This article is part of our Villains Week series.
The first time we meet Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, he’s in the middle of snorting a mile-long line of cocaine. After he finishes the job, Steve brings his head up to face the camera. He’s contemplative, calmer than one should be after all that coke, and he peers at his audience as if he’s preparing to give them orders. “I bet you’re wondering why I’ve called this meeting,” he says. The music kicks in. This is a party, full of hard drugs, dancing, and strippers. To power-hungry CEO Steve Lift, though, it’s the perfect opportunity for business. As the villain of Sorry to Bother You — a dystopia that resembles our current state of affairs — Steve’s tyrannical evil parallels that of other corporate public figures.
Steve’s evil lair is his decadent California mansion. This is where he attracts colleagues and companions, alluring them with dark nights, neon lights, and sex. He cares deeply about displaying his wealth and power; essentially, he is a megalomaniac. He resembles corporate titans like Elon Musk, certainly posing as the type to smoke weed during an interview. While he invites business collaborators to drool over his luxuries, Steve is free to handle his corruption with ease. As the CEO of Worryfree, which he proudly boasts as the most profitable company in human history, he’s got quite a bit to cover-up on his hands.
Worryfree is explained in advertisements throughout Sorry to Bother You. From what we get to see through propagandized commercials and vandalized billboards, it’s a living arrangement that provides free room and board in return for assembly-line work. Compared to the dystopian version of Oakland that protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) experiences, Worryfree looks utopian. Of course, it isn’t so simple. The humans participating in Worryfree aren’t like the community shown through advertisements — they’re slaves working tirelessly to fuel consumerist greed, while Steve profits from their work.
Cash sells their labor to other corrupt corporate heads on the phone, using his famed “white voice” to coax buyers into the Worryfree solution. He’s too good at it. When Steve hears of his greatness, Cash is invited to a soiree at the mansion. After introductions and more cocaine, Steve and Cash get down to business: Steve wants Cash as the face of Worryfree, the connective tissue between workers and the rest of the world. But there’s a catch: the workers at Worryfree are part-horse, a hybrid species constructed to be the optimal labor force. If Cash wants the massive sum Steve is offering as compensation, he has to become an “equisapien.”
Even under the influence of drugs and surrounded by incredible wealth, Cash is bewildered while Steve remains uncannily calm. As Cash worries whether the cocaine he snorted earlier was laced with equine genes, Steve gaslights him into thinking he’s the crazy one. He claims that this whole horse thing is normal, the coke is 100% Peruvian, and Cash would be insane not to accept the $100 million Steve has offered him on a slip of paper with a smiley face. Steve oozes charisma and capitalist greed — his familiar corporate evil fits right in with many of today’s sentiments.
One part of the brilliance of this villain is his excessive indulgence. His party is out of control, his house loaded with leather furniture and rhinoceros heads. There’s an appeal in watching overly-indulgent millionaires exist in their day-to-day life. Take Keeping Up With the Kardashians as a real-life example. They lose diamond earrings in pools and trot around, slamming car doors worth more than most people’s rent. They’re often portrayed as ignorant and foolish, which gives audiences the opportunity for eye-rolls. It’s a chance to feel better than the wealthy, after trying to live vicariously through their fancy cars and huge oceanside houses. While Steve Lift lives a similar eye-candy life, he is not at all foolish or ignorant. He is cunning and deceptive. He is fun to watch, but he also holds a terrifying amount of power. Even worse, he knows what to do with it.
Although we aren’t facing equisapien levels of consumerist horror, the CEO as the villain in Sorry to Bother You brings many real-life corporate figures into question. It’s hard to ignore Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, who makes over $4 million in an hour, in this instance. He only recently started paying his workers $15 an hour. Amazon’s brand image is strikingly similar to the lackadaisical mindset of Worryfree — instead of leaving the house to get groceries, new clothes, or see a movie, everything you need is in one convenient place. But what’s happening behind the scenes?
In the end, it turns out Cash’s coke wasn’t 100% Peruvian — Steve was lying, it had been laced with the equisapien drug. He doesn’t care about anyone, humans and equisapiens alike. He cares about money. While researching the role, Armie Hammer found that a lot of CEOs show trends of psychopathy because they value success over human lives. Sorry to Bother You uses Steve to demonstrate how this idea is flawed, dangerous, and can become villainous. “You have to do whatever it takes to get to the top of the pile and stay there,” says Hammer on the goals of CEOs. In Lift’s case, this means creating a slave labor force of drugged horse people. And Steve’s uncannily commonplace villainy begs the question of what would happen if real-world CEOs got ahold of such a drug.