If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to films about the black experience in present-day America, you’ve probably figured out that the city of Oakland plays a central role in that story. From 2013’s Fruitvale Station and the powerful documentary The Force to the upcoming Blindspotting and the American sequences in Black Panther, Oakland is portrayed as both a place bursting with energy and vitality, but also a city whose changing face is at the center of a great deal of strife.
No one has portrayed the Bay Area quite like writer-director (and former rapper) Boots Riley’s genre-busting Sorry to Bother You.
In this pseudo-sci-fi story set in an alternate version of modern-day Oakland, we meet Cassius Green (the hardest working man in show business, Lakeith Stanfield), a bit of a slacker, but a man trying to make ends meet. He’s personable enough that he has a great girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson, always sporting one of many pairs of message-heavy earrings); a best buddy, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler of “Superior Donuts”), with whom he ends up getting a seemingly dead-end telemarketing job selling encyclopedias; and a forgiving uncle (Terry Crews), who lets his nephew sleep in his garage that’s made up like a studio apartment.
Riley’s visual flair is apparent right away, especially when he simulates what it feels like for both Cassius and his would-be customers when he interrupts their day with his annoyance of a call, by simply having him and his desk drop in (literally) on whatever it is they’re doing—having dinner, having sex, or mourning the loss of a recently departed loved one. There are touches of Michel Gondry’s sensibility in Riley’s work, and it’s wonderful to see someone be so daring both in their stunning visuals and in their scathing storytelling.
Riley’s attitude toward the soul-sucking corporate work world seems pretty clear, and he’s much more interested in the mini-revolution that bubbles up within the ranks when the workers, led by clandestine union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun), demand better compensation for their efforts. But Cassius isn’t entirely on board because, thanks to an older co-worker (a tremendous, all-too-brief appearance by Danny Glover) who advises him to use his “white voice” when making his calls. Turns out that not only does Cassius have a damn fine white voice (provided by David Cross) but he also is making a killing in sales with it, enough so that he’s promoted to the upper-echelons of the company where people draw actual salaries (instead of commissions) and are treated like royalty.
In the background of a great deal of Sorry to Bother You, we see ads encouraging people who are struggling financially to take jobs for a company run by one Steve Lift (a note-perfect, entitled sleazeball played by Armie Hammer). The workers don’t get paid but they are given permanent jobs, food and shelter in what looks like a comfy prison—in other words, they are a new breed of slave labor.
And it turns out that the company that Cassius has been working for the whole time is also Hammer’s operation, and that his new job will be to call potential members of Slavery 2.0. Even if this was as far as this story went, it would be fairly devastating and compelling. But Riley turns his alternative future into a true horror show, with an additional level of gutsy sci-fi storytelling that I won’t ruin for you, but it’s equal parts hilarious and shocking (and you should do everything in your power not to ruin the surprise before seeing the movie).
Cassius is a man caught in the middle. He’s beyond excited to have found something he’s genuinely good at and can make a living doing, but he’s aware that what is being asked of him by Lift is immoral and illegal (at least for now, but money will likely change that). Does he stick with his corporate overlords, or does he join the mounting revolution that doesn’t even know how bad things have gotten?
Riley paints a picture of a society that watches game shows where contestants get the crap beat out of them for cash prizes, so the idea that folks might sign themselves up for slavery voluntarily doesn’t seem that far-fetched. But he makes up for these close-to-reality touches with some insane turns that seem inspired by a bad trip (or might be better appreciated if the viewer were on drugs). It’s a turn I almost didn’t buy into when I first saw the film at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. But seeing it again more recently, it all seems like crazed perfection. Stanfield and Thompson are the driving forces and the binding agents, and I’m not sure Sorry to Bother You works without them.
Either way, it’s a vision of the future worthy of your attention and expanded brain power.
Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!