Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley, director and script
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield (Cassius “Cash” Green), Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Omari Hardwick (Mr.___), Terry Crews (Sergio Green), Danny Glover (Langston), Steven Yeun (Squeeze), Armie Hammer (Steve Lift)
It’s a rare film that confounds and delights audiences and critics alike. You know you’re viewing one when you aren’t sure how to react. Get Out, U.S. black filmmaker Jordan Peele’s first feature, was the outstanding example of that up-the-applecart type of film in 2017. While it was certainly part of the horror genre, it was also wickedly funny, suspenseful and a truly thoughtful satire on race relations. Perhaps it’s no surprise to see yet another debut feature appear this year by a black artist, Boots Riley, whose work goes beyond even the wild accomplishments of Peele.
Sorry to Bother You will shock, enrage and excite you. Like Get Out, it makes you think about the politics of our society in a different way, while making you laugh and almost weep with anger. Although it has elements of science fiction in it, the film is one of the truest reflections you’ll see of what’s happening in the U.S.—and Western society—right now.
Riley’s film begins with Cassius “Cash” Green taking a job as a telemarketer in a desperate attempt to pay rent to his cash-strapped uncle and keep the garage apartment he maintains with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit. “Cash” is a flop until an older worker, Langston, advises him to use his “white” voice and a confident manner. That does the trick: instantly, “Cash” is making plenty. (If you think Riley’s idea is crazy, I can tell you that one of my son’s best friends, an Asian-Canadian, enjoys amazing success when he uses his “white” voice to persuade companies to give to good causes.)
Riley’s outrageous visual style accompanies Cash’s “white voice” prowess by having him and his entire computer desk descend with a crash into the homes of his callers, manipulating them as if they are in the same space—when, of course, they’re merely speaking on the phone. Soon, Cash is being invited to join the upper crust best-in-the-biz Power Callers while his friends are striking for better pay and working conditions.
Cash’s, and Riley’s world is a bitingly satirical upgrade of ours. As a hit Power Caller, Cash discovers that he’s going to meet Steve Lift, the white owner of WorryFree, a corporation that offers poor people a sustainable existence provided they sign life-long labour contracts. Talk about wage slaves! In this Brave New World, the majority is addicted to TV, which has reality shows like “I Got the S#@* Kicked Out of Me!” in which contestants compete to be the most physically and emotionally abused.
Fighting against this exaggerated version of our present-day society are Detroit, Cash’s anti-capitalist artist girlfriend and Squeeze, his Asian-American buddy and union organizer. Soon, Cash is being offered a deal by the Faustian Mr. Lift—and the film shifts into a bizarre sci-fi tale, while still keeping its satirical edge alive.
Throughout Sorry to Bother You, you’re given multiple visual volts while your ideas are being challenged by the film’s off-the-wall political and aesthetic choices. Boots Riley, an accomplished record producer and music video director, has made a first film that should be compared to Citizen Kane. Funny, quirky and very strange, I suspect that the film will be a summertime hit but be deemed to lack the gravitas to garner Oscars next February. That would be a mistake. Sorry to Bother You is a truly exceptional film. It combines sincere rage with outrageous comedy. It is the film for our times and deserves a shelf full of prizes.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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