With the glorious eruption of diverse voices throughout the film and television industries has come an opportunity for filmmakers from marginalised groups to be able to paint a portrait of the world as they see it, a position that isn’t privileged or heteronormative or... well... white. In American cinema, this has allowed African American filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees ('Mudbound'), Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele to not establish themselves as major forces in the industry, but tell the kind of stories that represent themselves and their community with a wealth of film resources and opportunities they rightly deserve. As a caucasian lover of cinema, it’s been a huge education for me in understanding my privilege in this world, and in grasping not only the tremendous challenges these communities face but the unique singularity of their cinematic voices. Which brings me to writer/director Boots Riley and his debut film ‘Sorry to Bother You’, a film that achieves this in a manner unlike anything we’ve seen in a very long time.
Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield, ‘Get Out’) has gotten a job at a telemarketing firm in Oakland - the kind of job you only take because you have no other choice. He’s told by management though that, if he performs well, he might be promoted to a Power Caller, and get to work Upstairs. The employees are only paid on commission though, and Cash’s co-worker Squeeze (Steven Yeun, ‘Burning’) decides to form the employees into a union, backed by Cash’s artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, ‘Creed’, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’) and his best friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler, TV's 'The 5th Quarter'). With promotion within his sights, Cash decides to follow his ambition rather than support his friends, leading to an unexpected and bizarre set of consequences.
During the first ten minutes of ‘Sorry to Bother You’, you think you have a pretty good grasp of what this film is going, but very suddenly you’re taken on an unexpected left turn and thrown into universe where the rules are constantly being subverted. ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is the kind of film that comes along very, very rarely, a spectacular piece of social and political satire exploding with invention, wit and imagination. It’s impossible to believe this is Riley’s debut film, because his command of form and content is so complete and so rigorous. What begins as a slightly off-the-wall character study begins to blossom as a hysterical and unsettling commentary on racial and social politics in America, played out in a dystopian version of Oakland where the microcosm of Cash’s struggle to achieve his own version of the American Dream acts as a carnival mirror through which to view how the ruling privileged white upper-class has trapped and distorted the marginalised African Americans population. In order for Cash to succeed, he is expected to assimilate with White culture, have White aspirations, even adopt a "White Voice" to achieve any kind of success (a concept whose execution is so insanely clever that it leaves you reeling for the rest of the film). Cash is expected to assimilate in order to realise his dreams and to make White Americans more comfortable with him, something that works against the actions and beliefs of Detroit and his co-workers.
There’s also an extraordinary commentary on the way White Americans have fetishised African American culture, bastardised it and imposed that bastardisation on its expectation of how African Americans should act (such as in one sequence where Cash's new white co-workers expect him to rap because he’s black, even though he cannot rap to save his life). Riley’s genius though is that he never weighs the film down with the seriousness of his themes, but instead throws them into the context of a surreal fever-dream comedy, making it more entertaining, more accessible, more biting, more disturbing and more powerful. For all its humour (and there was hardly a moment I wasn’t wheezing with laughter), you’re always aware of the putrid river of racist bullshit running underneath the film, a river that Riley intends to dunk us in as much as possible. His use of comedy and the intelligence of his satire is as impactful as how Jordan Peele used horror in ‘Get Out’ - in fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is even greater a piece of satire than ‘Get Out’.
‘Sorry to Bother You’ is the kind of film that comes along very, very rarely, a spectacular piece of social and political satire exploding with invention, wit and imagination.
Riley also employs every cinematic tool he can, from Terel Gibson’s furious editing, Doug Emmett’s giddying cinematography and Ruy García’s crazy sound design. The production design from Jason Kisvarday creates an extraordinary balance between reality and hyperreality, allowing the film to ground itself in something familiar but with careful touches that remind us we are watching a piece of magic realism, a heightened reality and narrative where the allegory and subtext are often more important than the primary text. There are so many surprises in the craft of ‘Sorry to Bother You’, an insane mishmash of forms and visual languages, but it’s a credit to Riley’s extraordinary command of his vision that nothing seems out of place, and as it spirals from one surreal set piece to the next, you never feel as if any of the batshit-bold choice is unearned. Where the film ends is miles from where it began, but when you get there, the destination seems inevitable. Riley takes no prisoners, and his vision often becomes an uncompromising one, the visual and narrative metaphors ranging from subtle to brutal. This is one of those rare and beautiful instances where the ambition and scope of the screenplay is actually realised, and the level of detail screams for the film to be revisited and picked apart.
The cast are also an absolute dream. Lakeith Stanfield is outstanding as Cash, a perfect everyman fumbling his way through an extraordinary situation, and his symbiosis with Riley’s style and tone further elevate this star-making performance. Of course Tessa Thompson is perfect (when has she ever not been) with Detroit a delicious burst of convictions and contradictions, and Steven Yeun continues to blossom now that he’s free of ‘The Walking Dead’. There’s also a ballsy performance from Armie Hammer as an uber-alpha businessman/cult leader, shockingly charismatic supporting work from Jermaine Fowler, wonderful work from Omari Hardwick, Danny Glover, Robert Longstreet and Terry Crews, and insane cameos from David Cross, Patton Oswald, Rosario Dawson, Forest Whitaker and Lily James.
I don’t think I could have loved ‘Sorry to Bother You’ more. It’s a shockingly intelligent, insanely imaginative, totally unforgiving, endlessly entertaining, consistently surprising piece of satire, like an African American answer to ‘Brazil’. Boots Riley has created a film for the ages, one that speaks so vividly and passionately about the state of racial politics in our time. I walked out of this film a different person from when I walked in, with a deeper understanding in a worldview other than my own, and the way my privilege continues to be complicit in suppressing and manipulating that worldview. It’s a primal scream of a film, but a scream tinged with hysterical laughter, because how else are you supposed to respond to the incomprehensible insanity of racism and xenophobia rising around us. This is a great, great, great piece of cinema, and easily one of the best films of the year. Don’t walk to see this one. Run!