny of the white gaze that called to them for no other purpose than to otherize

Ironically, although Cassius gets swept up in this paradoxical loop, he displays horror when he sees his girlfriend Detroit do the same, asking her directly, “Why would you subject yourself to this?” Detroit uses her white voice — embellished with an British accent by English actress Lily James — when she explains her artwork, playing into the white perception of artists as cultured, continental and elegant. Detroit asks the people who came to her art gallery to throw cellphones and balloons filled with sheep’s blood at her as a type of performance art. As these objects batter her body, she sheds her white voice, a form of self-degradation and of rebirth.

Through the horror of witnessing a loved one subject herself to torment, Cassius sees in Detroit a reflection of himself, and he attempts to stop the show from continuing. Cassius, in doing so, experiences the third stage of Fanon’s racial objectification: third-person consciousness in which the Black individual is forced to come out of their own body and see themself in through the eyes of the viewer, epidermalizing their own subjectivity.

Cassius is persuaded by his potential salary to promote and encourage slave labor, an institution his very DNA should be rejecting and fighting against. The fixation within such a harmful cycle is the last stage of Fanon’s racial objectification. In the conclusion of the film, Cassius is physically transformed into a horse-man-hybrid — the new workforce of WorryFree to increase efficiency — against his will. His horse-self has no race, thoroughly completing his loss of identity. Even when Cassius realizes the harm of the cycle that began with his use of white voice, he can no longer be liberated from it.

Examining “Sorry to Bother You” through the lens of Fanon’s theory helps people understand why the film was such a success and how it became a film of incredible social relevance. As UC Berkeley students and employees march on Sproul Plaza asking for fair contract negotiation and activists around the country raise their voices against the “hailing” power of police brutality, “Sorry to Bother You” reminds its audience that one cannot oppose the system while working along the tenets of that system. It encourages the eradication of the hail and the implementation of a warm, extended hand in its place: a greeting that invites others to speak as themselves and initiate conversation devoid of hatred: Hi, how are you? Sorry to bother you.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected]