Sorry to Bother You Has an Eerily Familiar Villain

In Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Armie Hammer portrays Steve Lift, the quirky, megalomaniacal CEO of a company that takes exploitation to a ghastly extreme.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift in 'Sorry To Bother You'
Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift in Sorry To Bother You (Annapurna Pictures)

This article contains light spoilers for the plot of  Sorry to Bother You.

“I just remember I heard the key words of, like, coke-fueled orgy, kind of a maniac,” Armie Hammer told IndieWire Studio of his decision to star in the rapper Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in, that sounds good!’”

The larger-than-life satire Hammer was describing follows a ragtag crew of Oakland young people who begin working as telemarketers at a shadowy company called RegalView. The plucky, morally conflicted Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his uncle’s garage and desperately needs the tedious gig his pal Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) helps hook him up with. Cash’s girlfriend, the eccentric artist and activist Detroit (Tessa Thompson), attempts to keep Cash “real” after he starts rising in the ranks at RegalView. His fellow dissatisfied telemarketers are attempting to unionize; they’re led to strike by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a sultry, quick-witted revolutionary in pursuit of better wages, and Detroit. Cash, though, finds himself promoted into the elite domain of “Power Callers,” where he sells goods and services of far greater consequence. This is also how he meets Hammer’s character, the CEO of one of RegalView’s biggest clients, and possibly the perfect villain for 2018.

Hammer plays Steve Lift, the megalomaniacal CEO of Worry Free, a company that provides its participants with guaranteed housing and food after they sign lifelong labor contracts. Worry Free bills itself as the solution to nearly every social ill imaginable: homelessness, poverty, hunger, unemployment. But according to the activist group Left Eye, the firm’s anodyne veneer hides what is essentially a jazzed-up version of slavery—the core of the operation is the involuntary servitude of its participants.

As its hyperzealous CEO, Lift invents an impossibly hare-brained scheme to keep his semi-voluntary employees compliant. (I’ll avoid revealing the major spoiler, but just know that it involves mandating corporeal modifications of a particularly extreme variety.) The twist itself is unexpected and disorienting, but Hammer plays the character with such a recognizable panache that it’s almost tempting to nod along as he explains the absurd plan.

Steve Lift is charismatic, passionate, arguably brilliant. He rejects criticism with self-promotion. He draws in both employees and detractors as though they are longtime friends, then quickly reasserts his own power whenever necessary. He is meticulous and quirky. It’s hard to watch him and not think of any number of Silicon Valley’s mononymous technocrats: Travis, Brian, Elon. That Lift at once inhabits and transcends the uncanny valley is reflective of both the character’s idiosyncrasies and the flexibility of truth in the era that Sorry to Bother You represents.

Lift is a perfect avatar for the sort of iniquity that’s most highly rewarded in Silicon Valley and in capitalist circles well beyond the gates of Menlo Park, Cupertino, and Mountain View. Whether Lift is a malicious mastermind or just a kooky founder whose ambitions led him to murky ethical decisions is hardly important. Regardless of his intent—genocidal, benevolent, whatever—his actions are harmful. It’s less relevant whether Lift sought to become evil and more important that he enacts it with such a clear vision. Speaking about Lift in the same IndieWire Studio interview, Hammer emphasized the CEO’s peculiar, consistent logic:

[Lift is] a guy who doesn’t consider himself like a fanciful, crazy character. He is 100 percent enmeshed in his own reality and believes that what he’s doing is totally logical. And so the more illogical and crazy it is, the bigger a challenge it is to really sort of take on that role and be like, ‘No, this guy makes a lot of sense.’ And the only way a character like that, who’s so over the top, works from an acting perspective is if you, who are playing the character, thinks he makes a lot of sense, which is a fun challenge.

Hammer’s Lift does make a lot of sense if you see him as a stand-in for the kinds of leaders who operate their companies with ruthless attention to maximizing profits and marginal focus on the health or human rights of their employees. Even his location serves to underscore the disaster that someone with Lift’s power and priorities can sow, largely with impunity (and often with praise even as these violations are discovered). Worry Free’s exploitative ad campaigns target people like Cash’s uncle, a longtime Oakland resident constantly under the threat of eviction. In this, Sorry to Bother You is as much a character-driven story about the gentrification of Oakland—and the Bay Area writ large—as it is an absurdist anti-capitalist fable. Riley juxtaposes the din of Cash’s garage dwelling with both his new apartment and, more importantly, Lift’s luxe mansion.

One of the film’s most upsetting (and climactic) scenes occurs against the backdrop of the mansion’s excesses. The human impact of Lift’s evil is eventually revealed, but his actions in this particular moment are no more nefarious than the average clueless white tech bro. The scene isn’t a capitalist coup, it’s just an uncomfortably familiar depiction of stereotype-driven human interaction. Lift invites Cassius into a large room where multiple women lie at Lift’s feet. The visual is eerily reminiscent of the scenes described in dispatches from Silicon Valley’s “orgiastic dark side.” (And indeed, Cash does later sit exhausted as multiple couples around him have sex in full view of one another and passing onlookers.)

After calling Cash into the room, Lift demands that the young black Oakland native do something—anything—that exudes hood authenticity. “I wanna hear about some of that Oakland gangster shit,” Lift says. When Cash has precious little to offer him, Lift switches gears slightly: “I know you can bust a rap,” he insists, then begins chanting: “Rap! Rap! Rap!” His adoring, drugged-out fans join the chant, and soon Cash is standing in front of an entire room full of mainly white party attendees. He fumbles the rap at first, then looks both relieved and disturbed when his audience is enthralled by his new line: “Nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga nigga shit!” he repeats as the white partygoers chant ecstatically along with him.

The scene disturbs for the same reason Lift’s character is such an eerie villain: Even with all its bizarre elements, the central tension of Lift’s arc reflects trenchant concerns. Here, Riley zeroes in on the performances black employees in Silicon Valley and beyond must undertake just to exist in the same space as their white colleagues and bosses. It’s no coincidence that Lift’s mansion, which Cash visits at the behest of the only other black power caller (Omari Hardwick), is both the site of this fairly standard racist debauchery and the place where Lift’s maniacal plan for Worry Free’s future is first revealed.

These forms of dehumanization exist on the same spectrum. Sure, Lift’s workforce optimization scheme for Worry Free is outrageous, but isn’t it fundamentally ridiculous to live in a world where CEOs can accumulate billions as their employees lose appendages generating profits? Sorry to Bother You is clear about the sinister resonance of its antagonist: Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift is the most frightening kind of villain not because he hides in dark shadows, but because he’s everywhere.