What Sorry to Bother You Gets Right About Memes

They are powerful but politically meaningless.

Cassius Green getting beaned by a cola can
Cassius Green getting beaned by a cola can (Sorry to Bother You/Annapurna Pictures)

If a single movie could encapsulate the fever-dream days that we’re living through, it is Sorry to Bother You, the breathtaking debut film from Boots Riley. Set in present-day Oakland, the movie follows the, umm, career trajectory of Cassius Green from bottom-of-the-rung telemarketer to power caller,” as his friends and lover attempt to organize the shop he’s working in ... and a company that basically enslaves people takes over the world.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that this plot synopsis tells you nothing about the work. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it before you read this post because there are spoilers. You’ve been warned. On to the memes.

The movie revolves around a picket at the telemarketing company where Green works. Having become a “power caller,” he decides to cross the picket line to reach his new fancy job. During one morning’s violent walk in, a young woman throws a can of soda at Green’s head, saying, “Have a cola and smile, bitch.” Video of the incident goes viral and lives out the life cycle of a meme within the space of the movie, giving Riley the chance to comment on the politics of the meme. Like every other part of the movie, Riley’s take on the power and meaninglessness of memes is funny, and more real than is comfortable to admit.

While the movie feels so very 2018, Riley started writing it in 2011 and published the screenplay in McSweeney’s back in 2014. As Riley told my colleague Vann Newkirk II, “Our economic system hasn’t changed, so that same critique that the movie puts out there could’ve applied at any point during my lifetime at least.” He wasn’t responding to Trump, or Trumpiness, so much as the underlying economic and social conditions of the Obama era, which also happens to parallel the mainstreaming of social media and its fictions about virality, liberation, and the power of “giving people a voice” (but which voice, Sorry to Bother You would ask!).

The Obama era began in 2008, which was at least a century ago. Here is the image to prove it.

Yep, that’s Shepard Fairey’s famous poster of Barack Obama, which captured the tenor of the times. Back then, the idea that Fairey worked outside the traditional campaign by creating a “meme” (for which he was sued) that could be spread and shared on social media was a revelation. It became a thing, endlessly remixed in a way that has now become so familiar as to be rote. People built simple online tools to pump out images in this style, and the poster became one of the most recognizable images of the ’00s. Then came the so-called Arab Spring, with its powerful myths of Twitter and Facebook as revolutionary tools. The State Department actively courted the tech industry, announcing its “Internet Freedom” agenda under Secretary Hillary Clinton. More internet was supposed to mean more freedom and for more people, too, especially the ones marginalized IRL.

Well, we now know how the story turned out. Let me present 2016’s right-wing meme icon:

The Obama years saw the development of an army of right-wing memelords who created a thriving culture of Obama hatred, “PC culture” backlash, and coded racism, sexism, and homophobia. They loved Donald Trump and maybe helped get him elected.

Between 2008 and 2016, Black Lives Matter rose to agitate against police brutality and mass incarceration. Some of the movement’s notoriety stemmed from viral distribution of newly widespread video of police killings and galvanizing footage from protests. Eric Garner’s foreboding words, “I Can’t Breathe,” found their way onto LeBron James’ chest. The image of Ferguson protester Edward Crawford, clad in an American flag shirt, throwing a flaming tear gas canister, became a symbol of the movement.

Crawford was found dead in a car in 2017 from what police called a suicide. After years of organizing and policy agitation, incarceration rates have very slightly declined after decades of massive increases. The number of people killed by police in America is virtually unchanged since 2015.

In the world of Sorry to Bother You, these twists and turns, and the mutability of meme-making to fit all kinds of politics would not be a surprise. Here’s what happens after Green gets beaned by the can of soda.

First, the video takes off, getting 11 million views. This would seem to be a victory for the strikers. Their cause got noticed! Surely that would help them.

But it doesn’t, at least explicitly. Instead, we see people from the conglomerate for which Green works watching the video and laughing their asses off. He might be one of their own, but hey, it’s a good video, lol.

Then, the woman who threw the can of soda at his head signs a marketing deal with the soda company. She makes enough money to “buy two white children.”

Green is mocked as he walks through the streets. But he’s famous now. And as such, he can get himself onto the most popular show in the film’s world, I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me, where he delivers a video clip smuggled out of the bad company that seems like it should be the death knell for its plans.

His explosive revelation—that the company is creating horse-human hybrids to labor for them—lands him on all kinds of talk shows, but it does absolutely nothing to the company, which sees its share price skyrocket on the back of this scientific “advancement.” Green sees the incident—the can colliding with head and hair—turned into a Halloween costume. Kids parade through the streets wearing ... him.

And finally, during the climactic scene of the strike at the telemarketing center, all the strikers wear the costume, helping to camouflage their defenses against the strikebreakers.

In the end, the meme itself is powerful. It spreads to tens of millions of people. It makes one woman rich. It helps market soda. It makes Green (temporarily) famous, which allows him to get out his message (even if that ultimately failed).

But it has no political impact. The only entities that it incontrovertibly helps are the sell-out can thrower and the soda company. Everybody else enacts themselves through the meme, using it as part of the bricolage of their lives, but that’s it. Everyone uses these memes to describe the world around them—not because they mean anything, but because that’s just what’s in the air and on the internet.

The moment in the film recalls, in some sense, the instant that alt-right figure Richard Spencer got clocked in Washington, DC.

Whatever you think of “punching Nazis,” we can all agree that watching a Nazi get punched or even having very detailed discussions about punching Nazis on Twitter is not the same thing as actually punching a Nazi or stopping the spread of white supremacists by other means. The meme and the discourse are not the act.

In Oakland, million-dollar homes sit on the same block as homeless encampments and artist studios and falling-down houses seemingly transported from post-Katrina New Orleans (which, come to think of it, could also be worth a million dollars). The rise of social media, the proliferation of memes, the election of Obama, the election of Trump, and everything else that’s happened since the Great Recession has done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people of our city.

The West Oakland that features heavily in the movie has been a target since it was one of the city’s few working-class, racially heterogeneous neighborhoods in the early 20th century. But it was after the mid-century migration of tens of thousands of black people to the Bay—and their confinement in West Oakland—that the city declared the area blighted and bulldozed a third of its housing units, splitting the neighborhood with the Cypress freeway and running BART through its cultural heart along 7th Street. During the early 2000s, predatory mortgages flooded the neighborhood, and when the wave of bankruptcies crested, the water dragged the poor out, leaving their homes to be purchased by mostly out-of-town speculators. As tech wealth continues to surge into Oakland, homeless rates have shot up, as Riley reminds us time and again during scenes where characters pass camps positioned just as they are in real-life Oakland, which is to say, anywhere homeless people have been able to gain some small purchase on a place to sleep.

This is an area and a history Riley knows well, presented lovingly and unsparingly in the film’s early Oakland montage. Against that backdrop, Sorry to Bother You wants you to smash oppressors, organize your coworkers, confront the degradations of the economy head on. The memes will be there, but they aren’t the engine, they’re the exhaust.

Riley’s movie evinces a deep skepticism that information, of any design or virality, absent accompanying organization, does anything. Information is not power; power is power.

It’s a blunt message delivered with the perfect calibration to reflect both the strange particularities of our time and the enduring conflict between workers and employers that animates Sorry to Bother You.

And looking at the last decade, Riley has at least not been wrong.