Sorry to Bother You is the debut feature film of artist/musician/writer/activist Boots Riley which manages to bridge a great many genres and sub-genres including comedy, satire, sci-fi, horror and (what the hey) political thriller. I should preface this review by assuring you that I will not be discussing this film’s spoilers for two reasons: the film is a wild ride without them, and because I don’t think I would know how to describe, with words, the innate fuckery which unfolds in the third act of this film. Additionally, this film’s plot is a challenge to summarise, but I believe context is needed to understand the broader narrative complexities of Riley’s film, so I will give it a go.
Set in reality-adjacent Oakland, California (a location which has had a big year cinematically in Blindspotting and Black Panther), the film centres around Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who hopes that his new job as a telemarketer will improve his economic situation which has him living in his uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage with artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). The job itself is at a company called RegalView which is owned by WorryFree who manufactures products with practices described as “legal slavery”, run by its ‘woke’ billionaire CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The film’s tone is kind of like if Black Mirror and Atlanta had a baby – a major selling point, I would think.
On the surface, the film functions as an extrapolation of institutional racism which pigeonholes non-white individuals into societal roles deemed acceptable or unacceptable by homogenised white society. Cash is initially unable to excel within his new position as a telemarketer until he puts on his “white voice” (aptly dubbed by David Cross) and his racial identity is erased. And with that, so does his otherness, succeeding him to the position of “power caller”. However, his successes, whilst rewarded with substantial financial gain, ultimately require the omission of Cash’s Black identity in order to conform to the company’s idea of what is socially acceptable (which is, ultimately, a white persona). Cash’s girlfriend Detroit also participates in this sort of omission when performing and selling her activist art, using her performative white voice so that her Caucasian patrons will find her more interesting.
Riley positions of the camera, (and ultimately the audience) in such close proximity to the film’s protagonist. Cash is acutely aware of his own position within society as someone who is oppressed, even unable to find a social role within his own designated group. He knows what people think when they see him, exemplified as he is visually represented as being dropped into the living rooms of strangers who only hear his ethnicity. We travel around Oakland with Cash as he grapples with his perceived repression, with the camera usually positioned within close proximity of his face, as if we were shoulder-to-shoulder with the character. Riley fully aligns us with Cassius in these formative moments leaving it up to his audience to decide upon whether he is, or isn’t an underling in this society. Cash’s eventual conformity is immediately rewarded through being heard and seen differently – all because he “stuck to the script” using his white voice. And once Cassius enters the literal golden elevator and leaves his fellow oppressed co-workers behind, we begin to see him from the perspective of his former peers who he has ultimately betrayed for money. Cash is still innately aware of how he is being perceived – and what he is sacrificing in order to succeed in a world that rejects his Blackness.
The clear highlights of Sorry to Bother You lie within the screenplay and the performances. The dialogue is so complex and revealing of his characters as they slip in and out of their roles with a true sense of realism. I feel that we are really lucky to have experienced the emergence of African-American auteur cinema and television, with reflections upon the prevalence of racism through genre and realism. This could be part of a trilogy of media released within the last couple of years which would also include Get Out and Atlanta season 2, episode 6: ‘Teddy Perkins’ – ever more apt because each features a justifiably terrified Lakeith Stanfield, whose performance in this film is remarkably expressive and essential to the thematic functions of the movie. Tessa Thompson (who I will follow to the ends of the earth) embodies so many diverse types of characters that I feel like I’m watching fresh-faced performer each time I see her in a film. She dissolved into Detroit so completely, bringing so much fire and vulnerability to the performance. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Armie Hammer (whose Adonis face is etched into my mind forever thanks to last year’s Call Me by Your Name) who is downright icky in this film. Kind of like a hot Trump – a stretch, I know.
Lastly, Riley utilises incredible discomfort within Sorry to Bother You. Uses of perspective position us both as Cassius and as those who justify racism and bigotry, in order to ultimately confront his audience to question our own morality and attitude. He allows us to laugh at outwardly racist jokes, but he also gives us time to reflect on what our reactions mean. Much of what happens to Cash is entirely absurd and satirical, but Riley’s extrapolation into the roles which are impressed upon people of colour within the hegemony of a white Western world is entirely rooted in our modern reality. The absurdity and the discomfort is clearly meant to galvanise his viewers. So go and see this and feel really uncomfortable whilst having a riot of a time, because that’s how Boots Riley wants us to feel – for a cause.