One of the boldest debuts in recent years, Sorry to Bother You is an offbeat experience that goes to the craziest of places in its scathing assessment of capitalist ideology.
To say Boots Riley is an outspoken figure would be something of an understatement. His particular set of African-American socialist politics have been a mainstay of his work as the frontman of hip-hop collective The Coup, and certainly carry over into his debut feature film Sorry to Bother You. Rather than being an opportune swipe at US politics in these times of Trump – Riley started work on the screenplay during the Obama administration – this provocative piece of cinema takes a wholesale revolutionary stance. The message is simple: it’s not just the toxic individuals that need to go, it’s the whole damn rotten system. As much a thorough critique of capitalism as a radical criticism of it, Sorry to Bother You‘s escalating sense of surrealism and dark humour works to unpack the hypocrisies of Western society to the umpteenth degree. For reasons that will become clear, it definitely won’t be everyone’s cuppa tea. But, if you’re willing to listen, the depth and wisdom of Riley’s film is more than ready to reveal itself.
The basic premise sees Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down on his luck and desperate black man from a bizzare version of Oakland, starting a job as a desk jockey telemarketer, struggling to sell anything until an older colleague (Danny Glover) gives him a key piece of advice – use your white voice. Speaking like David Cross (literally David Cross) Cash soon starts to sell at an extraordinary rate, with the higher-ups beginning to size him up as a potential ‘Power Caller’. Riding the glitzy gold elevator straight to the top, Cash faces a fundamental question of ethics: either go it alone, increasing his financial and material wealth to excessive quantity, or to support his politically conscious girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and other work buddies Salvador and Squeeze (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun) in their bid to unionise, demanding a greater living wage for the entire body of staff. Sorry to Bother You is more driven by theme than narrative, with a loose script taking a series of incidental turns, often with scenes that function as vignettes addressing specific subjects. One such scene, a modern-day minstrel show where Cash is made to rap for a host of white patrons, is hilarious until it becomes utterly, utterly terrifying; this being a quality that runs deep, many of the jokes tinged with an inevitable cringe at their horrible implications.
The neglect of a neat and tidy story is reflected further in Riley’s approach to direction and editing styles. His eclectic range of influences vary from Spike Lee to Michel Gondry to that incendiary Pepsi commercial from a few years back (you know, the one with Kendall Jenner). Conventional cinematic grammar is repeatedly thrown out of the window. Scenes end abruptly, sometimes with peculiar and outmoded techniques like an iris out or a wipe transition (à la Star Wars). This can have a jerky effect that occasionally works to the film’s detriment, certain moments or jokes not given enough time to breathe or land, yet at the same time trying to deduce the rationale behind Riley’s distinct aesthetic is part of the experience, making Sorry to Bother You a consistently fascinating and thought-provoking fable.
Sorry to Bother You (2018), directed by Boots Riley, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures International, certificate 15.