By Fr. Linh Hoang
Sorry to bother you is a statement that polite telemarketers say when customers answer their phones. It is a way to get your attention and draw you into their sales pitch. Sorry to Bother Youis also a movie about Cassius Green an unemployed, black Oakland, California resident who lands a telemarketing job. The white manager who hires Cassius has only one stipulation—stick to the script (STTS). As he is handed a folder and told to come in the next morning, he is reminded again to STTS (stick to the script.)
This is many employers’ expectation of workers—to stick to the script—demanding employees to do what they were hired to do and nothing else. While this movie highlights the wearisome world of telemarketing and the exhausting concerns over wages, it also tackles racism, the evils of capitalism, and the commodification of human beings. These issues are all addressed through comedic and exaggerated situations making one laugh out loud but also pausing to reconsider what just happened. It pokes fun at the frenetic world of reality television and the rapid pace of cellphone videos becoming commercial trends. The setting is Oakland where the diversity of the city is displayed through the funky beats of Boots Riley and The Coup’s music. This cosmopolitan location coupled with vibrant sounds provide the audience a glimpse of a functioning multicultural America while underscoring how corporate America has shackled the human spirit and creativity.
While I am interested in race relations between the different characters and the way they build a bond by rallying against a heartless corporation, my interest is drawn to a religious theme that runs throughout the movie—who is a prophet and becoming prophetic?
In Christian history, especially from the Old Testament, we encounter people who are called out from their respective places to be prophetic. Some of the prophets are destined to be a prophet because of the position they held in the society but also others who are ordinary people awaken to the dire circumstances and challenging situations of their time. Some of the Major Prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel comes from a priestly line that seems to naturally push them towards prophecy. But also there is Baruch who is a secretary to Jeremiah. In his own right, he has spoken to the people about their impending doom if they don’t shape up.
There are also the Minor Prophets. Minor because they have bequeath us shorter texts but nonetheless profound messages. We do not know where several of them come from. Some were of a priestly class such as Hosea and Micah. Then there was Amos who was a shepherd working in the fields and given the power to challenge the royal kingdom because it had turned away from the true God. A few of these prophets did not even want to be the prophetic voice because they would have to help their hated enemies. This of course reflects Jonah and Nahum who both would have rather seen the destruction of Nineveh than its redemption. We kindly call them reluctant prophets.
These collection of prophets provide for Christian history a rich mix of people who through the circumstances of their time propelled them to speak out and to act against injustices and change their ways or face impending doom. God or God’s messengers intervened when necessary to provide extra support and encouragement for these prophets. We also have prophets from the New Testament and of course Jesus is the exemplar of prophets. But he also faced challenges, especially when his own village and household couldn’t even imagine that he was really a prophetic voice. His apostles and disciples realized that he was different and was the one to lead them. Thus, they supported him as best as they could and became prophetic voices themselves. But ultimately the corrupt religious leaders would bring Jesus to trial and lead him to his death. Jesus left behind a community of people to continue God’s work of communicating the good news. The community becomes such an important part of the prophetic message. Thus, we have three images of prophets for consideration: 1) prophets come from various backgrounds and not really trained to be prophets; 2) prophets speak out against the dire situations and injustices of their time; and 3) prophets need a community to support them in their work.
Returning to Sorry to Bother You, it is not explicitly religious. But it does provide us with a context to understand prophets in our contemporary world. Cassius just wanted a job to pay off his rent to his uncle who graciously let him live in the family garage and provided him with an old patched up vehicle. As he worked as a telemarketer, it was frustrating in the beginning because people kept hanging up on him. He couldn’t get through to make a sale. A wise older black man played by Danny Glover in the next cubicle gives him one sure fire advice—speak in his “white voice.” At first Cassius said he did not speak “street.” For some people, he said, he already sounds “white”—probably since He does not speak with what popular culture has stereotyped as thuggish or gangster-like, yet this was still not even close to the ideal white voice. Danny Glover explains that sounding “white” on a basic level is not adequate. He has to sound like he does not have a care in the world. The white voice is worry free, exuding confidence and power. Essentially, Cassius needs to sell fantasy in order to succeed: the essence of sales/ marketing.So he tries and amazingly (even to himself) he produces a “white voice.”
From that point on, he was able to not only engage his clients but make astounding sales of leather-bound encyclopedias to people who didn’t even realize they needed them. This catapulted him up the ranks to the esteemed position of a power telemarketer. He was taken out of the cubicle lined basement floor and up to the plush penthouse suite. All the while his colleagues, led by an Asian man, had organized a strike against their company. They were disappointed that Cassius crossed the picket line and gotten on the golden elevator to the top floor. He was empowering and lining the pockets of the already filthy rich corporation aptly named—Worry Free.
In the meantime, his friends and co-workers planted themselves in front of the corporate building holding signs and chanting their request for higher wages. Cassius continues to cross the picket line and goes to his job. His relationships with his girlfriend and best friend who both also work as telemarketers suffer and he loses the respect of his co-workers. Nevertheless, he forges ahead and buys a fancy new luxury car and moves into a loft suite overlooking the city.
As he continues to make outrageous deals and money over the phone, he draws the attention of the boss of Worry Free. He is invited to an outrageous party and given a proposition by the boss Steve Lift that would make him richer than he could imagine. But also it meant he would need to transform himself into one of their newly created workers. These new creations would be stronger, better laborers confined to work day in and day out. A modern day slavery that confined laborers to a dormitory where everything they needed to survive would be provided—food and drink. Some are chained because they were unruly but others seem happy working at Worry Free. This worker transformation program terrified him so much that he speaks out against the corporation. He goes on television talk shows and news outlets, but it backfires on him. People do not believe his story or description of the newly transformed workers. This could not be happening—modern slavery in their own backyard. Instead, the company stock rises and they receive even more money and attention.
Cassius returns to his friends and apologizes for leaving them at the picket line. They accept him back, but they know the battle is not over. They continue to protest the company, but it does not go well. After their reconciliation, Cassius along with his friends and co-workers hatch a plan to fight against Worry Free.
Even though Cassius did not at first understand the corrupt nature of Worry Free, it was after his encountering the horrific transformations of human beings into muscular beasts of burden that he realized something was wrong and needed to be corrected. Since he was the one that saw it first-hand and understood the unfathomable situation, he needed to speak up. This call to action and raising concern was not something that he seemed predisposed to do. But through the encouragement of his friends and co-workers he led the charge. He became a prophetic voice not out of choice but out of necessity because of the way the corporation was manipulating and transforming their workers and the unjust system that only cared for those already on top.
In the times that we are now living, it is important that we raise up prophetic voices who speak out against injustices, racism, and human slavery. These challenges never really went away. Instead, they were swept under the rug as society turned its attention to the wonders of television, the conspicuous consumption of the rich and powerful, the cult of celebrities, and the fascination of digital technology. People can become complacent or feel defeated by a system that had put so many obstacles for fair wages, adequate working conditions, and the just treatment of people. But it is through people coming together as a community of hope that they can do something about it. Even though a prophet may not be evident at first, it may take a community to raise one up. This is what happened to Cassius, a reluctant prophet because he was in his own rut and needed do better. But since he valued human relationships and the enduring power of love, he became the prophetic voice that helped lift the telemarketers’ dignity as human beings.
Fr. Linh Hoang is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies of Siena College in Loudonville, NY. He teachers courses on World Religions and Globalization.