Sorry to Bother You
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer
Black high-art has been making a huge splash in pop-culture as of late. Evident with movies like Dope (2015), Moonlight (2016), and Get Out (2017), and TV shows like Atlanta (2016-) and Insecure (2016-), Black filmmakers and their unique artistry are becoming more and more “mainstream.” This year that heightened buzz centers around rapper and political activist Boots Riley’s freshman feature film Sorry to Bother You, and while my experience with the film was not as starry-eyed as it’s critical reception would suggest, the film’s moments of genuine wisdom and bold subversions are so well conceptualized that I can painlessly forgive it where it falters.
Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck, quirky Black man struggling to earn an income for him and his eccentric girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with Detroit, Cassius takes on an entry-level telemarketing position at RegalView, a subsidiary of a nefarious company WorryFree, that has recently announced a new class of employment that ultimately brings slavery into the present day. Cassius struggles to make any sells until a fellow coworker suggests he use his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross). Cassius’ “white voice” is so effective at making sells, that he quickly rises the ranks into the coveted position of “Power Caller,” where the real money is made. All the while, Detroit and Cassius’ fellow RegalView co-workers are attempting to unionize and express themselves in defiance and dissatisfaction of the status quo. Cassius must choose between his newly-earned economic status and the dignity of having his lover’s and his friends’ backs. As you can probably tell, the allegory that the plot establishes is topical to say the least, but don’t be mistaken into assuming Sorry to Bother You offers little nuance in its discussion of Capitalism’s woes.
I’m not familiar with director Boots Riley’s prior artistic endeavors, but Sorry to Bother You definitely proves that he’s cut from the same cloth as a Donald Glover or a Barry Jenkins, if not only in his thematic confidence. Lakeith Stanfield, who has been making waves for his supporting roles for years, brings his now-trademark down-to-Earth quirkiness to the role of Cassius Green, proving that he is capable of carrying his own movie, the right story notwithstanding. Tessa Thompson’s been everywhere lately and she’s been good everywhere; her performance here as Detroit is no different. Thompson’s character often comes off haphazard or random, and normally it would come off as pompous and obnoxious, but Riley enacts enough restraint with her character to keep her from ever becoming a gimmick and instead uses her to signify perhaps the film’s most scathing commentary on artistic assimilation in the modern age. Armie Hammer steals the show as Steve Lift, the charismatic CEO of WorryFree with a hidden agenda that’s equal parts bizarre and horrific. Lift isn’t in the film very much until near the third act or so, but when he does show up and the film’s twist is revealed, the film takes a disturbing turn not so much because of the twist itself, but because something just like it could plausibly happen in our society in the not-so-distant future if we see the current trajectory of complacency in exploitation to completion. While I appreciate the parable on display, Sorry to Bother You suffers from some noticeable pacing and editing issues. Often times scenes will begin and end awkwardly in such a way that it sometimes undercuts the narrative momentum that was built just before; however, since this is Boots Riley’s first feature, it’s expected that such a film would have some cosmetic unpleasantries here and there.
Sorry to Bother You isn’t the masterpiece the trailers made it out to be, but a compelling social commentary and entertaining ensemble work well enough together to warrant a viewing from any open-minded movie-goer who isn’t turned off by the film’s pronounced weirdness.