This article contains gonzo Sorry to Bother You spoilers.
So… he’s a horse. What? If the ending of Boots Riley’s demented Sorry to Bother You left you confused, rattled, or even just a wee bit upset, then you know it’s working. Fiercely original and unapologetically confrontational in its politics, Sorry to Bother You is one of the most memorable movies of 2018, right down to its ending focused on an army of Equesapiens coming to get Steve Lift in his gilded mansion. But what this all means is somehow even more intriguing—and nothing to laugh about.
Obviously the film’s final denouement, in which Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green and Detroit (Tessa Thompson) attempt to return to living in a garage, is informed by the grimmest portion of the movie. Happy to be home and maintaining at least a few souvenirs from bougie upper middle class life, Cash shuts the garage to his “room,” which now looks a whole lot like Patrick Bateman’s flat. He saved his morality, won back Detroit, and thinks he at least kept a flat screen TV on top of making a stand against corporate greed. However, it’s not to be. For one sneeze is enough to know he is no longer horse or man; he is rather Equesapien.
Clearly the cocaine or “Peruvian pure” that Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift gave Cash in the second act was laced with the impure formula that turns men into beasts. While Hammer’s gleefully warped CEO kept viewers distracted by whispering his two favorite words in the English language (“horse cock”), Cash was already in the midst of transforming into what Lift always dreamed of owning—his very own subspecies now with its version of, in Lift’s words, “Martin Luther King Jr.”
Yet the insidiousness of it is more heinous than simply the sci-fi hijinks of unapproved body transformation. What Lift is blatantly orchestrating is not only the creation of a “new species” but of a new social class to be treated as second class citizens. For all the metaphors in the film of the increasing robotic machination of labor, the more sickening aspect is Lift is creating a new oppressed labor force whose culture he already covets for its desperation (he calls them “beautiful perversions.”) He wants an obedient and acceptingly browbeaten workforce that he can marginalize and manipulate, even as he already worships the stereotypes he’s created for them (“horse cock”).
To combat the threat of organized labor or unionization to his bottom line, Lift wants to force Cash into not the role of MLK, who used the same picketing tactics as the film’s pro-union Squeeze (Steve Yeun)—although nowhere near as violently—but into the role of benign codifier. He wants Equosapiens to become as distracted and disengaged in civic life as so many humans who refuse to organize or fight to improve their standard of living due to the hegemonic system built with the insinuation that the “have nots” are lesser and lazier than the “haves.” It is implicit in the infantilization of our culture through media—who in Sorry to Bother You is shown to revel in sadistic game shows only one step removed from modern reality television—as well as in a leadership that emphasizes a stasis in the status quo. From the sitcoms that depict the working class as dimwitted punchlines (think anything from The Honeymooners to The Simpsons), to the political leaders who rail against incivility as minority rights are under siege, there is a desire to keep the bottom of an increasingly unequal capitalist system contented with being at the bottom.
Lift literally mutilates Cash’s body, just as the North Carolinian government mutilated poor, mostly nonwhite women and men in a state sanctioned program that lasted from 1933 to 1977. It was a government-sponsored (and local business supported) eugenics project that aimed to curtail purportedly lower IQ undesirables in society from breeding. While Lift’s manipulations are in an attempt to increase a physical labor force, he too wishes to build it in a docile image, even with a culture that can be immediately appropriated and subjugated. Cash, like the modern critical reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is intended to be merely the most servile Equesapien, who will keep the rest of his kind in line for his own individual preferential treatment.
This in turn leads to a rather explosive finale about resistance. In so many films that contain stories of cultural upheaval, the narrative impulse is to support what Edmund Burke described as “small c” conservatism in the wake of the French Revolution. Which is to say that social change must not only be incremental, but carefully maintained within the institutional system, lest it gives way to chaos.
We discussed with director Boots Riley why he thinks so many other films accept that paradigm when it is human nature to “resist.” And resist they do in Sorry to Bother You, with the Equesapiens teaming with organized labor to take the fight to the telemarketing company. This victory won’t change the world, but like grassroots activism, it can remind people they can improve their local community, and in the process take the first step toward lasting change.
That change brings us back to the film’s final moments, with a very pissed off Eque-Cash standing outside Steve Lift’s door. It is not hard to imagine what comes next when the Equesapiens get their hands on their not so benevolent creator. In fact, we have discussed several times with actor Armie Hammer just exactly why he improvised his character’s limp and awkward seating when Cash comes a-knocking. Hammer would prefer if you tweeted him yourself with your own theories as to why he gave Steve a limp, but here’s a hint: he’s called the creatures he’s keeping like slaves in his basement “beautiful perversions” and is more than a tad obsessed with one element of their anatomy.
Lift wants to rule, control, and appropriate their culture in the name of capitalistic progress. But he is about to face very uncivil disobedience as a consequence. Make of that what you will…