There are plenty of films with commentary surrounding race, commodification, self-worth, and what it means to be normal. However, none of those films have been as strange, compelling and masterful as Boots Riley’s debut feature film; Sorry to Bother You. As Riley said bluntly in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "I'm not good at sounding like somebody else or doing what someone else does."
Starring the incredible Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green, the film follows a young Black man trying to find his purpose in life in an alternative version of Oakland. Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage, Cass finds solace in the arms of his artist, sign-twirling girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) who chooses activism over affluence.Desperate for more in life, Cass finds a job at telemarketing company where after receiving some advice from an older co-worker (Danny Glover) he quickly rises up the ranks. However, what he isn’t prepared for is what he’ll have to sell or how he'll have to sell out to stay at the top. Steven Yuen, Omari Hardwick, Armie Hammer and Jermaine Fowler also star.
At the MACRO Lounge presented by Shea Moisture at Sundance Film Festival, Riley, Thompson, Yeun and Crews lounged on a plush couch and discussed bringing this magical and shocking film to life. For Riley, who is a musician, activist, and poet, the idea for Sorry to Bother You was born out of the desire to break all the rules. “I read all the hack books like, How to Write a Script in 30 Days and What Not to Do When Writing Your Script," he recalled. “I read those purposely to figure out what rules I could play with. And, as I wrote those first few pages, I realized that that's not the way that I create normally. "
More than just creating a story on his own terms, Riley wasn’t interested in being confined to a certain genre. “A lot of times when people decide, even in music or film, that this thing I'm making is this genre, we edit along the lines of what we're told is the genre," Riley explained. “We leave out a lot of real things, a lot of real joys and pains and awkwardness and other ideas and we stick to this pretty formulated thing. If we're gonna truly make something that comes from artists that aren't usually able to get a voice, those artists have also had other experiences.”
Sorry to Bother You isn’t just a chance for audiences to see something fresh, the film with all of its peculiarities and eccentricities also provides the viewers with a chance to look beyond what's right in front of them. The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun explained that he was most interested in Sorry to Bother You because it forced him to think outside of the box. “I think the reason why I have gravitated towards certain projects and not others is gut," he reflected. “Sometimes it just feels like the written path for me. As an Asian person I can't speak to the Black experience, I can't speak to any other experience except for my own, and that's even more nuanced specifically beyond being Asian. Sometimes what people see is that first layer, which is like, 'You're Asian. You're male.' Those are big qualifiers for us, big modifiers for us, but sometimes we run the risk of being absorbed by them completely and having those form the completeness of the entire individual. I think with Sorry to Bother You the experience that I had on it that was so magical. It was one of the first times where I felt completely free to be myself. I know I was being a character, but the character was also free to be himself. I think Boots set that up because this movie in and of itself wasn't meant to necessarily be a Black movie. It is by virtue of the fact that it's coming from someone who identifies with that modifier and so you're gonna see flavors of that in it. It's about a region that might have a lot of influence on that culture, but that's just all it is. This was maybe one of the most truthful and honest films that I've ever seen in my life. I felt authenticity. I felt respective."
Thompson who has been having quite the moment in Hollywood right now for her Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok and as an outspoken advocate in the Time's Up Movement, found the casting in itself inspiring. "Please don't kill me Steven, but when Boots told me that you were involved I was so happy for two reasons," she explained. "Cause you're so talented, but to me, Squeeze is like the heartthrob. I don't think Hollywood typically positions Asian men as sex symbols. Hollywood tends to position them as this sort of sexless, smart dude. I just love that Steven is both smart and sexy as hell in the movie and that should just happen more. That was a brilliant, inspired casting choice for Boots and he didn't have to do it politically necessary, but those decisions change the game."
For Terry Crews being a part of a film as whimsical and arresting as Sorry to Bother You is just another sign that the overall conversation in Hollywood is finally changing. “I remember being angry when I would go to the movies ... and I'm a sci-fi, fantasy nut, but I realized, 'Man, there's no Black people in this thing,'" he reminisced. “Then I remember seeing Night of the Living Dead. And that ending. That's social commentary! Sorry to Bother You is funny, shocking -- it's bizarre, but it's important. I had to be a part of this. Because it is every bit fantasy. A lot of people are gonna say it's comedy. But, comedy is the only way a lot of times that portholes open so you can see the truth. I say a lot of things in a joke that I could never say just normally in normal life."
If you only see Sorry to Bother You for what it is on the surface then you are neglecting so much of the film’s social commentary, and stifling your own educational experience. "It's not a paint by the numbers sort of movie that [says] here is a movement. Here is how you do,” Riley explained. “Maybe somebody should make that sort of flick. But, this is something that is strange and weird, and interesting and people would want to talk about it and hopefully, organizers of these movements that are trying to grow and figure out what they can do, they can use movies like this and maybe other movies that are inspired by this to organize people. So, that's what I hope in the short run for this, but in the long run, I'll be making more movies and making more music."
Sorry to Bother You premiered Saturday, Jan 20 at Sundance Film Festival.
At the time of publication, Annapurna Pictures was finalizing a 7-figure deal for the film's worldwide rights.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami