Ep. 165: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part II): The Rare Pro-Worker Narrative

Ep. 165: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part II): The Rare Pro-Worker Narrative

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yes, if you haven’t, please support us on Patreon, it’s very much appreciated, it does help keep the episodes themselves free and keeps the show sustainable. Also, if you could rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, that’s very much appreciated, and as always, check out Bonfire for our merchandise, shirts, tote bags, mugs, what have you, it helps also support the show and also makes you look cool because you’re with the coolest podcast in the world. I believe that one marker of a cool podcast is they tell you they’re cool.
Nima: (Laughs.) I like how your voice made that a question at the end.
Adam: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s cool anymore. I’m old. I have a kid.
Nima: It’s definitely a Citations Needed tote bag.
Adam: Yeah, clearly.
Nima: This is also our season five finale of Citations Needed. We’ll be taking a little summer break after this episode, spending some time with our families and gearing up for next season, season six, which will begin in September.
A white-collar worker wrestles with whether to accept a promotion or help his co-workers organize. Salt miners stand up to the company that’s taken over their town. A factory worker exposes her employer’s union-busting tactics.
Adam: Stories like these represent something we don’t often see in Hollywood: Unions and labor organizers as the good guys. Not as egomaniacs, zealots, radical left-wingers, mafiosos or thugs or grifters, but as heroes willing to risk their health, homes, and livelihoods for the greater good.
Nima: This is in stark contrast to the anti-union depictions in pop culture we explored on Citations Needed in Episode 164, part one of this two-part series on depictions of labor and unionization in film and television. On the previous episode, we discussed Hollywood’s emphasis on corruption in labor organizing, focusing noticeably on depictions of bloated bureaucracy, organized crime, and autocratic union bosses in films like On the Waterfront from 1954, Blue Collar from 1978, and The Irishman from 2019.
Adam: This week, in part two, we’re going to address the inverse of that, looking at the rare but nontrivial examples of pop film that celebrates the accomplishments of labor movements, centers beleaguered workers with everything to lose, and positions abusive employers as the villains, while embracing themes of worker courage and heroism. While very often not perfect, these examples show that compelling, award-winning narratives can be crafted out of tales of collective action and collective bargaining.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine.
[Begin Clip]
Angela Allan: And I think the way that we see places like the New York Times or The Washington Post, how they’ve been covering unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses and at Starbucks, that they already are casting them as having this kind of narrative flair, you know, so if Martin Ritt is like, ‘I was really inspired by Crystal Lee Sutton,’ people like Chris Smalls or Jaz Brisack feel like Norma Rae-esque figures. I think that does suggest that there’s an appetite for these victory stories in real life.
[End Clip]
Nima: So last episode, we discussed a number of films that kind of do this common trope, Adam, of unions are generally corrupt, certainly their leadership is, sometimes, you know, solidarity between workers is a good thing, the working man, the working woman, more occasionally than the man depicted in Hollywood, especially in the so-called Golden Era of Hollywood, that there can be power in workers banding together and finding solidarity together. But generally, unions, as they are depicted, are that of overbearing, autocratic, and certainly corrupt institutions, just as corrupt as the companies that they’re supposed to be organizing against.
Adam: Right. But let’s be honest, Hollywood, especially maybe in the ’40s and ’50s, and on to the ’60s and ’70s, less so I think today, but certainly decades ago, has left-wingers in it, has socialists, communists, fellow travelers et cetera, or bleeding-heart liberals, who empathize with unions, what have you. So obviously, there’s going to be some representations, pro-labor representation in Hollywood, that kind of slipped through the cracks, either because a director or writer is so established they can do whatever they want based on previous work or they’re indie films that are maybe outside the Hollywood studio production, which is definitely something we’re going to cover in this episode, but they still kind of get widespread releases based on critical acclaim or other independent vectors for success, if you will, or they’re just crypto, let’s be honest here, right? Much of people’s politics have to be crypto in certain ways, just by the nature of how popular culture works, by definition it must be popular, it must be broad, and the absolute biggest sin one can engage in is to have an agenda or a politics, that’s sort of seen as being declasse, that you can have message pictures where it’s say no to drugs or whatever, but you can’t have a message pictures that’s like down with capitalism. That’s too far. As you noted, legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with saying, “All they want is a story. If you have a message, send it by Western Union.” Of course, we argue in this episode that all movies have messages whether we want to or not, there’s no such thing as a non-message movie. And some of those films will have a message that is pro-labor in inclination, if not intent. So we’re excited to get into those today and talk about those and then talk to our guest about how they worked, what makes them work, and what we can learn from them.
Nima: Now, obviously, normal qualifier to start, Adam, this is a huge topic, we can’t cover every single labor film, even the good ones. There are incredible documentaries like Harlan County, USA, directed by Barbara Kopple. There are films like Warren Beatty’s Reds from 1981 about journalist John Reed and the chronicling of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and John Sayles’ Matewan from 1987 about the 1920s coal miner strike in Matewan, West Virginia. There is stealth communist propaganda by Disney, Newsies from 1992. There’s the 2000 film directed by Ken Loach, Bread and Roses, about the struggle of poorly paid janitorial workers in LA and their fight for better working conditions and the right to unionize. It’s based on the very real Justice for Janitors campaign of the SEIU.

Adam: There is a very famous episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that is very pro-union propaganda. To give some context, one of the characters, who’s an alien, works at the bar of Deep Space Nine station, and is consistently abused and exploited by his brother, played by Quark, the scrupulous bar owner who we come to love. And he begins to talk about starting a union to demand more rights, which for the Ferengis is unheard of, since they’re, like, a race of hypercapitalists. In this clip, he’s discussing with two of his crewmates, Dr. Bashir and Miles O’Brien, about his frustrations with his boss and his desire to have collective bargaining.
[Begin Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Clip]
Rom: Dr. Bashir, I’m glad you’re in. I need your help.
Dr. Bashir: Your ear acting up again?
Rom: My ear’s fine. I need some advice about…unions.
Dr. Bashir: Unions?
Rom: You said the other day I should form a union, so I did.
Dr. Bashir: Rom, I was speaking theoretically.
Rom: And I put your theory into practice! All of Quark’s employees have joined. We’re going to force Quark to treat us better. I hope.
Miles O’Brien: A union, huh? Good for you.
Rom: You know about unions?
Miles O’Brien: Who do you think led the Pennsylvania coal miners during the anthracite strike of 1902?
Rom: I have no idea.
Miles O’Brien: Sean Aloysius O’Brien.
Dr. Bashir: I didn’t know that.
Miles O’Brien: There’s a lot of things about my family you don’t know. Eleven months, those mines were closed. They didn’t open again until all the miners’ demands were met.
Rom: You mean we should force Quark to close the bar?
Dr. Bashir: Only as a last resort. If he’s reasonable about your requests, there’s no need to strike.
Miles O’Brien: Quark? Reasonable? Ha! Unlikely. You’ll have to strike. Mark my words. And when you do, you’ll have to be strong.
Rom: Just like Sean O’Brien.
Miles O’Brien: Exactly. You know, he had the biggest funeral in all of Western Pennsylvania.
Rom: Funeral?
Miles O’Brien: Mm. They fished his body out of the Allegheny River the week before the strike ended. 32 bullets he had in him. Or was it 34?
Dr. Bashir: Well, he died a hero.
Miles O’Brien: He was more than a hero! He was a union man!
[End Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Clip]
Adam: I think it’s funny that Miles O’Brien does this thing where he traces his lineage back, like, 400 years at this point.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah, when Pennsylvania existed.
Adam: Yeah, when people take their genealogy tests, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m a descendant of King James II.’ I’m like, well, everyone’s a descendant of King James II at that point.
Nima: Hey, it works, even later in the episode, Rom even quotes from the Communist Manifesto, saying, “Workers of the world, unite.”
Adam: Right.
Nima: It is very exciting. Now, I must admit I am not the Star Trek scholar that you are, Adam, but I’m thrilled that we were able to get this one in. The episode is called “Bar Association,” directed by LeVar Burton, and aired originally on February 19, 1996. Just two days later on February 21, 1996, an episode of Sister, Sister aired called “Paper or Plastic” when one of the characters’ co-workers on the show working in a grocery store are going on strike to demand higher wages, and this episode of Sister, Sister is remarkable for its pro-union advocacy, as documented on Twitter a couple years ago by Diana Hussein, who is the comms director for the pro-worker group UNITE HERE! Everyone should absolutely check that out. They call the replacement workers scabs. They tell folks not to cross picket lines. It is really fantastic and kind of amazing that within the span of just three days, Deep Space Nine and Sister, Sister ran pro-union episodes.
Adam: An anomaly indeed. Our usual disclaimer here by the way, before we get into the films, there are spoilers to the films we will be discussing.
Nima: While on part one of this episode last week, we began in 1954 with On the Waterfront, we are going to return to that year to start off this episode but this time we’re going to talk about the film Salt of the Earth, again from 1954, directed by Herbert J. Biberman.
The story goes basically like this: Esperanza Quintero, played by Rosaura Revueltas, and her husband, Ramón, played by Juan Chacón, live with their two, and soon to be three, children in precarity in her home village — now the company town of Zinc Town, New Mexico. Ramón, a union miner for Delaware Zinc, is forced to work in the mines alone, a policy that only applies to Mexican-American, not white, miners, which creates extremely dangerous conditions of course. Ramón and other miners decide to strike for worker safety, and their wives encourage them to expand their demands, marking the beginning of an instrumental role that women will play in organizing for the rights of the miners’ union and the health and safety of their families.
Adam: During the strike, the company hires out-of-town strikebreakers, but they leave after seeing the size of the picket line. In one scene, the superintendent and an executive drive up to the picket line and speak manipulatively to Ramón, but Ramón doesn’t take the bait. Now keep in mind, this is 1954, the same year On the Waterfront came out. This is extremely based shit. So we’re gonna listen to that here.
[Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]
Alexander: Well, they’re like children in many ways. Sometimes you have to humor them, sometimes you have to spank them — and sometimes you have to take their food away. Here comes the one we were talking about. (Chuckles) He’s quite a character. Claims his grandfather once owned the land where the mine is now.
Ramon: Want to go up to your office, Mr. Alexander?
Alexander: Naturally. You think I parked here for a cup of coffee?
Ramon: You’re welcome to one.
Alexander: No thanks.
Ramon: The men would like to know who this gentleman is.
Alexander: That’s none of their affair.
Hartwell: That’s all right — it’s no secret. My name’s Hartwell. I’m from the company’s Eastern office.
Ramon: You mean Delaware?
Hartwell: No. New York.
Ramon: New York? You’re not the Company President by any chance?
Hartwell: No.
Ramon: Too bad. The men have always wanted to get a look at the President. But you’ve come out here to settle the strike?
Hartwell: Well, if that’s possible.
Ramon: It’s possible. Just negotiate.
Hartwell: Are we talking to a union spokesman?
Alexander: Not exactly. But I wish he were one. He knows more about mining than those pie-cards we’ve had to deal with. I mean it. I know your work record. You were in line for foreman when this trouble started. Did you know that? You had a real future with this company, but you let those Reds stir you up. And now they’ll sell you down the river. Why don’t you wake up, Ray? That’s your name, isn’t it, Ray?
Ramon: No. My name is Quintero. Mister Quintero.
Alexander: Are you going to let us pass or do I have to call the Sheriff?
Ramon: There’s nothing stopping you…
I was wrong! They don’t want Jenkins for general manager — they want me!
[End Salt of the Earth Clip]
Adam: Some context, the guy who says he isn’t the president is, in fact, the president.
Nima: President of the company, that’s right. Undercover Boss.
Adam: Ramón is soon arrested by the violent, racist police after confronting a scab he knows. At the same time, Esperanza goes into labor. The strike continues for months, and strikers and union locals from around the country provide food and other aid for the families. Later, the sheriff issues a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering the striking workers to stop picketing. At a meeting, one of the strikers’ wives offers a solution, to much derision and resistance, which we’re going to listen to in that clip here.
[Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]
Teresa: If you read the court injunction carefully you will see that it only prohibits striking miners from picketing. We women are not striking miners. We will take over your picket line. (Men laughing.) Don’t laugh. We have a solution. You have none. Brother Quintero was right when he said we’ll lose fifty years of gains if we lose this strike. Your wives and children too. But this we promise, if the women take your places on the picket line, the strike will not be broken, and no scabs will take your jobs. (Applause.)
[End Salt of the Earth Clip]

Nima: Now, before the union members vote on whether to introduce the women into the picket line, as suggested, Esperanza insists that the women be allowed to vote, and the motion narrowly passes. People begin marching immediately, though some women’s husbands, including Esperanza’s, prohibit them from joining the picket line. But eventually Esperanza joins the picketers and is arrested herself, along with her children, other picketers, and their children. In jail, the women make demands for baby formula, bathroom access, and other necessities, mirroring those of the miners.
The children are released, and Ramón handles the housework while Esperanza is forced to stay in jail. Ramón, resentful of Esperanza’s growing independence, insists that the women have no chance of winning, but Esperanza maintains that they can outlast the company and criticizes her husband Ramon for treating her just as the bosses treat him.
[Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]
Esperanza: Have you learned nothing from this strike? Why are you afraid to have me at your side? Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?
Ramon: You talk of dignity? After what you’ve been doing?
Esperanza: Yes. I talk of dignity. The Anglo bosses look down on you, and you hate them for it. “Stay in your place, you dirty Mexican.” That’s what they tell you. But why must you say to me, “Stay in your place.” Do you feel better having someone lower than you?
Ramon: Shut up, you’re talking crazy.
Esperanza: Whose neck shall I stand on, to make me feel superior? And what will I get out of it? I don’t want anything lower than I am. I’m low enough already. I want to rise. And push everything up with me as I go.
Ramon: Will you be still?
Esperanza: And if you can’t understand this you’re a fool because you can’t win this strike without me! You can’t win anything without me!
[End Salt of the Earth Clip]
Nima: Later, the company obtains an eviction order against the strikers, and the police start the process at the Quintero house. The strikers’ families defy the eviction order however, returning the Quinteros’ belongings to their home. Vastly outnumbered, the police leave, meaning the families have won the strike and that they can stay in their houses. Ramón thanks Esperanza for her work and for preaching a message of unity.
Adam: The film was produced by Independent Productions Corporation, founded by Simon Lazarus, Herbert J. Biberman and producer Paul Jarrico, both of whom were blacklisted at the time and used the company to hire other blacklisted filmmakers. Writer Michael Wilson had been blacklisted as well. Salt of the Earth was also produced in partnership with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.
The story was based on the actual strike of 1951–1952 by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers against Empire Zinc, a subsidiary of New Jersey Zinc. Two of the film’s cast members — Juan Chacón, who played Ramón, and Clinton Jencks, who played another character named Frank Barnes — were actually members of the union and strike participants. Chacón, in fact, was president of one of the union locals.
Nima: So yeah, this was basically a lefty labor-made film starring actual union organizers, past strikers as, you know, actors in the film. Now Unsurprisingly, the film Salt of the Earth had many powerful detractors. According to the American Film Institute, quote:
In February 1953, during filming, California Republican Representative Donald Jackson, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) from California, declared that [Salt of the Earth] was ‘deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds,’ and was ‘a new weapon for Russia.’
End quote.
Simon Lazarus, founder of the film’s production company, was called to testify before Jackson’s committee that same year, 1953, the year before Salt of the Earth was even released.
US entertainment unions opposed the film as well. IATSE and the Screen Actors Guild reportedly tried to halt production of the film for over a year, and director Biberman and producer Jarrico stated that they had hired people who had been effectively blacklisted by IATSE, including four Black workers — the assistant to the director, an assistant cameraman and two technicians — all of them excluded under IATSE’s Jim Crow policies.
On May 24, 1959, the New York Times reported that the United States Information Agency included Salt of the Earth on its list of movies that it refused to show overseas. The film however was subsequently re-released in the US in 1965.
Adam: Yeah, so if your film was too overtly pro union, centers race and racist cops, centers women’s liberation in the context of unionization, all a lot of bad stuff going on there. Hiring Black crew members. All that was very icky and so this movie was effectively thrown into a memory hole.
Nima: It was so un-American that it wouldn’t be shown overseas.
Adam: So un-American it is the only film ever to be blacklisted. Not a filmmaker, but the actual film, the only film ever to be blacklisted. Next up is Norma Rae from 1979. This is a more mainstream film, but one that has not so subtle politics, maybe slightly more subtle than the previous entry.
In the Southern rural town of Henleyville, single mother Norma Rae Webster, played by Sally Field, works with her parents in a textile mill under conditions threatening the health of her, her family, and her co-workers. To shut her quote-unquote “big mouth,” management gives Norma a promotion, which she initially accepts but eventually rejects after realizing that the modest raise isn’t worth betraying the rank and file, her friends or family. When New York-based labor organizer Reuben Warshovsky, played by Ron Leibman, comes into town to encourage the mill workers to unionize, the galvanized Norma Rae takes an increasingly active role in the pursuit of victory for the mill workers.

Sally Field and Ron Leibman in Norma Rae, 1979.
Nima: So Norma Rae, of course, is widely known as kind of a high watermark of labor depiction in films. It’s from 1979. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you can find it at your local library, you can stream it on Vimeo, you can probably pick up a DVD somewhere, I encourage you to do that, it is a fine film. But it really does mark this labor as shown in Hollywood as being a real hero’s journey. Also, similarly to Salt of the Earth, shone through this idea of powerful women being the kind of center of a story and moving, not only labor solidarity, but also women’s liberation and almost a feminist ideology that combines to really push the labor movement forward.
Adam: Yeah, though, as our guest notes, and we’ll talk about, its depiction of race is a bit simplistic and tokenizing. But that aside, let’s get into the breakdown of the film itself. The first scene we’re going to watch here is when the union organizer from New York, Reuben, knocks on Norma’s door, explaining that he’s a traveling labor organizer seeking a room to rent. Norma’s father Vernon denies Reuben’s request, stating that Reuben and the union are not welcome. So to start off, we’re going to play a clip where Norma has been making too many demands of management so management decides, which is a typical tactic, decides to give her a promotion, and basically turn her against her own co-workers. So let’s listen to that clip here.
[Begin Norma Rae Clip]
Norma Rae: Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.
Gardner: Norma, you got the biggest mouth in this mill. “Give us a longer break.” “Give us more smokin’ time.” “Give us a Kotex pad machine.”
Norma Rae: Do it and I’ll shut up!
Gardner: Well, we’ll do better than that. We figure the only way to close that mouth is to hand you a promotion. You’re goin’ up in the world, honey.
Norma Rae: Yeah? How far and for how much?
Gardner: Well, we’re gonna put you on spot-checkin’.
Norma Rae: Well hell, it sure ain’t gonna make me any friends.
Gardner: It’ll make you another dollar and a half an hour.
[End Norma Rae Clip]
Nima: Now, Norma demands to be fired after realizing that this promotion is effectively a betrayal to her co-workers, and that you know, she should be fired instead of getting the raise. Later, Norma and one of her co-workers attend a Textile Workers’ Union of America meeting held by traveling organizer Reuben Warshovsky, in which Warshovsky evangelizes about the unifying potential of organizing.
[Begin Norma Rae Clip]
Reuben Warshovsky: Ladies and gentlemen, the textile industry in which you are spending your lives and your substance, and in which your children and their children will spend their lives and their substance, is the only industry in the whole of the United States of America that is not unionized. Therefore they are free to exploit you, to lie to you, to cheat you, and to take away from you what is rightfully yours. Your health. A decent wage. A fit place to work. I would urge you to stop them… by coming over to the room at the Golden Cherry Motel to pick up a union card and sign it. Yes, it comes from the Bible. “According to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit.” But it comes from Reuben Warshovsky: “Not unless you make it happen.” Thank you.
[End Norma Rae Clip]
Adam: So Reuben tours the factory with management. After Norma sees how he defends the workers, she seeks to partner with him and improve the union’s outreach, cutting through years of anti-union propaganda fed to the textile workers. It has a kind of city-boy-meets-country-girl flair, but it’s very well done.
As the labor organization attempts become more visible, the company retaliates. Management forces workers into longer shifts and posts a letter telling white workers that Black workers would use the union as a tool of control. Both of these tactics have dire consequences for the workers.
Management later attempts to fire Norma after she tries to copy the letter to send to the union, hoping to expose the company’s illegal union-busting tactics. In response, in what has become an iconic scene, Norma stands up on a worktable at the mill holding a sign that reads “UNION” as the workers turn off their mechanical looms in solidarity, one by one.
The company has Norma arrested for “disorderly conduct,” and Reuben bails her out. Norma is distraught, but Reuben is unfazed and used to hostility from police. He explains that this kind of institutional antagonism is a routine part of labor organizing, offering a glimpse into the ways that police and the state enact violence against unions. So let’s listen to that clip here.
[Begin Norma Rae Clip]
Reuben Warshowsky: It comes with the job.
Norma Rae: (Crying.)
Reuben Warshowsky: I saw a pregnant woman on a picket line get hit in the stomach with a club. I saw a boy get shot in the back. I saw a guy get blown to hell and back when he tried to start up his car in the morning. And you just got your feet wet on this one.
[End Norma Rae Clip]
Adam: Yeah, so spoiler alert — which in case you haven’t noticed this whole episode is — the risks pay off and the mill holds an election over whether to unionize, and the result is a victory for the union.
Nima: Norma Rae was quite faithfully based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a cotton mill worker at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Sutton became active in union organizing after meeting Eli Zivkovich, on whom Reuben Warshovsky was modeled. Sutton was fired after copying a racist, anti-union letter posted on the company bulletin board and responded just as we see in Norma Rae: climbing onto a worktable, holding a sign reading “UNION” above her head. Unionization at J.P. Stevens took much more time than it did in its fictional counterpart, but it did happen nevertheless eventually in 1980.

The film’s director, Martin Ritt, was known for his catalog of tales of the oppressed, such as the 1972 film Sounder, about Black sharecroppers during the Depression. Like the makers of Salt of the Earth, Ritt had been blacklisted himself in the 1950s, an experience he captured in the 1976 Woody Allen/Zero Mostel film The Front. He said this in 1986, quote, “I make the kind of films that not too many people get to make in this town, though sometimes I’ve had to take the risk myself,” end quote.
Adam: According to the American Film Institute, quote:
Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and United Artists turned down the project. As explained in a 25 Feb 1979 NYT article, Alan Ladd Jr., President at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., acquired it after Ritt convinced him that the film would be perceived as uplifting and not depressing…During negotiations with the studio, Ritt agreed to cut his salary in half to $250,000.
$250,000 is still a lot of money in 1979, so our hearts don’t bleed too much. But the point is to further demonstrate the friction filmmakers encounter when they do try to have pro union narratives, it requires them to, in this case, eat shit on half their salary.
Nima: Both Salt of the Earth, from 1954 and 1979’s Norma Rae depict unionization as going hand in hand with cross racial solidarity and the third film we’re going to discuss is no different. This is Sorry to Bother You from 2018.
Adam: The film was written and directed by Boots Riley, who has a history of activism in the Bay Area and has a history of pretty overtly left-wing politics, which of course, explains the politics of the film.
Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who works, out of desperation, as a telemarketer for Oakland-based company called RegalView, where management repeatedly floats the abstract promise of a promotion. As Cassius’s co-worker Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun, hopes to start a union, Cassius ascends the ranks to become a handsomely paid and steadily promoted “power caller,” on the condition that he enthusiastically performs work far more grim than he could have possibly imagined.
Nima: So Sorry to Bother You certainly is one of the more ideological films that we are discussing in this two-parter, Adam. It is an allegory more than it is based on a true story or the, you know, story of a certain hero as emblematic of a movement. It is really a fantastical look at labor, at capitalism, and the horrors within those. So we’re going to break down some of the scenes from Sorry to Bother You.
At one point in the film Cassius somewhat reluctantly participates in a work stoppage organized by his coworker Squeeze and is called into the manager’s office, where his three supervisors offer the allure of a promotion to dissuade him from going any further, you can see parallels here to what happened to Norma Rae, right? We’ll give you a promotion if you just shut your mouth. Here is a clip from that scene from Sorry to Bother You.
[Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]
Cassius: All right, hey, I know you’re gonna threaten to fire me and go ahead, whatever, I don’t care anymore because we’re gonna take this fucking place down.
Johnny: (Laughs.) Pack your shit and get out.
Cassius: Well, fuck you and fuck you and fuck you! Fuck you!
Anderson: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Green. You’re starting to sound a little paranoid here. We’re the bearers of good news. Great news.
Johnny: Great motherfucking news.
Anderson: Great motherfucking news. Power caller.
Cassius: What the fuck?
Anderson: Yeah we just got the call. They think you’re A1 material, you’re going upstairs my compadre. Yes, you are getting a promotion. at 9am tomorrow morning. Do you have a suit?
Diana: Of course he does. Powerful, young, strong, intelligent, power caller.
Cassius: But they —
Anderson: Oh, God, they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. You’re not going against their actions. All their issues are down here. Not up there. Two very different kinds of telemarketing.
Cassius: Okay. Um…
Anderson: This is your moment. Don’t waste it.
[End Sorry to Bother You Clip]
Nima: Cassius soon discovers that as a power caller, he’ll be selling repugnant yet lucrative products from a company called WorryFree. The work stoppage has become a full-blown strike at this point, and Cassius tries to play to both labor and management, telling the workers trying to organize that he supports them quote-unquote “from the sidelines” while simultaneously reaping the financial rewards and class signifiers of his new position as a power caller.
[Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]
Salvador: Cassius? What’s up, man? Where you been? What’s up with the suit?
Cassius: I got promoted.
Squeeze: What does that mean? Are you a manager now?
Cassius: That means I’m a power caller now. About to be paid.
Squeeze: We’re all trying to get fucking paid. But we’re going to do it as a team. Are you on the team?
Cassius: Yeah, I guess I’m still on your little team but I’m playing from the bench. The bench where you sit and get your bills paid. You know, my uncle is about to lose his house.
Salvador: Cash, I’m Sorry about your uncle man, but they don’t mean sell out.
Cassius: I’m not selling you all out. My success has nothing to do with you. All right? You just keep doing whatever it is that you’re fucking doing and I’ll root for you from the sidelines and try not to laugh at that stupid smirk on your face.
[End Sorry to Bother You Clip]
Nima: Later, Cassius is invited to an especially decadent party at the mansion of WorryFree executive Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer —
Adam: Who we now know was playing himself basically.