Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Sorry to Bother You, the debut feature from musician/filmmaker Boots Riley, has a lot to say about race, class and capitalism. Stuck with no better options, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield with a very money forward name) turns to telemarketing to make a living in rapidly changing Oakland, CA. Instructed by a more experienced telemarketer that he’ll find better luck using his “white voice” so he sounds like “he doesn’t need the money,” Cassius finds himself drawn into the world of the power sellers, an elite group whose clients are the stuff of legend for the lower sales floors. At odds with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and his former coworkers, Cassius’s life enters a disturbing realm that his new status alone hardly prepared him for. Riley’s direction is pretty spot on, but the long gestated screenplay, first shopped in 2012, lacked cohesion between the criticisms.
The film is a witty, strange romp through selling out and buying into a capitalist dominated society. Without a solid (or at least clear) connection between the “use your white voice” hiding-your-race narrative and the pro-labor story, the film felt sporadic in its message. Do black men have to ignore their race to get ahead and join a despicable history of suppression? And I won’t discuss the latter portion of the movie in specifics, but a loss of bodily autonomy brought up allusion of slavery, overwork, and (somewhat) the medical establishment and corporate connection; none of those connections felt fully expressed. A bit of chaos and maybe too much searching on my part left me exhausted by the end.
The central relationship is tinged with bitterness, and resolution is bypassed in favor of progressing through the film. Stanfield’s Cassius is hunched yet expressive in a physically active movie. Cassius tries to fold into himself while Detroit is fully exposed. The artist role works in favor of Thompson’s presence. She’s a Valkyrie without trying, but her role is not developed as more than a counterpoint to Cassius: opposites attract and opposites clash. Steven Yeun (Glenn from The Walking Dead) offers little more than recognizable distraction, and Armie Hammer returns to high power malevolence. The costumes are appropriately odd and stylish, and everything from Thompson’s makeup hues to blood and whoever created the twisted later bits is disturbingly detailed; they could do the live action BoJack Horseman to unsettling results.
The very firm stance on the dangers of allowing corporations to dictate people’s options is political and ferocious, and conviction goes a long way in any art. Framing the prison system, human rights/autonomy, and topics of artistic expression as protest, the film is chalk full of messages that will engage and enrage the viewer. Just walk in with an open mind and prepare for a wholly original debut story from a promising artist–hopefully the talking piece of the year.