Boots Riley's wild feature film debut throws racial politics, consumerism, and magical realism in a blender, making for a comedy that's as unpredictable as it is hilarious.
Capitalism is a hell of a drug – it lulls you in with the promise of wealth and success, and all it asks is the measly abandonment of everything that makes you unique. Those sacrifices are often even greater for people and communities of color, who are so often turned into commodities or exotic things to consume. Get Out nailed this perfectly, and Boots Riley’s dizzyingly wild dark comedy Sorry to Bother You does as well, making for a debut feature that isn’t as polished as Peele’s, but tackles similar subject matter with a greater sense of ambition and visual flair.
Taking place in a Terry Gilliam-ized version of Oakland, California, Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a laconic, job-hungry man who cons his way into a thankless, entry-level telemarketing job at an absurdly run low-level firm. However, after taking some tips from another black coworker (Danny Glover), Cash starts using his “white voice” (hilariously overdubbed by David Cross) to make cold calls. “Not ‘Will Smith’ white,” says Glover, “but what white people wished they sounded like.”
This code-switching yields immediate returns, and before long he’s the top salesman in the company, earning “Power Caller” status in record time. He gets cars, money, fashionable suits, and the prestige of traveling to the top floor in an elevator that constantly talks up his sexual prowess. However, as he learns a bit more about exactly what he’s selling, and gets into greater conflict with his striking coworkers and artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), he starts to question the ethics of his ambition.
Riley, who made his name as a political rapper with acts like The Coup and Sweet Sweeper Social Club, made a 2012 album also titled Sorry to Bother You, but the two unmistakably share some similar themes. Both are bold, assertive takes on late capitalism and the hypocrisy of the art world, works with little regard for subtlety and a big revolutionary streak. Riley’s sensibilities translate well to the big screen, however, and it’s refreshing to see just how vibrantly his politics come through in a story that never sacrifices character for polemic. The cast is just as fantastic – Stanfield and Thompson are some of the most exciting young actors working right now, and they know exactly how to embody Riley’s particular strain of dry satire.
Comparisons to Brazil will likely abound after the release of this film; Sorry to Bother You’s Regalview telemarketing firm feels like Sam Lowry’s frenetic workplace, a location both mind-numbing in its mediocrity and chaotic, both films using great visual background gags of flying paper to symbolize the overwhelming nature of the mind-numbing jobs that keep bureaucracy and capitalism afloat. As Cash slowly succumbs to the allure of clothes, parties and homes full of furnished goods, Riley visualizes that with cheeky montages in which his old, shaggy apartment sprouts new lamps out of the tattered remains of the old ones, or his beat-up sedan borrowed from his uncle (Terry Crews) transforms into a sports car. Riley’s sense of visual play is infectious, finding new inventive ways to sell the invasiveness of cold-calling, or the absurdity of performance art, in virtually every scene.
And yet, for all this broader talk about how late capitalism is parasitic, Riley keeps the focus on how these systems specifically affect people of color. Cash’s code-switching certainly works from a business standpoint, but brings up the subtext of why people are more likely to buy from someone who sounds white anyway. His rise to the ranks alienates him from his more radical girlfriend (who habitually wears huge, wordy earrings full of revolutionary phrases) and his coworkers, who want to organize for their rights. At the top floor, you’re only allowed to use your ‘white voice,’ even in front of his black superior (Omari Hardwick). The more he advances, the more he himself becomes a commodity – by the time he encounters billionaire tech-bro Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, who’s delightful), he’s forced to ‘rap’ for his white fellow partygoers. (Three guesses as to what word his audience is thrilled for an excuse to sing.)
Sorry to Bother You is a lot, in the best possible way. Riley’s script bursts with big political ideas about the all-consuming nature of capital, and the difficulties black men and women have navigating a world that’s made it harder for them to succeed. Sometimes, script elements are thrown away on a whim, and entire subplots go nowhere – there’s a love triangle between Stanfield, Thompson and Steven Yeun’s strike organizer that is quickly dropped, and Thompson’s work as an anarchist graffiti-artist is barely given lip service. As the film twists and turns in all sorts of directions (which it would be criminal to spoil here), one wonders if there are just too many ideas to fit smoothly into one film. Still, Riley juggles these elements with the same all-or-nothing confidence that pervades his albums. His first film is a bit of a mess, but an impressive one nonetheless.
On top of all that, Sorry to Bother You presents these ideas with a jaundiced eye and a wry, gonzo sense of humor that makes them imminently accessible to everyone, while highlighting the specific struggles of people of color in an increasingly consumerist world. It’s Brazil meets Black Mirror meets Do the Right Thing in equal measure, and one hopes we don’t have to wait long for Riley’s next movie. If it’s as confident and assured as his debut, that’s a very good thing.
Sorry to Bother You calls you at an inopportune time on Friday, July 6th.