Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You plays with aurality and visuality, appearance and reality. It tells the story of a call centre employee, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who is catapulted to the top of the telephone marketing business by learning to use his ‘white voice’. His name allows for the pun ‘Cash-is-green’, which not only instantiates the slipperiness of language as a central theme of the film but forms a connection to Roman antiquity through the name of this Republican conspirator against Julius Caesar. This paper will probe the film’s dialogue with Classical antiquity, specifically the theme of metamorphoses, through the lens of Homer’s Odyssey, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses of Lucius, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Cassius’ adoption of his ‘white voice’ changes his reality as a black man into the (aural) appearance of a white man. His initiation into whiteness brings him into contact with the inner workings of contemporary capitalism, the colonial underpinnings of which are emphasised in the art of Cassius’ partner, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Cassius’ odyssey into this murky world is mentored by the nameless, one-eyed Mr. ___, another black man who almost exclusively uses his white voice. Mr. ___’s role as both Polyphemus, the colonised, and Odysseus, the coloniser, exposes his own liminal status as a black man whose success depends on appearing white. Mr. ___ guides Cassius into a nightmarish world where humans are transformed into animals to provide slave labour for the corporation ‘Worry Free’. In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Lucius, transformed into an ass and forced to work in a mill, gains an insight into the suffering of the slaves who also work there, a rare, sympathetic glimpse into the lives of slaves in the Roman Empire. Lucius is redeemed through his initiation into the Cult of Isis. Conversely, Cassius is compromised by his initiation into the Cult of Whiteness, only redeemed through organised labour. Through his conspiratorial trade-union organising, Cassius is brought into conflict with the Caesar-like Steve Lift, CEO of ‘Worry Free’. Unlike Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is brought to a climax with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, in Riley’s film, those whose transformation had paved the way for the deification of Lift assert their agency to deny Lift his apotheosis. I thus argue that the film shows how, in a present in which horizons of possible futures are rapidly foreclosed by racial capitalism, classical antiquity remains a point of orientation for articulating counter-hegemonies.
Black Classicism in the Visual Arts