You are not ready for Sorry to Bother You.
You may think that you are ready for the directorial debut of rapper and activist Boots Riley, that you heard all those raves and notices from its release in America back in July with talks of its relevancy and its weirdness, that you watched that trailer over and over again in the months since the film was stuck in international release limbo due to, let’s be blunt, racism. So, you may think that you are ready for Sorry to Bother You and I am here to tell you right now that you ain’t. Nuh-uh. See, I thought I was ready for this movie. I thought that I was prepared for a hilarious racial satire that would also feed upon the predatory nature of a capitalist society for additional material, as broke loser Cassius “Cash” Green (a pitch-perfect Lakeith Stanfield) finds his calling in telemarketing by tapping into the potential of his White Guy voice (dubbed over by David Cross), but that’s not Sorry to Bother You. That, believe it or not, is only the first 40 minutes of Sorry to Bother You and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you where we ended up once the film finally cuts to credits.
I feel like I’ve witnessed something truly transgressive. Not in the way that twits like Gaspar Noé or Darren Aronofsky or Lars von Trier perceive ‘transgressive,’ but in the sense that it feels like Boots Riley has managed to sneak something truly radical into mainstream cinemas without ever having to compromise on anything. Sorry to Bother You is full of striking images and inventive means of presenting its concepts – there’s the prior-revealed White Guy voice, Cash literally dropping into the current room of whomever he is calling to symbolise the intrusive nature of his job (getting smoother and more intimate the better he gets at it), turning the battle between corporations and workers over the latter’s basic rights into an actual warzone, and those are just the ones I can tell you about – with more inspiration than many directors manage across their entire careers. It is absolutely hysterical with mountains of quotable lines (“you’re sidestepping more than The Temptations”) and instant-classic bits, excellent performances (especially the continued unstoppable ascent of Tessa Thompson), and deliriously raucous sense of fun throughout.
This, however, is all a trojan horse. Sorry to Bother You is the most fun film of the year, but it is also the most blisteringly angry and most radical film of the year because Boots Riley has disguised a Communist manifesto inside of a horror movie and disguised that horror movie inside of a comedy. The Oakland of Riley’s vision is not our own, but its heightened nature is informed in the soul-crushing horror of living day-to-day in this late-Capitalist dystopia as a poor minority. There are labour camps that resemble those already perpetrated by America’s industrial prison complexes, sold with beaming smiles as some kind of ethical and worker-friendly option because they are “guaranteed employment,” and whose CEO (the smarmiest Armie Hammer you will see in your entire life) stresses is absolutely not slave labour because “our employees aren’t forced to sign their contracts under threat of violence.” The highest-rated television show in the country, with 150 million viewers, is called “I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me,” ritual physical humiliation designed to pacify the lower-classes by making them feel good about themselves because, hey, at least they’re not literally getting the shit kicked out of them – minorities who want to make a public point need to have their bodies bloodied, beaten, and covered in shit on the show before they’re heard. Corporations will latch onto the latest woke movements for easy PR points, a joke that’s gotten A LOT more pointed in recent months, and everyone will sell out their principles to get what’s theirs because that’s what the system trains them to do.
The heads of this industry are wealthy douchey tech bros selling the idea of selling. What Cash and his fellow telemarketers are selling, exactly, is never clear and that’s perhaps the most vicious joke in a film not lacking for vicious jokes. Capitalism, after all, is all about selling the idea of Capitalism. The specifics aren’t important, the idea is that YOU want THIS, this nebulous thing that will make you and your life better; books on birdwatching, Viagra pills, or 1000s of cheap heavily-exploited worker drones who can mass-produce your products at a fraction of the cost of your competitors to maximise profits. Beating a dead workforce gets taken to new terrifying heights in Riley’s universe, corporations finding new ways to synergise and maximise efficiency for the benefit of the power callers at the expense of the basement dwellers subsisting on pittance commission akin to discovering the next step of human evolution. To Riley, Capitalism is nothing less than the legitimisation of White Supremacy on a fundamental societal level.
And if you think that Riley has got it in his head that he can enact some kind of deep societal change through his art and is a deluded fool for doing so, he’s one step ahead of you. As Cash falls ever deeper into the sway of the system, and his friend Squeeze (Steven Yuen) is fighting on the frontlines for unionisation whilst the powers-that-be laugh in his insignificant face, Detroit (Thompson), his girlfriend, channels her radical messages into her artwork. Artwork she is forced to sell to upscale White buyers using the same technique as Cash, artwork that most people just don’t get anyway, artwork that preaches to an already-converted audience, artwork whose tertiary audience sees Black people as trendy fashion statements whose culture is just an excuse for them to yell “n*gga” without getting in trouble for it. Riley’s all-out assault on Capitalism comes at the subject from every possible angle, mining equal amounts of laughs and crushing despair as he goes through each potential avenue of addressing the issues at hand and comes up short on answers each time – talk shows, artwork, leaking info to the press, unionising, peaceful protests, all backfiring in this rigged, racist, classist system
His desire to cover every single facet of this topic, and throw every last idea he has rattling around in his head into the movie, can make the film overall messy and unfocussed, especially since he’s in the habit of discarding ideas the moment their value runs out, but it’s damn effective all the same. And it is incredibly cathartic to watch a film like this in 2018 that advocates nothing so much as armed revolution to be the only workable response to centuries of class warfare, systemic racism, and continuing disenfranchisement of minorities at the expense of the rich White ruling classes. That Riley puts together such a statement whilst also packing Sorry to Bother You to the brim with memorable characters, a striking directorial style, and the kind of swaggering supreme confidence that all the best debut features are powered by is mind-blowing. Sorry to Bother You is not a perfect film, it can be kind of a mess, and it is going to fuck with some heads and piss a lot of people off, but it is the most urgent and thrilling work of cinema I have seen all year and most likely am going to see all year. And despite everything I have just typed, I still have not adequately prepared you for it because you cannot be. Filmmaking this singular and this energised is impossible to be fully ready for.