Sorry to Bother You is an Absurdist Call to Action
Boots Riley’s dazzling debut gives a middle finger to capitalism with the most WTF third-act twist.
If you’re reading this right now, there’s a strong chance you’re stealing a glance at your phone during a soul-crushing shift at whatever minimum-wage meat grinder you’ve chosen to make ends meet. It might be food service, it might be retail, it could even be an entry-level office position, but the story is the same — you’re overworked, you’re unconscionably underpaid, and no matter how much your managers “see and hear” you, they prioritize profit every time. You’re tired of selling your life away just to pay rent … and yet that old silver-tongued promise of greener pastures flickers in the distance like a mirage.
With so little of our time left for us to indulge ourselves, we turn to media: books, music, video games, film. We crave things that will entertain us, or make us think, or affirm our feelings amidst the existential chaos that we’re faced with on a regular basis. It’s very rare that we get all three. Luckily enough, one of the most gleefully bizarre films of 2019 gave us exactly that. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is a radical satire with teeth; an absurdist dystopian comedy that raises a glass to laborers everywhere and gives a middle finger to capitalism.
From beginning to end, Riley’s directorial debut sizzles with the kind of uncensored political frankness that could only come from someone whose first rap album is entitled Kill My Landlord. Riley co-founded the rap group The Coup in 1991 as one of many outlets through which he channeled his lifelong interest in leftist activism. Since then, he also helped found the Oakland-based Black revolutionary group The Young Comrades, and was massively involved in the Occupy Oakland movement of 2011. But in 2012, Riley finished work on the screenplay for what would eventually become his surreal thesis on race and class relations in America – and it all traces back to his time as a telemarketer.
Sorry to Bother You follows the ironically named Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck Black twentysomething living in his uncle’s garage with his starving artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). From the moment we meet him during his interview at RegalView, the telemarketing agency that ends up hiring him, we get the feeling that Cassius is desperate for a taste of success. LaKeith Stanfield plays the perfect everyman, relatable in his frustrations at the menial and exploitative office conditions, but his experience with Atlanta’s unmistakeable brand of Black surrealism means he’s in familiar territory with the movie’s weirder elements — like the nasally “white voice” he learns to put on in order to get good at his job.
Like Langston (a delightful Danny Glover) tells Cassius in the office, the white voice means “sounding like you don’t have a care,” an air of stability that most people of Cassius’ socioeconomic background can’t relate to. It’s an assimilation technique, code-switching designed to hide Cassius’ race from the people he’s trying to sell to, and it’s almost uncanny how good he gets at it. With David Cross’ voice as his mouthpiece, we watch Cash plow through the ranks at RegalView, every day a step closer to the golden elevator in the lobby destined to take him upstairs to his future as a prestigious Power Caller.
Of course, while Cassius’ eyes are looking up (and his soul is lurching down), his friends in the office speak in hushed whispers about unionization and striking, conversations led by a local drifter named Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Alongside giving him a healthy dose of endearing cringe, Yeun really captures Squeeze’s earnest passion for activism, and one of the film’s best qualities is in how authentically it presents the worker’s struggle. In an age where workers are fighting back against unfair conditions and winning in record numbers, it’s inspiring and energizing to see a piece of art so boldly advocate for labor activism.
On the flip-side, Sorry to Bother You also explores the utility of revolutionary art, through the perpetually stylish Detroit. Although Tessa Thompson’s effortlessly intellectual nonconformist has her heart in the right place, she struggles to find the most efficient way to spread her radical message, even resorting to using her own white voice to sell her art after warning Cassius about the dangers of relying on his. Not content with simply being a subtextual artist, however, Detroit is also a member of the Left Eye faction – a leftist group with their sights set on the sinister WorryFree corporation, who offers free housing for the convenient price of on-demand labor.
Made for only $3.2 million, the DIY quality of the filmmaking in Sorry to Bother You adds not only a surrealist charm to the movie’s version of Oakland, but an eerily plausible dystopian atmosphere as well. Unhoused encampments encroach on a city that feels on the verge of social collapse, and the only visual media that exists besides the news is a disturbing game show aptly titled I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me, in which contestants are beaten and dehumanized for prizes. And around every corner is WorryFree, the Silicon Valley parasite from hell, beckoning to the desperate and the needy. The whole world is a liminal space rotting from the inside out of capitalist greed, and it seems as if everyone else has simply shrugged their shoulders and resigned themselves to doing whatever’s necessary to stay alive.
After turning his back on his friends and their labor strike, Cassius is finally given a chance to ascend the golden elevator, agreeing to sell weapons for WorryFree without much of a fuss. It’s not until he meets the company’s audacious and sociopathic CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) that Cassius realizes how much of a minstrel he’s made out of himself for a few dollars. Lift, like Musk and Bezos and all the rest, see their workforce as little more than cattle — and by the time that becomes clear for Cassius, the film is hurtling headfirst into one of the most visceral WTF third-act twists in recent memory.
While Sorry to Bother You trafficks in dystopian aesthetics (to both humorous and uneasy effect), it also reminds us of the simplicity of our power as workers and as people. It’s easy to feel despair, especially when confronted with the cartoonish evil of the uber-rich. That’s precisely why the most radical thing we can do is advocate for ourselves and for each other, and remind the people in their ivory towers that our power is in the streets.