Hip-hop artist, music producer, teacher, and political activist and agitator Boots Riley has new talents to add to his resume: screenwriter and director. His electric film debut, Sorry to Bother You, announces a fresh and singular new voice in American cinema. The movie uses biting, politically charged satire to comment on a myriad of social justice concerns. Riley skewers issues like race, class, labor rights, toxic capitalism, and selling out with an outlandish and exhilarating premise that gets stranger with every passing minute. I can sum the movie up with one word: bonkers. The last time I used that word to describe a film I wrote about was over three years ago. The inventive science fiction (for lack of a better term) feel and unique sense of humor Riley employs in Sorry to Bother You makes it the first bonkers movie event since Mad Max: Fury Road.
Many movies get by with one idea to hook the audience. The concept of the “elevator pitch” is common in all areas of business, and Hollywood is no exception. Many screenwriters and producers must be prepared to boil down their idea for a two-hour movie into a 30 second description to get the initial green light. Consequently, movie trailers and marketing campaigns often use the same technique. The one idea that Sorry to Bother You’s marketing campaign focuses on is the wry concept that black people can use their “white voice” to find success, especially in the professional world.
That’s the talent that our hero, Cassius “Cash” Green learns about from a coworker when he starts a new telemarketing job. Cash is struggling to make it through even the introduction of his sales pitch before each prospective customer hangs up on him. Then the worker in the next cubicle, Langston, lets him in on the secret.
Using your white voice is sounding like you don’t have a care in the world; all your bills are paid, and you’re at this job because you want to be, not because keeping a roof over your head depends on it. The secret, Langston tells Cash, is what using your white voice really means. It’s sounding like what white people wished they really sounded like. It’s a clever, nuanced take from Riley on the concept of code-switching, a skill that people from many backgrounds employ, but one that has a special importance in the black community.
What’s so shrewd in Riley’s use of the idea is that it encompasses class as well as race. That is what’s at the heart of Langston’s speech about the white voice not being what white people really sound like, but what they wished they sounded like. Riley is interested in exploring how the black community is affected by these aspects of the dominant culture, but this speech is the first subtle hint that he’s also interested in critiquing the way capitalism affects everyone it touches.
Riley’s bold stylistic choices for Sorry to Bother You perfectly complement his grand thematic preoccupations. His artistic decision to dub in a white actor – comedian David Cross, one of many inspired casting coups from Riley – whenever Cash is using his white voice sets the stage for how gleefully bizarre his movie will become by the final minutes.
Riley also adds a touch of magical realism in the moments dramatizing Cash’s telemarketing calls. Each time someone answers, Cash’s desk falls through the call center floor, and he lands face-to-face with the person on the other end of the line. One call lands him at the customer’s breakfast table. The next lands him in the middle of a sexual encounter. The movie is filled with this type of arresting visual design, clever editing, and special effects.
Both Sorry to Bother You’s cinematic flair and idiosyncratic story elements are evocative of the best work of filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, but Riley adds intensely political statements into his film. Throughout the picture, Cash and other characters see ubiquitous advertisements for an amorphous company called WorryFree. The corporation promises an idyllic life for anyone who comes to work for them. The job comes complete with full room and board, and the freedom to never worry about paying bills again. At the same time, the movie also shows us news stories uncovering the slave-like lifetime contracts all employees must sign when they join the organization.
Things get curiouser when the telemarketing firm where Cash works, RegalView, identify him as a “Power Caller,” and promote him upstairs to sell for RegalView’s corporate owner, which just happens to be WorryFree. What they ask him to sell now is a bit more troubling than the product he moved for RegalView. This is the point when Riley uses his critique of our capitalist society to indict all of us in going along to get along. Another way to put that is the motto that RegalView is tireless in stressing to its employees: “Stick to the Script.”
Against his better judgement – and the protestations of his girlfriend, Detroit – Cash decides that even though what he’s doing for WorryFree is morally repugnant, he will use his excellent selling skills using his white voice to get his piece of the American Dream. Riley is careful not to condemn Cash for his decision. Money makes the world go ‘round, after all, and who among us wouldn’t choose financial security and freedom, even if it meant looking the other way when it comes to our personal values? Most of us do that to some degree already. Riley’s real target here is capitalism, the system that forces people to make that decision in the first place.
The system is represented by WorryFree’s CEO, Steve Lift. If Cash was troubled by his new duties in the sales department at WorryFree, Lift’s next offer sends him into a full-on panic. That panic is reflected in the overall aesthetic of the movie as things take a fantastical, wacked-out turn in the last act.
As delightfully crazy as the plot gets in Sorry to Bother You, there are wonderful performances throughout the movie that ground it in believability. Two of the best actors working right now – both in terms of the work they do and the projects they choose – give standout performances. Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson play Cash and Detroit, respectively, and both are attuned perfectly to what Riley is doing. Detroit is an artist who supplements her income as a sign spinner. She also has a subversive streak, and Thompson gives her an edge that is dangerous and intriguing. Stanfield plays the hapless Cash as a man caught up in machinations much bigger than anything he could possibly imagine.
Omari Hardwick delivers a hypnotic performance as Cash’s boss once he becomes a “Power Caller.” In addition to David Cross as Cash’s white voice, fellow comedian Patton Oswalt supplies the white voice for this mysterious figure, whose name is inexplicably bleeped out whenever a character utters it. Armie Hammer is splendid as Steve Lift, Riley’s stand-in for every tech and industry billionaire you can think of. There are also delightful cameos by the likes of Terry Crews and Danny Glover.
Sorry to Bother You is destined to become a cult classic. It’s witty and incisive satire on the order of a movie like Brazil. Boots Riley has made an auspicious debut, and his left-wing critiques on subjects like labor rights, capitalism, and race make him a vital artistic voice. I look forward his next project with great anticipation. While I wait, I’ll pass the time listening to the back catalog of his politically-minded hip-hop group, The Coup.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- There's not much better in my book than a really bizarre piece of sci-fi where everyone involved is absolutely committed to creating a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. Add in a healthy dose of the driest comedy you can imagine and political commentary by way of whip-smart satire, and that's a recipe for one of the best movies of the year so far.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I would be forever shamed if I failed to mention, both in the main review and here, the wholly original, funky music cues pulsating throughout Sorry to Bother You. The brilliant score was a collaboration between two groups: Tune-Yards, and Riley's own band, The Coup (that's why I felt the need for the shout-out in the last line of the review).
- There's an orientation video – à la the TV show Lost – that is inspired. I'm a sucker for this type of device every time.
- Riley nails the common trope, always perpetrated by foolish white people, that Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't an agitator, and that he brought everyone together in peace and harmony. Anyone who knows anything knows King was a radical.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Good audience, but I couldn't really get a read on how they reacted to the movie. Most of the crowd seemed perplexed by it.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- As I write this, I just came from a screening of stand-up comedian Bo Burnham's debut as a feature film screenwriter/director. It's called Eighth Grade, and I'm prohibited from releasing a review until the film opens wide next Friday. It stars 15-year-old Elsie Fisher as a girl making the transition from middle school to high school, and her attempt to make the transition from quiet, awkward wallflower to confident risk-taker.