One part anti-capitalist, rallying cry and one part absurdist macabre fantasy, Sorry to Bother You is a film that defies your expectations for what an indie rapper like Boots Riley is capable of in a directorial debut.
Sorry to Bother You hits theaters on July 6 after a successful debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January. The film stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) as down-on-his-luck Cassius “Cash” Green, who lands a new job as a telemarketer and discovers that the key to success is using his magical “white voice” (David Cross). Sorry to Bother You dabbles in surrealism with Cash’s white voice, which visually transports him into the room with potential buyers for intimate conversations. This racial code-switching magic allows Cash to skyrocket up the corporate ladder to become a “power caller” — until he eventually realizes the dark nature of his world and the people he works for.
For about half its runtime, Sorry to Bother You plays like an unapologetic and surrealistic Wolf of Wall Street. Cash reinvents himself by exploring a new way of selling his product, and his immediate upward economic trajectory is thrilling and enticing. But there’s a totally insane and darkly sinister secret lurking in the background, and it’s almost too late for us all by the time we realize that capitalism is truly fucked up in the post-modern world.
Sorry to Bother You opts for the realistic capitalist dystopia of tomorrow rather than real-life events. And whereas Wolf of Wall Street focuses on white people taking advantage of their fellow man, Sorry to Bother You is instead infused with the black experience.
You can also see the ways that Sorry to Bother You also lightly mirrors Get Out, not merely in its racially-charged message enhanced by legitimate horror, but also in a few plot parallels. In a way, I won’t spoil it here, but the climax of both movies happens when a fearful black man is forced to watch something on a television screen by his white captors. And each movie begins as a tense drama before exploding into full-on sci-fi horror in its final act.
While Cash enjoys newfound success using his white voice, his fellow telemarketers on the bottom floor unionize under the bold utilitarian leadership of Squeeze (Steven Yuen). Cash may be the film’s protagonist because his economic journey is the driving force of the story, but the real heart of the movie is Tessa Thompson’s performance as Detroit, Cash’s artistic girlfriend.
Whereas Cash’s character evolves over time in a legitimate hero’s journey, Detroit is the stable, noble, and unchanging foundation of Boots Riley’s anti-capitalist message. She’s an artistic soul who loves Cash because he isn’t a poser of any kind, and her absurdist art highlights just how fucked up this world has become.
Detroit twirls signs on a street corner as a day job, and her murals and performances at her art gallery are thoroughly post-modern and obtuse. But it’s her wardrobe that really shines: T-shirts that says “The Future Is Female Ejaculation,” and earrings that either say “MURDER MURDER MURDER” and “KILL KILL KILL” or simply show a nondescript man dying in an electric chair.
Cash struggles to stave off feelings of hopelessness in this near-future where capitalism has nearly destroyed the world. Poverty is everywhere in Sorry to Bother You, so much so that Cash’s uncle (Terry Crews) considers signing his life away like millions of others to the sinister WorryFree movement.
Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift is the billionaire bro that starts this movement, which allows people to sign their life away for permanent contract “jobs” in exchange for free military-style housing and lousy food. They don’t have to worry about paying bills or getting by. All they need to do is work 12-hour days manufacturing products in factories and sleeping two per bed in jail cell-sized rooms.
As Cash gets closer and closer to the top of the economic food chain, he questions his own status as a rising star and realizes that the richest people are the fakest of all, even more so when he learns what insidious plans are really lurking under the foundation of this world’s economy.
These days, most trailers tend to give away the entire plot. For anyone who saw the trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, almost nothing in the movie will surprise you. But the Sorry to Bother You trailer barely scratches the surface of what this story is really about. I’m almost never one to obsess over avoiding spoilers, but do yourself a favor and just go see Sorry to Bother You without knowing a damn thing.
The ultimate message of Boots Riley with Sorry to Bother You is one about raging against the establishment. People that never really got the whole trite “Fuck the man!” sentiment might finally come to understand what it’s all about by watching this movie.
The way its dramatized through Cash’s gradual realization of the truth, Detroit’s noble defiance, and the overall plight of the working class in this world is enough to make even the laziest of people finally wake the fuck up. Everyone in this world is obsessed with the same substanceless, violent viral content, a show where people literally get the “shit kicked out of” them. Almost everyone would rather watch that bullshit than listen to the horrible truths right in front of their faces. So the only alternative is to embrace absurdism art, because the truth is that an existence this bad is even more absurd.
This ultimately transcends Sorry to Bother You into an incredibly meta question for the viewer: Do you “get” it, or would you rather watch people get the shit kicked out of them?