By Jonathan B. Wight
Sorry to Bother You is a sci-fi drama about a young black man who enters the sleazy world of telemarketing because he’s desperate. He starts to excel when he learns to speak like a geeky white guy, and makes lots of money working for a horrible big corporation.
His bigger break comes when he starts marketing for the company WorryFree, where humans around the world live and get three square meals but they are basically slaves. They agree to this because they lack the basics of security on the outside. Our hero uncovers a plot to … well, I won’t spoil that for the reader.
There are interesting issues for ethics and economics in the movie. In marketing, is it ethical to pretend to be someone you are not? On tv we often see actors wearing white coats (presumably playing the role of a doctor). We know from Milgram’s famous experiment that people tend to trust people wearing the garb of authority, and thus willing to suspend their own judgments.
In telemarketing, it is sometimes the case that callers from other countries take on Western-sounding names as a way to promote sympathy with the target. Is such deception good or bad? It could be good if such subterfuge breaks down irrational biases and unfounded prejudices. Some research shows that resumes with African-American sounding names get passed over in hiring compared to Anglo sounding names, and even electronic products held in black hands get purchased less frequently than the same products displayed in white hands. The evidence of such bias is out there, but mixed, and may change over time (see here).
In the movie the main character is taunted for making it, and not showing solidarity with his co-workers and his girlfriend on the bottom of the pay pyramid. There is strong racial tension because this character is able to “pass” as white using his voice. An interesting scene intends to show the hypocrisy of his tormentors when his black girlfriend does an art opening to sell her African art to … rich white collectors, using her "white" voice.
WorryFree promises applicants a steady job, a dormitory bed, and three square meals in exchange for unpaid work, and becomes a commentary on the precarious times in which we live. The extended family as a safety net is largely broken, and corporations are outsourcing jobs to reduce the workforce eligible for benefits like health care and retirement. It’s not a pretty time to be low skilled with kids, and would some people sell themselves into bondage to get peace of mind?
The movie uses caricatures of evil big businesses, which of course gets laughs. The popular and powerful entrepreneur in this movie is a psychopath. There are enough bad companies and entrepreneurs to give some credence to the caricature. One study claims that 20% of CEOs have antisocial personalities and have a tendency to exploit, manipulate, or violate the rights of others, among other tendencies.
Every profession is made fun of using exaggeration in movies—doctors, lawyers, politicians, and businesspeople. Hopefully, we are all aware that these are the exceptions, not the rule. Watch Sorry to Bother You, grapple with the ethics, and stay tuned for the surprise ending.