‘Sorry to bother you’8/1/2018
Once the conversation gets going, you’ll definitely want to be a part of it
What’s your price tag? You know, the amount of money it would take for you to compromise your values, your integrity. Do the ends justify the means? Not even close. At least, that’s how it seems in Boots Riley’s directorial debut, “Sorry to Bother You.”
And yet, to pigeonhole this movie as an everyman-coming-into-his-own would be disingenuous. The film is described by its distributor, Annapurna Pictures, as “comedy/fantasy/sci-fi.” Yet there are elements of horror, elements of fantasy and elements of dark humor. It’s a funny, harsh satire of race relations, the gig economy and gentrification set in an America that demands your reflection. As the director states in a Reddit AMA: “You don’t want to smoke before — you might want to smoke after.”
Trendsetting style, infinite wit and defining performances are just the beginning of what “Sorry to Bother You” has to offer. Because this film uses unusual shot selections, surreal writing choices and an abstract production design, it is restlessly unique and will call to mind comparisons with the likes of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Get Out,” and “Twilight Zone” with pops of Salvador Dali and Aardman Animations.
The film is set in Oakland, but everything about its setting is just slightly off. It’s a sideways Oakland where slave labor is an accepted part of the cultural landscape, and the most popular program on television is a reality TV show called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me.”
It’s tough to describe the full plot without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that it follows a guy named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who has landed a job he desperately needs at a telemarketing company. He lives out of his uncle’s garage — and owes four months back rent — and drives a terrible car. Meanwhile, his artsy, sign-twirling girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), is an artist who also spends her time as an activist for the movement Left Eye, which is working against WorryFree, an institutionalized slavery company that “offers” lifetime employment as long as its workers agree to sign over their entire lives in exchange for a “cot and three squares a day.” Just as Cash’s friends at the telemarketing firm start to organize a union, he breaks away as a Power Caller through the power of his “white voice” (David Cross). He must decide if he’ll stand with Detroit and his friends or accept the riches offered by the wealthy and powerful WorryFree CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
In the “Sorry to Bother You” universe, using a “white voice” doesn’t just mean “talking proper,” or with a certain nasally emphasized accent, explains Riley, who came up with the movie after his own telemarketing stint. (This is known commonly as code switching.)
The more time Cash spends with the other Power Callers, the less he becomes aware of his code switching. But his white counterparts never truly accept him and force a rather uncomfortable scene, where they demand he drop the voice, regale them with stories of “capping someone in the ass” or, at the very least, rap for them. It’s only when Cash performs a rap for his white bosses and their friends — just the N-word on repeat, not actual rhymes — that Cash exploits his own natural voice, using it to meet their white expectations of his black identity. In one of the most horrific moments of the movie, the delighted crowd treats the performance as a call and response, and a horde of white people enthusiastically respond exactly as they shouldn’t.
Like many directorial debuts, “Sorry to Bother You” isn’t perfect. It has a bit of a multiple-ending problem, with the perfect final frames disrupted by a mid-credits scene that undercuts what came before. Subplots fizzle without much of a resolution. But it kind of makes sense given the amount of issues the film tackles — one is basically forced to focus on what they can, knowing full well there’s a lot you’re missing. There are places “Sorry to Bother You” goes that some simply won’t want to follow, but it’s one of the most assured, self-possessed debut features in a long time. Give it a shot, because once the conversation gets going, you’ll definitely want to be a part of it. ♦