Boots Riley, the director of Sorry to Bother You, first entered the public eye when his rap/funk/soul collective The Coup released their 1998 album Steal This Album. Among the track titles were such classics as Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night and The Repo Man Sings for You. Though it didn’t achieve widespread commercial success, it was critically acclaimed and widely praised for its originality.
That last sentence is Sorry to Bother You in a nutshell. It is one of the sharpest critiques on modern day slavery and consumer culture that you will see on screen.
The film is set in a reimagined Oakland, where the most popular TV show is called I Got The Sh*t Kicked Out Of Me and the adverts promote “WorryFree”, a company which promises food, a room and a board – essentially indentured servitude – in exchange for a lifetime contract, which, they argue, is better than poverty. The protagonist, Cassius Green (get it?), played by the always excellent Lakeith Stanfield, lives in his uncle’s garage with his revolutionary minded girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) who is an artist that waves signs during the day and works alongside LeftEye, an anti-capitalist collective in her spare time. Cassius gets a job working for RegalView, a telemarketing company – he is qualified for the job because he has ‘initiative and…can read.’
He struggles at first but after some advice from his colleague Langston (Danny Glover), who tells him to use his “white voice” – the voice that the customers “think they’re supposed to sound like”, Cassius is soon the toast of the company. His success at work creates friction in his personal life, as promotion brings him into conflict with his and Detroit’s ideals.
So far, so relatively normal.
To say the third act of the film takes an anarchic turn is an understatement. What I will say is that Steve Lift, CEO of WorryFree (another strong outing for Armie Hammer), has the line of the year when he says: “I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy or something. Because I’m doing this for a reason. So, I’m not irrational.”
Riley and his actors are clearly having fun. Tessa Thompson might be the most magnetic screen presence in film today and her portrayal of Detroit is, at different turns, sensitive, laugh out loud funny and always compelling, whilst newcomer Jermaine Fowler takes a minor role and makes it memorable. Omari Hardwick steals every scene he is in and his depiction of “Mr ____” is helped by Doug Emmett’s deliberately over-saturated cinematography.
It’s awards season and Sorry to Bother You has attracted little buzz. I’m willing to bet that 20 years from now, many will be wondering why that was the case.
Image credit: Movie DB