When I saw that Wisconsin musician/indie-label owner Rory Ferreira (milo, Scallops Hotel e.t.c) had brought an entire cinema screening of Sorry to Bother You as part of his grassroots label Ruby Yacht’s continual support of African American independent arts I knew I was in for something special; defiantly counter-cultural and unapologetically black. In his feature directorial debut, musician-turned-director Boots Riley certainly delivers and even exceeds the expectations I had. Indeed, what we have in Sorry to Bother you is a fantastic comedy-turns-horror satire with originality and bite that feels long overdue in today’s socio-political climate.
In Sorry to Bother You, we are presented a contemporary Oakland which, at least initially, doesn’t feel particularly removed from our own world. Within it Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (LaKeith Stanfield), a rather on-the-nose name, lives with his artist-girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in the garage attached to his uncle’s house, played briefly by Terry Crews. Cassius is stuck working as a telemarketer in a sort of millennial ennui; a haze of existential depression over his fleeting life and lack of positive contribution to the world. That is until Danny Glover’s Langston offers him some advice: to use his ‘white voice’ thereafter Cassius quickly ascends through the company to become an important player in its upper echelons, only to be corrupted by a world of greed.
The talent in the cast is commendable with Stanfield’s acting feeling genuine, and fantastic performances by Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler standing out as dispossessed workers. Omari Hardwick takes a turn in an anonymous but fairly major role as a stoic yet powerful telemarketer, and finally Armie Hammer as the coke-snorting Steve Lift, head of the villainous ‘Worryfree’ prison system is fantastic, equal parts charming, funny, and utterly detestable. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the acting is voice acting from David Cross and Patton Oswalt as performing Stanfield’s and Hardwick’s ‘white voices’ with great hilarity; Riley couldn’t have made a better choice for what white people think they sound like. These voices sound tinny and overdubbed, like they’ve been mixed in a closet, but really strengthen this ugly disconnect between the character and their use of the voice.
The America that Riley explores in his film is one that seems only slightly heightened from the one we know yet digging deeper the similarities only become scarier. It’s an America of slums, wherein the poor and dispossessed sell themselves into the ‘Worryfree Solution’ in which people live for free in a prison in exchange for long shifts on a production line. The tagline of these are full of race-baiting dog-whistle terms like ‘Show the world you’re a responsible babydaddy’. This, alongside much of the television programming and advertising we see in Sorry to Bother You is part of Riley’s insistence on subverting and parodying contemporary culture to reveal their latent and hidden racism and classism. This Oakland setting is one of capitalism gone rampant, wherein even the act of protest has become commodified. This is striking until one remembers Pepsi’s advert with Kendall Jenner of 2017, wherein she quells a protest by distributing soft drinks – something that is both referenced and subverted within Sorry to Bother You. Funnily enough, much of the drama of the film occurs in several protest scenes outside of the telemarketing company Cassius works for, which may initially start out as funny but quickly become worrying. These instances are a few of many, but go a long way in Riley’s world-building satirising many contemporary issues surrounding capitalism and racism.
For a newcomer, Boots Riley’s filmmaking prowess is not only commendable but incredibly exciting. He takes great influence from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Michel Gondry’s animated work (who he references savagely as Michel Dongry), and even David Cronenberg’s body horror, yet blends them with a fluid filmmaking style wherein sounds and conversations drift and overlap through scene transitions that stands out beyond his influences. Unlike his characters, without bowing down to appeasing or emulating a white person, Riley seems to have found his own voice in an incredibly oversaturated field, and it’s fantastic!