Let this movie bother you

July 20, 2018

There’s no shortage of anything except complacency and boredom in Boots Riley’s new film Sorry to Bother You, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

THIS REVIEW of Sorry to Bother You isn’t going to get deep into the plot. That’s not only because spoilers for this wild ride of a movie would be unfair. It’s also because it’s nearly impossible to describe the film’s story in words.

You have to see it.

One thing that’s for sure is that viewers of Sorry to Bother You will find the elements of the movie — its characters, what happens to them, their dreams, everything that’s stacked against them — very familiar.

The film, written and directed by Boots Riley of the Oakland-based revolutionary hip-hop group The Coup, is a dark portrait of life in the United States in 2018.

Even as the film’s absurdist elements unfold — as we learn more about WorryFree, a corporation that “hires” employees who surrender their freedom to live and work in prisons, or when the film’s protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (played by LaKeith Stanfield) gets a gaping head wound upon entering his workplace and completes his workday anyway with a blood-soaked bandage wrapped his head — there are parts of the film that will hit close to home.

LaKeith Stanfield as Cash, with Danny Glover, in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You
LaKeith Stanfield as Cash, with Danny Glover, in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is set in Oakland, and while Boots Riley’s hometown is a co-star of the film — shaping its visuals, dialogue and sounds — the setting of the movie also feels like Everywhere, USA.

With the tents of homeless encampments in the background of shot after shot, with out-of-control gentrification placing chic condos nearby utterly neglected parts of town, with obscenely wealthy and oblivious urbanites crossing paths with desperately poor people, you’ll likely see a bit of the place you call home in Sorry to Bother You.

THE FILM opens with Cash getting a job as a telemarketer. After stumbling in the soul-killing work, a more experienced co-worker named Langston (played by Danny Glover) offers Cash a tip.

Langston tells Cash that to get ahead in telemarketing, he’ll have to use his “white voice.” When Cash doesn’t understand, Langston explains: “It’s the voice you use when you’re stopped by the police.” He continues, saying that the white voice is a carefree voice — the voice of someone who has “never been fired, just laid off.” He concludes, saying of white people, “It’s what they think they’re supposed to sound like.”

Riley elaborated on this theme in the movie when he was asked to explain the white voice on CBS This Morning. “There is no real white voice,” Riley explained. “Everything we’re doing is a performance.”

Review: Movies

Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley, starring LaKeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer and Terry Crews.

This deconstruction of race — as an illusion with drastic consequences for people of color, but also white people — is one of many gems that the film advances provocatively, and then moves on with a plot twist.

In addition to dropping some deep thoughts about race, Sorry to Bother You has a lot to say about masculinity.

Cash ultimately achieves the coveted status among miserable telemarketers at his nightmarish company RegalView — that of Power Caller.

Power Callers make the calls that keep global capitalism moving — like nuclear weapons to the world’s most powerful states, or arrangements to allow electronics corporations to manufacture phones with ever cheaper and more abused labor. And the Power Callers’ potency at work is tied directly to their macho, sexual aggression.

The high-powered, “white-voiced” Power Callers aren’t the only men whose behavior is called into question.

We meet Squeeze — a union organizer who is trying to rally the telemarketers of RegalView. Squeeze is patient and inspiring when it comes to convincing workers that solidarity is the key to winning higher wages and better lives. But his heroism quickly fades when it comes to the way he approaches women.

THROUGHOUT THE film, we see Cash and other characters making desperate moves to achieve the lives they want, which are so close, but just out of reach. Just what kind of compromises is Cash willing to make to be a Power Caller? Is he willing to sell out his co-workers? Betray his friends and his own values?

What does it take to move out of his uncle’s garage to one of those posh luxury apartments in downtown Oakland? Faced with having to choose between solidarity with his co-workers and looking out for himself, which one will actually help Cash get ahead?

When Cash faces these tests — and fails — you’ll probably cringe. But you might be able to relate, too.

Violence and humiliation are perhaps the most pervasive themes in Sorry to Bother You.

We see a world where RegalView’s managers use metaphors about murder to motivate their employees. Riot police beat striking workers — viciously, day after day — to get scabs into an evil corporation. And humiliation is such a feature of work, it may as well be written into the job description.

Managers humiliate employees. The most popular television game show in the nation humiliates its contestants. As one of two Black men at a vapid party full of rich white people, Cash is told to entertain the guests by rapping — which, in addition to being wildly offensive, presumes that he has skills that he does not.

At one point, Detroit — an artist and Cash’s girlfriend, played by Tessa Thompson — does a performance art piece in which she invites her audience to humiliate her through violence.

When Cash intervenes to try to stop it, Detroit pushes him away and continues the performance. It’s difficult to watch. Why is Detroit choosing to be humiliated in this way? What is she getting out of it?

But what kind of humiliation do many of us “choose” to endure at work? Just how much have we become used to accepting?

Sorry to Bother You is radical, jaw-dropping and hilarious. And with a soundtrack by The Coup, a score by Tune-Yards and an incredible cast of actors, the concept and execution are brilliant down to the last details.

But it is a film as dark as the times the shape it. And long after the credits roll, the viewer is left with a lot to think about.

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