Sorry to Bother You is a doozy — vividly shot, morally vigorous, and consistently funny.
Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley. Screening at Somerville Theatre, AMC Loews Boston Common, and Regal Fenway Stadium 13.
By Matt Hanson
Boots Riley has made quite a name for himself as the founder of Oakland’s beloved radical hip hop collective The Coup. But now he is expanding his scathing satirical vision into the world of film. His debut feature, Sorry To Bother You, which he wrote and directed, springs from a screenplay based on his brief stint as a telemarketer. Unable to find any financial backers, the script was published by McSweeney’s in 2014. Undaunted by Hollywood’s indifference, Riley then made a concept album with The Coup that revolves around the storyline. Financial backing arrived, and the film is now playing in theatres nationwide — which only goes to show how long it takes for fresh, original, and challenging material to find its way to an audience. Luckily, it’s found one — as I write, the movie has made about three times its original budget. It deserves every cent it gets at the box office: Sorry to Bother You is a doozy — vividly shot, morally vigorous, and consistently funny.
The story revolves around the struggles of one Cassius “Cash” Green, sympathetically played by Lakeith Stanfield. He is a young African-American man down on his luck in Oakland. While Green is squatting in his peeved, debt-ridden uncle’s garage, he is struggling with an existential crisis. Only his ebullient girlfriend Detroit is able to boost his spirits. Down to his last pennies, Cash lands a telemarketing job for a corporation called WorryFree, a nightmarish version of ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps’ neoliberal economics. WorryFree promises a life free of the hassle of rent and employment anxiety. Their solution? A chance to serve out lifetime apprenticeship — for minimal wages and employee housing — in a business that clearly resembles a prison. Too broke to be wary, Cash earnestly bluffs his way into a telemarketing job.
I happen to have spent more time than I care to mention as a telemarketer, and I can vouch that Riley gets so much of the job right. Its calculated tedium and ingrained herd mentality is a model for how capitalism demeans and abases average workers. The need to survive is connected with the ability to sell — a Sisyphean treadmill that guarantees despair. WorryFree consistently tells its workers that an oasis of prosperity is just around the corner — if only they keep selling, keep working as hard as they can, and — most importantly — continue creating profits for the owners. Riley includes some all-too-accurate scenes featuring tweaked-out sales managers trying to motivate their employees with a curious mixture of threats and naively sunny optimism. I’ve spent plenty of time in those rooms, listening to those speeches, and I can say from experience that Riley’s surreal parody of the schizophrenic world of telemarketing is on point.
Taking the advice of his elder coworker Langston, played by Danny Glover, Cash makes use of his “white voice” to sell to unsuspecting customers. This voice is meant to suggest ease and economic stability — anything but the desperation Cash truly feels. David Cross provides a perfect parody of complacent, guileless suburbia in the nasal, Ned Flanders-ish voiceover that helps Cash rise quickly to the rank of top salesman. His supervisors are thrilled, their pockets brimming with sales commissions. Young Cash attains the coveted position of “Power Caller,” which propels him out of the main office’s bleak, cramped confines and into a penthouse suite of unimaginable luxury. In keeping with the madcap, snarky-wise tone of the film, the elevator Green takes to the top floor — which soars past the losers who have to take the stairs — comes with a recorded voice that offers daily praise for his superb fashion sense and ferocious sexual appeal.
Cash enjoys his newfound success and pays plenty of bills with the money he makes. But his friends and former co-workers have other ideas about what ‘making it’ truly means. They start to unionize in order to protest their callous and brutal treatment at the hands of the powers-that-be. Cash crosses a picket line to get to work and, though he claims to support the picketers from the sidelines, his words don’t convince anyone, least of all himself. Detroit spins signs in front of business storefronts for a living; she loves Cash, but refuses to ignore his vain betrayal of his former comrades. Played with wit and strength by Tessa Thompson, Detroit wears bright colors and sports massive earrings that convey ironic messages. The earrings are a running gag, but the character winningly serves as the film’s irreverent but committed moral conscience. She’s the one who powerfully calls out Cash for his opulent but “morally emaciated” behavior.
Cash’s newfound charisma earns him invites to elite parties thrown by Steve Lift, a new-money tech-bro type (think Mark Zuckerberg mixed with Elon Musk). Cash’s fish-out-of-water experience at Lift’s party generates some effectively comic moments: Cash’s race is exoticized and tokenized amid the sparkling white denizens of Lift’s ultra-monied crew. The scene in which he is playfully asked — and then essentially commanded — to rap as a party trick speaks volumes about privilege, status, and racial dynamics in contemporary America. It is also quite hilarious. A major plot twist comes along (no spoilers from me), but it demonstrates what WorryFree is really out to do. Trust me when I say there’s no way you see it coming — and that gives the shocking revelation an extra punch.
The title of the film explains why its satire is so perceptive. The phrase is, of course, an utter banality — we hear it tossed around in everyday life, a meaningless nicety. Cash uses it in his calls in order to break the ice with potential customers; its implication of deference and courtesy carries a particular kind of sociopolitical weight. But Riley argues there’s a deeper, more urgent meaning behind the phrase: “… the other side of it is, is that often when you’re telling someone something that is different from how they view things, different from how they view the world, it feels like an annoyance or a bother.” For a movie this quick-witted — and so engagingly and unabashedly critical in its vision of the debased state of life under late capitalism — maybe an appropriate subtitle might be “Sorry, Not Sorry.”
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.