REVIEW: ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is social commentary and self-critique in equal measure

Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer in  Sorry to Bother You , directed by Boots Riley.

Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley.

The small surge in recent movies and TV lauded for their representation of black people (Black Panther, Get Out, Moonlight, Atlanta) is a self-sustaining boon for the entertainment industry. The more these releases succeed, the more they will be made. Thus we get a new movie like Sorry to Bother You: a deeply eccentric comedy from first-time director Boots Riley. The film quickly joins the ranks of those aforementioned stories as an honest critique of systemic racism hiding in plain sight. But in a bizarre meta twist, it also looks inward, pre-emptively questioning its own message and those of its compatriots. The movie seems to ask, “Is this really progress? Or are we merely packaging up social commentary in a form that’s still palatable for white people?”

Riley doesn’t attempt to answer the question, and that’s alright. To be fair, there’s already plenty to decode in Sorry to Bother You: a surface story of a black telemarketer who sells himself out by adopting a “white voice”, set within a slightly dystopian version of Oakland, and a host of other subplots and recurring gags. Riley packs the frame with so many details that the movie demands multiple viewings. The list of oddities climbs until it reaches a wholly unexpected reveal in the third act, which pushes the movie into sudden body horror territory. It’s a wild experience.

Our hero, such as he is, is Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield); we first meet him as he tries to interview for a telemarketing job using an exaggerated resumé and fake trophies. Nevertheless, the boss is impressed with his “initiative” and hires him. It’s never made clear what exactly the company is selling – encyclopedias are briefly mentioned – but that’s not the point. Cassius initially fails at keeping his prospective customers on the phone, only to get a piece of advice from a colleague (Danny Glover): use a white voice. Pretend to be a person that the (almost always white) customers want to be.

Tessa Thompson as a political performance artist named Detroit.

Tessa Thompson as a political performance artist named Detroit.

This unleashes one of the central devices of the film: when Cassius wants to make a sale or get ahead, he produces a voice – provided by none other than David Cross – and he’s instantly successful. This opens a rift between Cassius and his friends, including his performance-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Cassius is soon promoted to the level of “power caller”, and welcomed into a clique of telemarketers who are apparently involved in selling weapons and slave labour to wealthy clients.

For a debut feature, Sorry to Bother You is notably confident and layered. Riley comes out of the music industry, having toured extensively with rap and hip-hop groups, all while maintaining a sharp political acuity. In an interview with The Guardian, he explained how the film is intended to be a radical statement, an effort to prompt a tide of similar radical movies. But he also admits that Hollywood will always be Hollywood, and that if Sorry to Bother You does well, the industry will soon find a way to put “dinosaurs and the Rock” into movies like Riley’s.

It’s clear that the filmmaker is keenly aware that no film can be separate from the political context of its release date. The last thing Riley would want to make is a movie that directly criticizes the moral vacuum of selling out, only for that movie to itself be a sellout. Like an M.C. Escher work, every step upwards may just loop back on itself. What’s really impressive is how the movie acknowledges this pitfall in its closing scenes: just when Cassius thinks he’s made a good compromise between success and political action, he realizes that he’s been duped, and has to take a more violent stance.  

Stephen Yeun as a labour activist called Squeeze.

Stephen Yeun as a labour activist called Squeeze.

As fresh as the film is, there are still some rough spots. Not every deadpan joke lands the way it could, and there’s a bagginess in sections of the movie that hints at how recently Riley changed formats. A key example is when Cassius has a change of heart and decides to help his friends with their strike against the telemarketing company. The refreshed stand the employees make and their new tactics should be emotionally stirring, but the scene instead feels a little dispassionate. It’s as though Riley wasn’t sure whether to make the audience an observer or a participant in the protest.

That being said, Riley’s sudden arrival in the film world is welcome, and if the buzz around Sorry to Bother You is any indication, he may join the likes of Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler by having his pick of new projects and financing. The unanswerable question is whether it’s better to challenge the industry as an outsider, or try to fix it from within.

Sorry to Bother You gets three and a half stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • Armie Hammer is great as the nefarious CEO of WorryFree, a version of Amazon on crack. I almost wish his character was a little more terrifying, though.
  • The in-universe reality show I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me is definitely in the tradition of the Oscar-winning movie Ass from Idiocracy.
  • Was I imagining it, or was there an abnormal number of people on bicycles in this movie?