Animals and Sorry to Bother You

Boots Riley. Wikipedia.

I first became aware of Boots Riley when he was the impossibly-cool spokesperson of Occupy Oakland. I listened to some political rappers when I was in college, like Immortal Technique, but somehow never stumbled across Riley’s group. I certainly didn’t know he was an aspiring filmmaker.

So I was surprised to learn in 2018 he’d written and directed a critically-acclaimed, leftist satire, called Sorry to Bother You. Of course, I loved it. In the movie, LaKeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a struggling young man who takes a job at a telemarketing firm that isn’t what it appears.

There are a lot of great supporting performances. For instance, Danny Glover plays another telemarketer who shows Green how to use a ‘white voice’ for increased success. But I’d be remiss not to mention Tessa Thompson. She’s wonderful as Green’s girlfriend, who questions his means.

My description up to this point hasn’t provided an accurate impression of how absurdist the film is. The best example of its surreal tone is the big reveal in the latter half of the movie. We learn Green’s telemarketing firm, RegalView, sells slave labor from a larger corporation, called WorryFree.

The slaves in question aren’t humans. Rather, they’re half-human, half-horse hybrids. WorryFree transforms their human workforce into these ‘Equisapiens’ with a gene-mutating powder. The corporation hopes these animal hybrids will be more productive and obedient than human laborers.

The WorryFree chief executive, Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer, explains it this way: “They’re bigger. They’re stronger. They hopefully gripe a lot less.” Still, he’s concerned the Equisapiens might eventually rebel. Lift wants somebody ‘on the inside’ to represent WorryFree’s interests.

The chief executive offers Green $100 million to undergo the transformation and act as a false leader to any hybrids who might stir up trouble. The protagonist refuses but is ultimately transformed anyway. The final scene of the film shows Green rallying a group of Equisapiens as they attack Lift’s home.

As far as I’m aware, Riley wasn’t trying to make any kind of anti-speciesist point here. I assume he was attempting to illustrate the ruthlessness of capitalism. Still, his choice of metaphor is instructive. Our economic system extracts more surplus value from animals than humans.

Similarly, George Orwell’s use of nonhuman protagonists in Animal Farm isn’t meant as a criticism of domestication, but it’s telling. The socialist noted this himself in a preface to the Ukrainian edition of his satirical novel: “Men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.”

In Orwell’s case, it’s particularly interesting, given his hostility to vegetarianism. I’m not sure how Riley feels about such things. Regardless, when he was looking for a metaphor for extreme exploitation, he settled on human domination of other creatures. Consciously or not, that says quite a bit.

I’ve yet to catch Riley’s 2023 miniseries, I’m a Virgo, which boasts another absurdist premise. Jharrell Jerome stars as a 13-foot-tall man in the acclaimed show. Riley’s next project is reportedly a film to be distributed by Neon about a ring of female shoplifters. I’m excited to see more of his work.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at