Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You is a glorious, imperfect invective sermon of a movie. Filled with fire, passion, and deep, almost possessed, desire to tackle political issues most modern day directors are loathed to touch. The Oakland in Riley’s opus is at once deeply real while at the same time almost a whimsical parallel universe.
So much happens in Sorry To Bother You that telling you the plot seems almost moot. Not because doing so is futile, though it is a knotty and at times wildly convoluted. But because going in ignorant of what you’re about to see is an experience so rare we should cherish the opportunities when we get them.
Riley wrote and directed, not so much a movie, but a mood—an idea. It’s a shaggy dog of a movie that could do with some trimming here and there, but the chances it takes and the things its characters do and say are a breath of cinematic fresh air. Most independent directors eye the studio gigs. Or at the very least wish to exist comfortably alongside or in the shadow of the big-budget blockbusters. Riley could care less and brazenly bites the hand that feeds him.
Sorry To Bother You is a broadside against capitalism, Trumpism, corporatism, and institutionalized racism, all in the guise of an absurd satire which evolves into a tense and evocative science fiction thriller. Riley is angry and he wants you to be as well. Watching Sorry To Bother You, I was struck by how things I’m used to seeing all the time in older movies are now almost extinct.
Things such as when Squeeze (Steven Yeun) approaches Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) about starting a union. If you ever wonder if having giant multi-corporation international studios in charge of producing one of the most powerful and enduring of the mass arts has any effect, look at how little unions are depicted or even discussed. At one point while Cassius and the other telemarketers at his new job RegalView are having a morning huddle of sorts, someone asks a question rarely heard in modern cinema, independent or otherwise, “Does this mean you’ll pay us more?”
Riley’s fury and zeal are infectious and his anger all-encompassing. His eternal flame of rage is only matched by his visual and storytelling inventiveness. After being rejected by the umpteenth customer, Cassius becomes discouraged. The telemarketer in the cubicle next to him, Langston (Danny Glover) advises he use his “white voice.” Cassius asks him to explain. Riley then dubs Steve Buscemi’s voice in for Glover’s.
Cassius laughs and does his own impression. Langston shakes his head. His description of what the “white voice” is and how it is perceived and utilized is one of the plethoras of masterstrokes. It’s not about the sound or even the confidence. It’s about the knowledge that your existence is not threatened and even if you miss the next payment, you’ll be fine. When Cassius does master it, Riley dubs in David Cross’s voice for Stanfield’s.
When Cassius makes a call, his desks drops down into the person’s office or living room. Cassius must immediately ingratiate himself while picking up the things that have fallen off his desk. This effect is done by simply having two big people hold Stanfield up and dropping his desk. A practical effect that gives an almost visceral and palpable illusion of desperation and fear.
Sorry To Bother You is a comedy but not in the way we normally mean it. It’s not a gross-out or slapstick. Its humor comes from how close to the bone Riley allows his script to cut.
When Cassius and Langston share a drink, Cassius asks about the upstairs callers, the “Power Callers.” We are told that they sell something else entirely different. “Oh I get it. It’s like the difference between apples and oranges.” Langston shakes his head. “No. It’s more like apples and the Holocaust.”
The Power Callers work for WorryFree. WorryFree is a revolutionary new way of employment. Housing costs are skyrocketing, health insurance is becoming prohibitively expensive, and commuting is a nightmare. So why not live and eat where you work? To ease your mind, WorryFree offers lifetime contracts.
Clearly a scathing indictment of the much publicized, but not nearly as publicized as they should be, business practices of Amazon. The owner of WorryFree, billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), seems aghast at the outrage. He is merely providing a service and helping people find work.
Anyone who lives in a metropolis knows the homeless tend to live out of tents. Riley lines his streets with them until you get into the business sector. The streets become clean and the sidewalks clear of debris or skid row. Except as the film goes along and Cassius becomes more and more successful, the tents become more ubiquitous as WorryFree’s size and influence grow. Power Callers, it turns out, sell WorryFree employment to other major businesses.
Why pay employees and provide costly benefit packages to produce a product when you can hire WorryFree and have them make the product at a fraction of the cost? Slavery is and was a very real thing and it’s not a metaphor Riley makes lightly. When Cassius stops by his girlfriend Detroit’s (Tessa Thompson) art show he tells her he can’t stay long, she says, “Oh. Do you have to go to your slave auctioneer’s party?”
I have heard complaints about how Stanfield doesn’t sound like he’s from Oakland and that his delivery is too stilted. I believe this to be by design. If you notice, everyone has an off way of delivering their dialogue. Notice how Stanfield moves and walks and you’ll see a very naturalized and nuanced performance.
Riley is a rapper and Sorry To Bother You is dripping with musicality. The dialogue has a melody which belies an intricate love of words and grammatical couplings. At his interview for RegalView Cassius sits in his chair with an Employee of The Month plaque and a trophy. Both are fake and the hiring manager knows it. “This is telemarketing, son. That trophy tells me everything I need to know about you. You have a sense of ingenuity and that you can read.” Or when his new Team Leader, played by Kate Berlant, introduces herself. “My name is Diana DeBauchery.” She pronounces it “Du-Bu-Cherry.” Almost immediately a fellow co-worker shouts out, “That looks like debauchery.”
Sorry To Bother You is a truly weird movie that is never weird for weird’s sake. The scenes remain unpredictable and the story seemingly untethered not because of any rank amateurishness. They behave and exist the way they do because it’s the only way Riley can conceive of them existing. No other film would have a character like Detroit stand up wearing a bikini made of three gloves, recite a scene from Barry Gordon’s The Last Dragon, and invite the audience to pelt her with old cell phones and balloons filled with lamb’s blood. And then it gets weird.
Tessa Thompson is a modern day Marlene Dietrich. Her presence on the screen so naturally attracts the eyes it borders on dark wizardry. Much like Lana Parilla, Thompson possesses the unique ability to put on whatever bizarre or ludicrous outfit is handed to her and have us believe her character consciously chose that outfit from her closet. Thompson stalks every frame she’s in with a fierce grace even though she is relegated to playing the part of Cassius’ conscience.
Riley grabs you by the lapel and all but drags you along with him. At times it feels as if he personally is sitting next to you shaking you, poking you, anything to get you angry. Because you should be angry. Boots Riley is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it anymore. But unlike the character who utters that infamous line, he’s not a raving lunatic being put on television for the sake of ratings. We elected that guy president.
He is more concerned with galvanizing you. Art and politics are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be. He wants you talking about unions, about how companies dehumanize you and make you feel ashamed for even thinking about asking for a living wage.
Sorry To Bother You is a nightmarish satiric fable that exists in the here and now. It stands as a calling card for a new, innovative, and fearless voice in American Cinema. Riley’s debut is a work of art ripped from the soul and soaked in the filmmaker’s consciousness and beliefs. Steeped in his personality, it stands proud, tall, and impossible to ignore.