Boots Riley’s directorial feature, Sorry to Bother You, could be the satirical comedy film of this generation—or, at least, it should be. With its bold, original storyline and firebrand comedy chops, it’s a wildly surreal, outlandish romp imbued with radical politics and an awareness of societal struggles such as urban poverty; political movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter; and more absurd, distracting facets such as YouTube culture and ridiculous entertainment media. Written descriptions of this film fail to really encapsulate Riley’s full vision, as it madly defies viewer expectations with aplomb and ease.
Sorry to Bother You takes place in the not-too-distant future in Oakland, where young Cassius Green (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield) lands a job as a telemarketer for the morally ambiguous mega-corporation Regal View. Living in his uncle’s garage and four months behind on rent, Cassius needs the commission-based gig badly, but he flops hard in his attempts to secure sales, despite his friendly nature and his following the company policy to STTS, or “Stick to the Script.” His co-worker Langston (Donald Glover) leans in and advises Cassius to use his “white voice” when on telemarketing calls to secure sales. “And I don’t mean Will Smith white,” Langston clarifies. “The kind of white where you don’t have any worries, you don’t need this job, and you’re going to walk out of here and drive home in your Ferrari.”
Skeptical at first, Cassius utilizes an inner white voice (actually, David Cross’ voice) and becomes one of Regal View’s most promising power callers, quickly ascending the corporate ladder to a more white-collar position.
Cassius’ success is complicated by his loyalty to his friends at the company; they want to form a union to demand livable wages and decent benefits. His compadres include his best friend, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler); his fiancee, Detroit (Tessa Thompson); and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a seasoned labor organizer. By accepting his new power caller position, Cassius turns his back on his friends and co-workers fighting for a union, to answer the siren song of the cushy gold elevator and hefty salary that beckons him.
Weighing even more on Cassius’ conscious is the knowledge of what Regal View power callers are selling: cheap human labor to foreign countries provided by a cultish worker-encampment colony called Worry Free, where families are promised livable accommodations by signing away their rights and performing menial factory jobs. Detroit, an artist and activist with pseudo-anarchist group Left Eye, openly protests Worry Free and its maniacal founder, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who ensnares Cassius in a most grotesque capitalist scheme in the film’s third act.
Before directing this film, Riley had been a longtime activist, rapper and lyricist for the rap group the Coup (who provide the film’s soundtrack). Riley had been wanting to make Sorry to Bother You for years to draw on his own experiences as a telemarketer, and according to Rolling Stone, he released his finished screenplay through Dave Eggers’ publishing house. Hollywood took notice and funded the project, with Riley in tow to direct.
The end result feels reminiscent of the work of filmmakers such as Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, Mike Judge and Hal Ashby, but Riley is his own kind of filmmaker, and he handles the zany, madcap energy of Sorry with cohesion and finesse as he connects it all together. At one point, Cassius tries to reveal Regal View’s perverse crimes to the apathetic public and is comforted by Langston, who advises, “People can feel so powerless to stop a problem that they decide to get used to the problem.” His pep talk reinforces the idea that potential for change lies within everyone, even in little ways, and small efforts can collectively lead to bigger solutions. That’s Riley’s own activist voice talking, and it’s a central message that can definitely resonate with audiences at this time, as well as in hard times to come.
What solidifies Sorry to Bother You even more is its fantastic cast. Stanfield is a delight as an Everyman, while Thompson steals the show (especially with her bold, colorful wardrobe, statement jewelry and humorous performance-art-piece scene). As crazed, drug-fueled Lift, Hammer has great comic delivery that bounces off Stanfield beautifully. Oakland, too, becomes its own character in the way Riley and cinematographer Doug Emmett capture its stellar urban scenery and showcase its distinct personality and cool.
Sorry to Bother You radiates with a kind of youthful joie de vivre that feels neither forced nor contrived, and despite its WTF-level weirdness, it provides a positive antidote to the weird reality in which we already live. It’s the best kind of satire, one that leaves its message on the table and allows viewers to pick it up and run with it on their own. Riley has clearly broken through with this debut, and it’ll be exciting to see where he takes his vision next.
Sorry to Bother You was written and directed by Boots Riley; and stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Jermaine Fowler.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.