One’s initial impulse upon hearing that writer-director-rapper-musician Boots Riley’s debut feature Sorry To Bother You set this year’s Sundance Film Festival on fire was to shrug and think once again how easily thin air can make even the most jaded palates susceptible to the bends. One didn’t have to be a world-weary veteran of film festivals—which I am, but that, too, doesn’t mean anything—to know how this usually works: scruffy, offbeat indie movie makes audiences go berserk and knocks the pins out from beneath the guarded expectations of distributors and reviewers. Scruffy, offbeat indie movie leaves Utah trailing incandescent hype and, upon finally landing in theaters, finds its midwinter mojo faded or sucked dry by diminished expectations. Some fitting this description manage to sustain their glow all the way to Oscar season (I’m thinking mostly of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine here). But not much further.
But I wasn’t at Sundance this year, and I know that one has to see the movie in question in order to prove this point. So it is with chastened relief and unbridled enthusiasm to report that Sorry To Bother You, having stormed the Great American Multiplex like a guerrilla strike, is the most startling exception yet to the deflationary Sundance scenario. Among the myriad astonishments of Riley’s film is how up-to-the-minute it feels despite the years it took Riley to finance and complete it. How could he have known as far back as 2012, when his first draft of the script was finished, that America would become so thoroughly, exhaustively fucked-up on a daily basis that it wouldn’t take that much tweaking of Sorry To Bother You’s dystopian-funhouse version of contemporary Oakland, California, to tip it over into street-level realism?
In Sorry To Bother You’s case, you’d have to reimagine a Repo Man made in an America that bypassed Ronald Reagan and anybody named Bush.
Then again, it wasn’t all that much of a stretch, even in the relatively optimistic context of an African-American president sliding to re-election that same year, to imagine, as Riley does here, a reality television show whose participants allow themselves to be beaten bloody on-camera before being covered head to toe in pureed feces. (We just didn’t allow ourselves to think that anybody who’d produce and host a show like that would follow that black president into the White House.)
With freewheeling insolence and go-for-broke outrageousness, Riley dares the viewer to reach just as wildly for analogies or predecessors. Reviewers have so far insisted on going for obvious (e.g. “racially themed”) examples of satiric-phantasmagorical cinema like 1969’s Putney Swope or 2017’s Get Out. But the first movie I thought of was Alex Cox’s comparably goofy and smart-assed science-fiction street farce Repo Man, from (of course) 1984; only in Sorry To Bother You’s case, you’d have to reimagine a Repo Man made in an America that bypassed Ronald Reagan and anybody named Bush as president.
You’d also have to imagine our battered republic still contorting itself out of all recognizable shape in order to withstand the discontents of neoliberalism and its apparently inexhaustible faith in a “creative class” of bottom-feeding sellouts. We still would have had Barack Obama as president, maybe even Colin Powell beforehand, if the prevailing winds were favorable at century’s turn. Either way, waiting to be dashed on the rocks, as ever, would be the hopes and dreams of those living along the margins who believed, as one of the characters in Cox’s movie enthused, that there was “room to fucking move as a fry cook!”
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), Sorry To Bother You’s earnest, beleaguered protagonist, differs from Repo Man’s spiky street punks in that he doesn’t have the luxury to play at cynicism as he seizes any available opportunity. He and what furniture he owns are about to be thrown out of his Uncle Sergio’s garage because Sergio (Terry Crews) can’t afford to keep the house attached to it—an opening set piece that neatly encapsulates what it’s meant to make do for working people of all colors since the economy all but flatlined in 2008. So Cash goes all out for the seemingly dead-end position of telemarketer for a seedy outfit that delivers in motivational platitudes what it won’t provide in adequate pay. While a co-worker named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) builds support among the rank-and-file headset jockeys for a union, Cash wonders, idly at first, about whether an elevator in the lobby with shiny doors offers a cushier and more immediate access to a fulfilling life—with, at least, a better car that doesn’t ooze steam at every corner.
In the meantime, Cash has to “stick to the script” of his on-phone sales pitch and he’s getting precisely nowhere with his duties until an older cubicle drone named Langston (a dry Danny Glover) suggests Cash resort to his “white voice,” by which Langston insists he means neither nasal sounds out of Richard Pryor routine nor what he calls “Will Smith white” (ouch), but a crisp, breezy enunciation that softens customers enough to buy whatever’s being sold. (Apparently this effect is so difficult for black people to achieve that black actors deploying it had to have their dialogue dubbed in, as David Cross does here for Stanfield.) The little bulb above Cash’s desk indicating a successful sale soon begins lighting up as if under its own power. Inconveniently for our protagonist, this sales blitz starts just at the point he and his fellow workers stage the first in a series of job actions.
After one such demonstration, Cash’s bosses tell him to pack his desk and get out. It turns out, though, that he’s not being fired but promoted. He’ll finally get to ride that mysterious elevator to the top floor where, he’s told, only the “super sellers” (black or otherwise) are compelled to use their “white voices” all day long. It’s not clear just what the elite telemarketers—or “power callers”—are selling in their airy loft above the anxious masses huddled in the basement cubicles.
Above some scattered mutterings about arms dealers and drones, we learn that the client absorbing most of Cash’s time is WorryFree™, the world’s leading provider of indentured servants housed or rather squeezed into the factories where they work long hours, eat cruddy food, and scrunch into narrow bunk beds with each other, two or three to a bed. Whatever you do, don’t call it “slavery” because its slick, sybaritic founder Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, looking as if he were pre-soaked in canola oil) will tell you that any such talk is borderline offensive. In any case, the stakes are higher and hence the money is so much better that Cash is able to get his uncle out of debt before moving out of the garage into his own high-rise apartment downtown. This leads to an all-too-familiar dilemma, whether you call it solidarity versus solvency, owners versus producers, the needs of the many versus the wants of the privileged, and so on. Cash’s lover Detroit (Tessa Thompson) knows which side she’s on and it’s not his.
The collapse of this romantic union is one of the only predictable things about Sorry to Bother You. But let’s dwell on Detroit, a self-styled performance artist and member of a guerilla activist outfit called Left Eye. She is at once the movie’s most fascinating character and its thorniest conundrum. Detroit is positioned in the movie as the sensual libertine contrasting with Cash’s cautious striver; though she is not only as hungry for the main chance as he is, she’s better at seizing the moment. There’s an interlude where she’s shown defacing WorryFree™ billboards and spray-painting political slogans on the ripped spaces while sheathed in Banksy-esque camouflage. She is also shown wearing gaudy homemade earrings that either advertise (Right ear: “WILDLY WILDLY WILDLY, Left: ORIGINIAL ORIGINAL ORIGINAL ) or declaim (Lyrics by Dylan, Prince, and Boots Riley; men in electric chairs; Right ear: MURDER, MURDER, MURDER, Left ear: KILL, KILL, KILL, etc.).
But there are also cracks in her revolutionary resolve. And they start to overcome her as she presides over a gallery opening for her work; we see her not only speaking in her white voice (Lily James and her British accent), but also allowing herself to be pelted with old cell phones, bullet casings, and balloons filled with sheep’s blood as she recites dialogue from the Motown-produced 1985 cult flick The Last Dragon.
When she’s finished, she asks Squeeze his opinion. His hesitant approval stands in here for the audience’s own. On the one hand, her boldness enhances her magnetism. But her art-school abstractions come from a position of privilege relative to her patrons that’s more a reflection of, than a challenge to, the coke-snorting entitlement oozing off Steve Lift. One wishes Riley gave himself more time and space to explore this irony, but his movie, like Detroit, is too busy for extended contemplation of its actions. It insists you move along because, as your comfort level continues to weaken, there’s far worse things than sheep’s blood dead ahead.
Abasement is what Sorry To Bother You has had on its mind all along: the humiliation of poverty, the dubious spoils of success, and the disfiguring nature of hard labor.
Cash leaves the gallery early on Lift’s invitation to join the latter at his mansion for a woozy bacchanal—the kind of cringe-inducing racial spectacle where Cash is goaded to freestyle a rap song like the “Oaktown gangsta” Lift is convinced he is. All Cash can muster is a mindless syncopated riff that serves to convince the other rich white exoticizers in attendance that he’s as authentic as Lift’s delusions would have it. His performance is in some ways as awkward as Detroit’s and goes over better with his audience; yet another irony that zooms away. No matter. There’s something more urgent than irony waiting for us in one of Lift’s bathrooms: an alarming twist in the story that places everything that came before it in disorienting relief. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say this twist involves physical abasement at its most horrific and (at least for now) implausible.
Then again, abasement is what Sorry To Bother You has had on its mind all along; the humiliation of poverty, the dubious spoils of success (that head bandage Cash wears in all the posters and promos could be a separate character in the movie for all the changes it goes through), and the literally disfiguring nature of hard labor. That aforementioned reality show, the one where you get beaten and doused with shit, becomes the only avenue for Cash’s salvation and forgiveness.
So what, exactly, is Riley getting at here? That the harm we do to each other can only be mitigated by the harm we do to ourselves? If so, it’s a theme that elevates this scruffy indie comedy above others of its genre that, though better crafted, don’t rearrange audiences’ heads the way Sorry To Bother You does. The movie has barely begun its passage through the nation’s polarities and the accompanying, constant state of uneasiness entailed in that passage. The surprise ending of Riley’s film certainly won’t ease those jitters. But in the process of getting there, the movie will display its own audacious manner of nervous energy. And sometimes that’s enough to appreciate that somebody’s shaking, twitching—and, yes, hurting—alongside you.