Coonery, buffoonery, toxic masculinity, feminism, identity, and Black lives matter are among the many themes tackled in Boots Riley’s directorial debut film Sorry To Bother You. Think of this as an avant-garde, dystopian, social satire that uses racial dynamics in the workplace as a catalyst for exploring how people of color navigate within an oppressive system. Some have compared the movie to Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit, Get Out. That’s an accurate comparison but it reads like Get Out if directed by Michel Gondry.
The film follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield). A cunning and sensitive and deep thinker who spends equal time finding a job as he does try to unravel the secrets of the universe. In an opening scene, Cassius uses his wits to scam his way into the telemarketing job–and it works. To get a sense of the on the job training, Riley transports Cassius all over the world in a literal sense as he lands in the kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms of customers.
Now Cassius isn’t having much luck on his assigned calls until an older officemate (Danny Glover) explains how to build customer trust through the ‘white-voice’ approach. “Not Will Smith white,” he says, but David Cross white. With the new voice change, Cassius sees instant monetary success, but at what cost? Susceptible to any influence that reaps a modicum of elevated status, thankfully his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) Is there to level him out. Once Cassius reaches the point of no return, Detroit, along with all of his friends and coworkers begin to jump ship.
It’s easier to think of Detroit and Cassius as ideals representing extreme ends of a spectrum. One side caters to its oppressors in the name of greed. The other wants to dismantle a racist, corporate system by any means necessary. On an even larger scale, they represent a current split within Black American society and shows how it’s nearly impossible to co-exist without unification on one or more issues.
Sorry To Bother You exist somewhere between reality and fantasy where it grounds it’s characters, while simultaneously getting you to believe Equi-sapiens are a thing (you’ll have to see the movie for an explanation). Riley’s borrowed style aesthetic doesn’t get in the way of the execution or story. He makes all subjects feel equally important as they offer different points of view on white supremacy and capitalist culture. I don’t want to go into specifics on how Riley tackles each issue, as it will spoil the surprise.
This film includes extraordinary talent. Lakeith Stanfield has a prestigious and varied body of work that spans television and film. There is no role he can’t tackle. And after her role in Thor: Ragnarok, Tessa Thompson is one of the rising stars of this generation. That’s no stroke of luck, its Thompson and her wide range of talents. Steven Yeun who offers the biggest surprise as Squeeze. He isn’t stereotyped, and in fact is one of the heroes and considered a heartthrob. Yuen is treated as a person, and not a caricature of Asian culture which he pulls off with finesse and charm.
Boots Riley concludes the movie in such a way that it can be ongoing or self-contained. I guess whether or not we see more storylines in this universe depends on how the film community receives it. The film will leave many confused. It may require a second or third viewing. It could even divide audiences—but no matter what people think, Sorry To Bother You will undoubtedly create conversation.
Like, Get Out, Sorry To Bother You foregrounds a series of metaphorically based scenarios that display the challenges facing African Americans in a white-dominated society. Reminding you that no matter how the story is spun, the narrative will always hold true for those living that reality.
This was originally reviewed for the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.