Earn ‘n’ Cash: Surrealist Comedy, Code-Switching, and Capitalism in Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You
LaKeith Stanfield (left) of Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You, and Donald Glover (right) of Atlanta
A recent surge in popular Black art that embraces the absurd as a means to political upheaval has inspired cultural critics to classify films like Get Out (Peele, 2017) and Sorry to Bother You (Riley, 2018) and TV shows like Atlanta (2016-present) as “the new Black surrealism” (Phillips). The term was coined by Slate‘s Maya Phillips, who rightly states:
It’s no shocker that this new Black Surrealism frequently broaches the topic of racial masking and racial performance as it relates to capitalism. Blackness in America is inextricably intertwined with socioeconomic status, and the American dream, that Gatsby-suited cliché of aspirational living and wealth, is a fantasy that panders and is more accessible to a privileged white majority.
However, in this paper I will show how that was also true of what I will call the “old” Black surrealism, led largely by Black authors outside of the United States such as Suzanne Césaire (Martinique) and Jacques Stephen Aléxis (Haiti). I will also explain more precisely how Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You use absurd comedy to infiltrate and then criticize forces of greedy hyper-rationality and inhuman efficiency that extract racial performances from Black people.
The focus on racial masking and capitalism that Phillips finds in the new Black Surrealism also belongs to the longer tradition of Afrosurrealism identified by D. Scot Miller in his “Afrosurreal Manifesto,” and even, to some extent, to the tradition of Surrealism as defined by André Breton in his first “Manifesto of Surrealism.” According to Miller, Afrosurrealism is “ambiguous as Prince, black as Fanon, literary as Reed, dandy as André Leon Tally, the Afrosurrealist seeks definition in the absurdity of a ‘postracial’ world” (117). Already, we could say that one possible definition for the Afrosurrealist in a postracial world would be one of racial fluidity or ambiguity. However, considering Miller’s comment that the Afrosurrealist is “black as [Frantz] Fanon,” who wrote the pioneering post-colonial book Black Skin, White Masks in 1952, he clearly has racial masking on his mind. One of Fanon’s precursors, Martiniquaise writer and Breton acquaintance Suzanne Césaire discussed surrealism as a tool for Black people to overcome racist dichotomies as early as 1943. In “Surrealism and Us,” she writes, “Our surrealism will then supply them the leaven from their very depths. It will be time finally to transcend the sordid contemporary antinomies: Whites-Blacks, Europeans-Africans, civilized-savage” (38). We should note that Césaire’s use of the word “transcend” already implies a breaking down of barriers between races.
Other Black authors from roughly the same time and place were equally concerned with the role surrealism could play in preserving Black culture in the face of dehumanizing capitalist practice. In “Of the Marvellous (sic) Realism of the Haitians,” Haitian author Jacques Stephen Aléxis argues that Haitian art infuses reality with the “marvelous” while maintaining its social consciousness because of the island’s history as an intersection of oppressed cultures and traditions (i.e. those of the native people and those of the Africans brought over by colonizers). He writes:
Let us remember the saying that ‘the people who have no more legends are condemned to perish of cold’, and let us objectively recognize the fact that modern life with its stern rates of production, with its concentration of great masses of men into industrial armies, caught up in the frenzy of Taylorism, with its inadequate leisure, and its context of mechanized life, hampers and slows down the production of legends and a living folk lore (146).
Aléxis’ call for “a living folk lore” closely resembles André Breton’s call for “fairy tales to be written for adults” (16) in the first “Manifesto of Surrealism,” in which he writes: “Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful” (14). However, Aléxis is more specific and direct than Breton in naming the causes for the lack of marvelous fiction, picking out industrialization and Taylorism as major obstacles.
Taylorism refers to the theory of “scientific management” developed by Frederick W. Taylor at the start of the 20th Century to increase worker efficiency in factories. According to the Encyclopedia of American Studies:
The goal of Taylorism is complete managerial control accomplished through a detailed division of labor, specific task instruction, close supervision, and incentives. In theory, management should possess all knowledge surrounding work tasks. Any knowledge possessed by workers should also be learned by management, processed, and then retaught to workers, allowing no room for deviation (Napierski-Prancl).
Far from being an outdated business theory, “Taylorism has played an important role in the shaping of modern institutions in American society” (Napierski-Prancl). Furthermore, “rapidly developing computer technology has caused a regeneration of Taylorism in the workplace. In this New Taylorism, or Digital Taylorism, software developers automate tasks, thereby minimizing the skill required of workers, and technology gives management greater capacity for monitoring worker production” (“Taylorism”). With Miller’s Afrosurrealist manifesto in mind, we will define Afrosurrealism for the purposes of this paper as art that uses absurdity to fight the capitalist exploitation and dehumanization of Black people. With that definition, Taylorism becomes Afrosurrealism’s ideal target; Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You both use dark comedy to reveal Taylorism’s ugly propensity to systematically privilege both white people and a conceptual whiteness to which it forces non-whites to conform or risk their livelihoods.
Sorry to Bother You invokes Taylorism in all but name with its setting, a company call center ripped straight out of a management textbook. The film uses this backdrop of corporate efficiency to show how a “white voice” is an economically privileged asset. In the film, Cassius “Cash” Green (LaKeith Stanfield) gets a job as a telemarketer for RegalView, a call center with an almost religious doctrine about sales. Managers keep a close eye on callers, whose desks are outfitted with little orange lights that flash to indicate a successful sale. At team meetings they repeat slogans ad nauseam, chief among them “stick to the script,” which is also written on posters all over the office. Managers dangle a promotion to “power caller,” a seemingly mythical position which pays infinitely better, to boost morale and encourage high sales. The claustrophobic and controlling workplace mirrors Taylorism’s traits of “specific task instruction, close supervision, and incentives.”
Early in the film, an older coworker (Danny Glover) tells Cash to use a “white voice” to make more sales. In explaining what the “white voice” is, the older coworker says, “It’s like, sounding like you don’t have a care. You’ve got your bills paid. You’re happy about your future. […] It’s not really a white voice. It’s what they wish they sounded like. It’s like what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” Here the film suggests a prescriptive “whiteness” that even white employees have to access to succeed at RegalView. After this explanation, Cash discovers that he has the uncanny ability to speak in a perfect facsimile of a white person’s voice (specifically, the voice of David Cross). Soon, his newfound talent propels him up the ranks of the company and he becomes a power caller. Miller writes that “Afrosurrealists are ambiguous. ‘Am I black or white? Am I straight, or gay? Controversy!’” (116). With Cash’s strange and funny talent for sounding like a white sitcom character, he uses that ambiguity to fool white customers and ascend economically. However, the film does not leave Cash’s economic success through code-switching uncomplicated.
At the moment when the film seems to be reaching a peak of absurdism, it actually comes closest of all to the modern, real-world iterations of Taylorism. When he arrives at the top of the RegalView building, where the power callers work, another Black character (Omari Hardwick) in an exaggeratedly British get-up greets him in his own white voice (Patton Oswalt) and informs him of the top floor’s policy: “white voice at all times here.” Writing about the film for The Washington Post, Sonia Rao points out that “Santander, [a] finance company, uses a speech analytics software called CallMiner that grades employees based on their diction and word choice,” and goes on to cite the example of an employee whose grades suffer due to her “country accent.” Digital Taylorism thus already allows real-world companies to police the voices their employees use over the phone, so Boots Riley does not veer too far from reality in suggesting that a company could police the voice its employees use at all times.
Earn (Donald Glover) and Alfred, “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) at the surreally awkward music label’s office in Atlanta, “Sportin’ Waves,” season 2, episode 2
In fact, a version of Taylorism already determines word choices in professions far removed from telemarketing, as Atlanta demonstrates. The Atlanta episode “Sportin’ Waves” consistently and creepily puts Black people on a pedestal as sources of entertainment for white people. Near the start of the episode, Alfred, also known as “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), walks into a record label office with his cousin and manager Earn (Donald Glover). When the label executives ask to hear Paper Boi’s music, Earn hands them a CD. However, the “music outreach” manager explains that they “don’t have any disc drives. Yeah, it’s a new state-of-the-art system. It’s all wireless and fully integrated into the platform.” Already, this step towards high-tech efficiency feels like a step backwards. As we hear those lines, we cut to a fed-up Alfred, who slowly turns his eyes away from the manager.
A cringe-worthy sequence of attempts to transfer the music from Earn’s phone to the manager’s and from the manager’s to the speaker system follows, with intermittent cuts to Alfred checking his watch and rolling his eyes. At one point we cut in closer to one of the white employees sitting across the room from Alfred and Earn. He turns his head to look straight at the camera with a half-smile plastered to his face. The next shots position us on the couch next to Earn and Alfred as we get medium close-ups of their concerned reaction, a shared glance. A few minutes later, we see Earn through a telephoto lens watching Alfred from behind a glass wall. Behind him, the out-of-focus white employees are all staring at Earn and not moving. When Earn turns around, everyone suddenly starts going about their business as if he wasn’t even there. These two moments give the creepy impression that for the white employees of this label, Black people are always putting on a performance for them. Part of the summary of Taylor’s theory that we encountered earlier was “a detailed division of labor,” and for this company that division is along race lines. The labor of selling entertainment belongs to white desk-dwellers while that of making it belongs to rappers who are exclusively Black. Clark County (RJ Walker), another artist at the label, makes this point even clearer. After Alfred introduces him to Earn, he says “Cousin Earn, are you a rapper, too? Cousin Earn?” When Alfred explains that Earn is his manager, Clark County sounds a little surprised. When his own (white) manager, Lucas (Matthew Barnes), appears, he is even more surprised than Clark County to learn that Earn is a manager and immediately makes an offer to Alfred to replace him. This exchange implies that a Black manager has no place in the world of this office, and Earn, sensing this, backs slowly out of the shot.
The stilted dialogue and awkward stares in “Sportin’ Waves” show how corporate practices constrict Paper Boi’s creativity, sapping the humanity from what is supposed to be art so that it will fit in better with the label’s product. In one scene, we see an unenthused Alfred deadpan an ad for a rap playlist into a microphone. A reverse shot shows a white engineer who says, “let’s do another take, but let’s do one that’s cool, that’s just, like… cool,” putting on an affectedly low voice for this last word and throwing up a hand gesture that one can only assume is something he thinks rappers do. The white engineer’s request harkens back to Taylorism, where knowledge has been “processed” and is being “retaught to workers, allowing no room for deviation.” Moreover, the line seems like code for “say it blacker.” Alfred responds by reciting the line in exactly the same deadpan but this time glaring at the engineer and appending the n-word at the end. Here the performance of Blackness becomes just as abstracted as the performance of whiteness in Sorry to Bother You. Alfred has to conform to what white people think black people are supposed to sound like. His terse response, as trite an impression of Blackness as the engineer’s, hilariously strikes back at the engineer’s absurd request by suggesting that white people really just want to hear Black people say the n-word, perhaps for vicarious pleasure.
Sorry to Bother You speaks to this vicarious pleasure in a more blatant manner. A scene just before the climax of Sorry to Bother You shows Cash having to drop the white voice and perform his Blackness in the same way as Alfred. Cash attends a party hosted by the CEO of his company, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). For the purposes of entertaining the crowd, Lift demands that Cash rap despite his confession that he cannot. Cash makes an awkward, painful attempt at coming up with rhymes on the spot for a crowd of disinterested looking wealthy white people, then after an angry look from Lift, resorts to yelling “N***a Shit!” over and over. This wins over the crowd, who shout it back at him. The shock of hearing the n-word shouted by a group of rich white people is not as large as it ought to be, but still large enough to elicit a nervous laugh. In combination with the scene from Atlanta, however, this scene makes the frightening argument that Blackness in the eyes of corporations is as formulaic as the call-center script or Paper Boi’s rap playlist ad line. For the companies that value efficiency over humanity, sympathy is reduced to the phrase “sorry to bother you,” and Blackness is reduced to the n-word.
In Sorry to Bother You, Cash (LaKeith Stanfield) is forced by his boss and other partygoers to rap.
Atlanta drives home the point that corporations reduce Blackness to a cultural signifier in the final few shots of the record company sequence. An exasperated Paper Boi bitterly tries to get the attention of a room full of white employees absorbed in their computers. He asks satirically, “Where my real n****s at?” before half-heartedly singing along to the first few ad-libs of his eponymous hit single and then stopping, rolling his eyes, and leaving the stage in disgust. The workers hardly seem to care, and the song continues to play without him onstage to rap along to it, effectively giving the impression that Alfred the person does not matter nearly as much as “Paper Boi” the song for the company. Ironically, the chorus of the song goes, “I’m all about that paper, boy,” but even Paper Boi himself cannot stand to make money here.
The description I have given of Sorry to Bother You and Atlanta, while accurately representing the bleak humor with which they critique Taylorism and its demands for racial performance, has not touched on their portrayal of what it is Taylorism gets in the way of. Remember that Aléxis wrote about “the frenzy of Taylorism, with its inadequate leisure.” The amount of time that the characters in Atlanta spend stoned on couches and in cars could inspire its own essay. I also have not touched on Sorry to Bother You’s half-horse half-human equisapians, designed by Steve Lift to improve worker efficiency. They are explicitly connected to racial minorities in the dialogue and thus take the film a few steps further in its critiques of both codeswitching and hyper-rational money-making at the expense of workers’ quality of life. Perhaps more importantly, the equisapians give the film the quality of a fable, where the forces of evil turn humans into animals, thus connecting the film more thoroughly to the folkloric tradition Aléxis describes. Then again, maybe the film would still be modern folklore without them. Sorry to Bother You and Atlanta are both radical and magical works, helping to fight capitalist evils by being weird in public, just like those of André Breton, Suzanne Césaire, and Jacques Stephen Aléxis.
Aléxis, Jacques Stephen. “Of the Marvellous Realism of the Haitians.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft et al., 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 146–149.
Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism.” Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated by Helen R Lane and Richard Seaver, The University of Michigan Press, 1969, pp. 3–47.
Césaire, Suzanne. “Surrealism and Us.” The Great Camouflage: Writings of Descent (1941-1945). Translated by Keith L Walker, edited by Daniel Maximin, Wesleyan University Press, 2009, pp. 34–38.
Miller, D. Scot. “Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black Is the New Black—a 21st-Century Manifesto.” Black Camera, vol. 5, no. 1, 2013, pp. 113–117.
Napierski-Prancl, Michelle. “Taylorism.” Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1st edition, 2018.
Phillips, Maya. “Sorry to Bother You and the New Black Surrealism.” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group, 18 July 2018, https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/sorry-to-bother-you-get-out-atlanta-and-the-new-black-surrealism.html.
Rao, Sonia. “‘What’s Up with that White Voice?’: The Tricky Art of Linguistic Code-Switching: In the New Film “Sorry to Bother You,” the Secret to Success Lies in Cloaking Your Accent.” The Washington Post, 06 July 2018.
“Taylorism.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Riggs, Gale, 2nd edition, 2015.