This loosely subversive satire is insidiously infectious
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
No one can tell you anything about Sorry to Bother You, the revolutionary new debut feature from writer-director Boots Riley. As the front man of the political hip hop groups The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, Riley has had songs included on soundtracks to movies like Superbad and The Losers along with performing and appearing on an episode of The Simpsons, and his foray into filmmaking seems to capture the improvisational mania of a deeply underground movement operating on the fringe of a fringe. Sorry to Bother You is an upload of a raw clip of political satire that wasn’t deemed ready for televised consumption, but just might be exactly what is needed at this particular cultural moment.
Starting off with a day-in-the-life of an Everyman vibe, Riley hooks the audience up with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an Oakland slacker-hustler living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) with his avant-garde artist girlfriend named Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Cassius over-schemes his way through an interview to become a telemarketer in a world that seems just a tad-bit too askew of our own. There’s a frenzied pace to the televised breaking news segments and a somewhat frayed edge to the everyday scenes that feels even shabbier than what we’ve come to expect from indie films.
But once Cassius starts working, things really get surreal. With each call, he literally drops into the frame with his would-be clients, in the midst of sex or oddball interactions with family members, and we see him struggling to seize and maintain their attention for enough time to sink his selling hook into them. Within seconds, he’s lost most of them and the hilarity of the exchanges quickly becomes desperate. Cassius needs cash and he believes he’s got what it takes to win and influence people, yet it’s not until he has a conversation with an older co-worker (Danny Glover in a hilarious cameo) and gets some helpful advice that his situation changes for the better.
The secret, Glover reveals, is to “use your white voice,” and not just the inoffensive Will Smith white voice, but the one that mimics the worry-free privilege that most white folks aren’t even aware that they enjoy (mainly because this voice belongs to the 1% and even regular white people can only imagine and aspire to this level). Once Cassius taps into his real white voice (David Cross), Sorry to Bother You gets down to the nitty-gritty essence of its theme—an investigation of class warfare and the lesson President Trump tried to teach America during his run for the White House.
Most of us remember his bold (and at the time, completely absurd) statement that he could walk up to someone in Times Square, shoot them in the face and get away with it, because he’s Donald Trump. The quote obviously stirred up controversy, but what we failed to acknowledge was his absolute calm and certainty in making it in the first place. This was a man who understood that, in this cultural/social moment, he was speaking a profound truth about his power and the cult of personality that had developed around him.
Cassius discovers the potential of his real white voice and his employers empower him to use it in the same way. Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is the head of a somewhat nefarious corporation that has created a system of prison-industrial-complex-rooted slave labor by convincing people that they want the security of living and working in confined spaces because it takes away all of the stress and worry that comes with freedom. Lift snatches Cassius from his already fast-tracked rise up the seedy corporate ladder and attempts to entice him to become a pawn in a far more insidious scheme that goes into an alternative sci-fi realm of political surrealism.
The film dares audiences to shout back at the narrative leaps. We find ourselves wanting to call out the outlandish bullshit, but the more crazy and frazzled the story becomes, the more it feels like a sad and all-too accurate reflection of our current reality. Nothing makes sense as we watch the endless news cycle spotlighting the widening fracture in our two-party system, a U.S. President who labels the free press and our closest NATO allies as enemies, while embracing a known national adversary who attempted to subvert our electoral process.
The world is coming apart at the seams, so it makes sense that Sorry to Bother Youlooks and feels like a dystopian nightmare that’s slightly out of focus. What Riley has done, in true revolutionary (and with a fascinating degree of genius) fashion is build a narrative on a foundation of concerns about race and race relations that expands sneakily into a discourse on power of diversity to effect change. This is what all power for all the people looks like on the front lines; we’ve just been bamboozled for so long that we couldn’t recognize it.