‘Sorry to Bother You’ Is a Searing, Surreal Indictment of White America
Musician Boots Riley’s debut feature, starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer, will blow your mind.
Had to be Boots.
Sorry to Bother You is so provocative, hilarious and bizarre that it could only come from the mind of Boots Riley. The Coup frontman has imbued his art with humor, candor and creativity since his group debuted almost 30 years ago. Arriving as Public Enemy’s peak was beginning to wane and political rap’s hold on the mainstream was giving way to other sounds and approaches, The Coup was almost totally ignored by the biggest hip-hop platforms of the ‘90s. But they became one of the most respected acts in hip-hop and West Coast legends on the strength of stellar albums (Steal This Album! is required listening) and Boots’ persona. And there’s a lot of that persona in Sorry to Bother You, his feature film directorial debut.
Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius “Cash” Green, the kind of laid-back, go-nowhere slacker in his late 20s that would bring a fake Employee of the Month plaque to a job interview or ask a gas station attendant to put forty cents on the pump. Green wants more but clearly has no idea how to get it; he lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with his girlfriend Detroit (a radiant Tessa Thompson), and is trying desperately to land a job when he walks in to interview for a telemarketing position. Soon after he gets it, he learns that his uncle is losing the house. Stakes are raised and Green’s desperation heightens quickly as he learns the ropes of telemarketing.
Sorry to Bother You was the title of The Coup’s sixth album, released in 2012, which was inspired by Riley’s screenplay of the same name. Green is partially inspired by Riley’s own experiences as a telemarketer—and there’s a lot of humor milked from the slow, soul-crushing disdain that informs the reality of one of America’s most-hated—but easy to get—jobs. The awkward responses to stilted sales “scripts,” the self-loathing that comes from knowing you’re trying to sell people something they don’t need or want, the mundane unpleasantness of being cursed at by strangers every day—it’s all there in Cassius’ first experiences with his new job.
But an offhand conversation with elder salesman Langston (Danny Glover) changes the trajectory of Cash’s career. After hearing Cash stumbling through a call, Langston assures him that the key to success is to use his “white voice.” “Not ‘Will Smith white,’” explains Langston, but more “like you haven’t got a care in the world.” Suddenly, Cash discovers his “white voice” (provided by David Cross) and becomes the most successful telemarketer in the office. He’s fast-tracked up the ladder to “Power Caller,” the upper echelon of telemarketers within the company. He’s assured more money—and he gets it—and a company big shot whose name is never revealed (Omari Hardwick) takes him under his wing. But it all puts him at odds with a growing worker strike being led by his friends who want a more livable wage; and when he learns how the “Power Callers” really make their money, he’s faced with an even deeper moral conflict.
As Detroit, Cash’s girlfriend and a politically-minded artist, Thompson gets to show off her unique brand of playful intensity and revel in Detroit’s idiosyncrasies. Door-knocker earrings that also serve as quasi-billboards for her slogans and her forthright idealism make her the less compromising representation of the outsider that Cash is clearly so uncomfortable being. Detroit’s performance piece, delivered as Cash is being pulled further away from her and his friends’ ideals, is one of the most jaw-dropping moments in the movie. That it involves a monologue from The Last Dragon is only maybe the third weirdest thing about it. The audacity of Sorry to Bother You gets your attention; the intelligence keeps it. This is a story that takes so many wild turns that it can be dizzying and sometimes meandering, but there’s a method to the madness.
The movie’s easiest conceit—or at least the one easiest to market via ads for the film—is the idea that Black people have to assume a certain level of white identity to thrive in corporate America. Even in a telemarketing gig where it seems like almost no one is making any money and where the boss admits he’ll basically hire anyone, Cash’s well-being is predicated on how much of his Blackness he can stifle on the phone. It’s not a brand new concept—this has been examined by Black scholarship and pop art for generations. In the ‘90s, there was a wave of “keepin’ it real” comedies like Livin’ Large (where a Black aspiring TV reporter wrestles with losing his “blackness” as he becomes a bigger personality via exploitative dreck) and Strictly Business (an uptight Black commercial real-estate mogul uses his hip friend to connect with the culture in Harlem). But Sorry to Bother You takes the idea of double consciousness and code-switching to hilariously surreal spaces via odd voiceovers from Cross and Patton Oswalt and a story from Riley that isn’t afraid to go absolutely nuts.
There are echoes of Mike Judge’s cubicle classic Office Space and traces of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song that can be found in the loose, dreamlike feel of certain scenes, and there’s even a random nod to Michel Gondry. But Sorry to Bother You fits most neatly alongside contemporaneous projects like Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out and the unsettling “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta’s second season—and all three featured Stanfield. These are all projects that broach the idea of what it means to be Black in a world that expects—sometimes demands—that you perform whiteness to get ahead while also remaining “Black” enough to maintain the novelty of being “The Black Guy” in the room.
In a scene midway through the movie, Cassius is invited to a party at the home of Steve Lift (a scenery-chewing Armie Hammer). Lift is founder and CEO of Worry Free, the kind of self-made Silicon Valley “visionary” that becomes hailed as a game changer both in his field and across popular culture at large. That he’s a psychopath doesn’t seem to matter much to all who nestle around him, and he “sees something” in Cassius. That gets Green into the inner sanctum, but it also turns him into a minstrel, as Lift humiliates him in a way that manages to evoke liberal racism, white hip-hop audiences and the ongoing N-word debate in hilariously uncomfortable fashion. As Cassius sinks deeper, it just becomes more obvious that his would-be benefactor is deeply unhinged. When Lift’s master plan is revealed, it’s a sendup of everything from the indentured servitude of minimum-wage employment to The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Stanfield plays Cassius with the kind of slightly-stoned confusion that has become something of a hallmark for the actor, while also making it clear that Green is observant to all that is happening around him—even when he’s not so self-aware. His soul is slowly chipped away by the monetary gains he’s gotten in his career, and it seems like he’s all-too-eager to sell it. This movie is about a lot more than “talking white,” it’s about thinking like your oppressor and becoming amenable to ideas that rob you of your identity while also using you to hold others in place. Stanfield and Thompson have an easy chemistry onscreen and the ways that Cash and Detroit counter each other may be predictable, but their relationship lays a foundation on which Bother You hangs its most prescient ideas. Detroit knows who she is and it makes her life chaotic to be true to that—but her strong sense of self gives her peace. Cash is less certain, but his life is just as chaotic. He has no sense of self, and he has no peace.
Riley has long been one of hip-hop’s most committed activists and one of the game’s most brilliant storytellers. Sorry to Bother You’s third act may stretch the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, but if you’ve committed to the film thus far, you’re all-in with the zaniness, which doesn’t neuter the potency of Riley’s vision. This is a bold film that doesn’t hit every mark yet is riveting in its brazenness. There are astute observations throughout Sorry to Bother You—the most glaring being the recognition that racism demands that those most affected by it sacrifice part of themselves in order to navigate it. That sacrifice can come via the fight against it, or it can come via acquiescing to it, but there is no getting around it unscathed. And in trying to break off parts of you to fit, you just wind up bloody and lacking. And that’s what really has to bother you.