At the start of Boots Rileys sci-fi comedy Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield)—who goes by Cash—is unemployed, four months behind on rent, and down to filling his rust buckets gas tank with chump change. Whats the solution? Get a job, of course.
But this is the Oakland of an alternative (one hopes) future. There are no good jobs, only low-paying hustles—like that of Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cashs girlfriend, who twirls business signs on dead street corners to get by while she focuses on her art. If youre not lucky enough to nab one of those jobs, youre likely to sign up for a lifetime employment contract with the ironically named WorryFree, which houses its workers but barely pays them, trapping them in a system of outright, unabashed wage slavery.
Cash is, thankfully, able to nab a job as a telemarketer—hence the title—and as Rileys rip-roaring, imaginative movie plays out, its a job that launches him on an outlandish, satirical, wonderfully political tour of Americas enduring problems with race and class, and, most especially, their intersection. In simpler terms: the movie is an adventure. Its a tale in which each telemarketing call Cash makes is illustrated by scenes of him crashing into peoples living rooms, bedrooms, and saunas, as if the long arm of capitalism were literalized in the image of an office drone hitting people where they live. Its a tale in which Cash, acting on the advice of an older employee (played by gravelly, devilish Danny Glover), starts using his “white voice”—his empowered, confident, desperation-free voice—to start having more luck with commissions. But instead of a whitened-up imitation coming out of Stanfields mouth, we hear the comically chipper voice of an actual white guy: David Cross.
In other words, Sorry to Bother You is a surreal ride. It touches on predominant conversations on race and class in our culture, like minorities ability to “code switch,” or hop back and forth between “white” grammar and demeanor and their own, at will. Unions, too, are a dominant theme, as an agitator in the telemarketing office named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) tries to get his fellow employees to unionize by organizing a strike. That sets Cash up for some inner conflict. Thanks to his eerily effective “white voice,” Cash gets promoted to “power caller”—a sure bet at nailing the commission—and he winds up landing a job upstairs, with the bigger accounts, the tighter dress code, and an obligation to completely divorce himself from the union struggle. To say nothing of what it costs his sense of integrity.
Hes got his reasons, which doesnt make him right, but it doesnt quite make him the bad guy, either. Riley is too smart to situate Sorry to Bother You on those didactically Manichean terms. His movie has the arc of a grand morality tale: getting a job upstairs, getting closer to the heart of corporate capital, only pushes Cash deeper into the movies strange, compromising rabbit hole than he was before. But this isnt a story predicated on merely teaching him a lesson, even if he learns one. The movie isnt a rigid thesis: its a conversation starter. More urgently, its a fantasy: Riley has given us a fully imagined, theatrical, comical universe, our present-day political maelstrom pushed to its oddest ends. You cant limit the movies meaning to a single idea.
But if you were to try, youd land somewhere in the realm of questions about accountability: what Cash owes to his fellow proletariat versus what he literally owes—for example, to his landlord, Sergio (Terry Crews), whos his uncle, and whos at risk of losing his house. Is Cash a sellout? The phrase not used in Sorry to Bother You, but invoked at most every turn, is “house negro.” That, you realize, is what people both in the bottom floors of the office and up top, where he eventually works, seem to think Cash is. He doesnt rap, doesnt sell drugs, and has never—as he eventually gets asked—“put a cap in someones ass.” Which makes him a clean, plausible candidate for corporate culture—even as, at a party, he gets goaded into rapping in front of the crowd because, even if he isnt that kind of black man, hes still very much a black man, and everything that happens to him from then on seems designed to remind him so.
Im fond of Rileys style. His visual sleights of hand are a swirling, surprising, constant delight, and even as it frequently seems that his movies doing way too much, the substance is always right there to prop up his excesses. The film, Rileys feature directorial debut, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January and has, since then, inspired comparisons to movies like Office Space and Brazil by way of Marxism and Afrofuturism. This all adds up. A garage door popping open in the movies opening minutes, for example, has an electric pleasure; Riley makes you feel like the entire world is flipping on its head, somehow—which only portends whats to come.
Riley has populated his movie with so much ideological flourish itll make your head spin. Just look at whats playing on TV in this world: narrated tours of the WorryFree living quarters, à la MTV Cribs, but sadder; a show called I Got the Shit Beat Out of Me, in which people volunteer to get brutalized in exchange for money. He gives us a thriving culture of activists who wear black under their left eyes and try to undermine WorryFree at every turn. He gives us a WorryFree C.E.O., Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), whose veneer of blond, blazerd whiteness is masking the kind of nefarious tech scheme super-villains are made of.
If I have a complaint, its that a few of the characters in Sorry to Bother You couldve been sharper. The movie is consistently fun, and its tendency to careen right through some of its more evocative details isnt totally bothersome—except in the case of certain characters. Some of the exchanges in this movie are so effortlessly loaded with interpersonal history and curiosity that it made me crave more of the movies personalities and less of its concept. Theres a fight between Cash and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), for example, in which the men try to one-up each other with passive-aggressive displays of affection—one of the funniest, most colorful instances of bromance Ive seen in a movie. The scene is a shining example of Rileys singular imagination: Sorry to Bother You is, deservingly, getting a lot of positive attention for that imagination, as well as its politics. But as with the rest of the movie, what lingers most for me, in this moment—what the movies really about—are the people caught in its web.
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