At present, the future isn’t looking all that bright, and if we examine the alternative universe in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, the near future looks even less promising. Set in Oakland, Riley’s whimsically boisterous satire focuses on Cassius Green (excellently portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield). Broke and desperate, Cassius is living in his uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage, aimlessly trying to find his purpose in life. His activist/artist fiancée, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), seems content in her present circumstances -- making artwork, protesting the blistering effects of capitalism and taking various odd jobs for cash. However, with his uncle facing foreclosure on his home, Cassius is desperate to live a more robust and financially stable life.
Lacking any discernable skills or passions, Cassius snags a job at RegalView Telemarking. Plopped down in a dark, suffocating basement, Cassius struggles to bring in his commission-based pay. Luckily, after getting some advice from a more seasoned co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover), Cassius’ luck at work begins to change. He quickly rises the ranks – eventually becoming a coveted Power Caller in the building's penthouse under Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick). Sorry to Bother You might seem straightforward, but its magic lies in Riley's writing and the writer/director's confidence and ambition.
Sharp and surreal, Cassius is jolted into the homes of the people that he’s calling, and that’s just the beginning of Riley's asymmetric take on storytelling. Langston’s advice is the real kicker. He instructs Cassius to use his “white voice” to bring in sales. A “white voice" isn’t simply a high pitched tone infused with proper grammar; Arrested Development’s David Cross speaks for Cassius when he opens his mouth – it’s pretty insane.
The challenges that Cassius face don't exist in a bubble. People fed up with their lack of prospects are turning their lives over to a company called Worry Free. Run by eccentric cocaine-loving CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Worry Free offers an indenture servitude-like program. Those who sign a lifetime contract with the company no longer have to worry about bills, work or any other daily task that may weigh on them.
Worry Free may seem like a solution to some, but not everyone is willing to go that far. Cassius’ RegalView coworker Squeeze (Steven Yeun) decides to use more traditional tactics to push for change. Resolved to get fair wages and benefits from the company, Squeeze organizes his coworkers. Together, they embark on a massive protest outside of RegalView just as Cassius finds himself moving up in the company. As he gains financial stability and is released from the suffocating monotony of the RegalView basement, Cassius must face a new type of struggle—selling out and what it will cost him.
Typically first-time feature film directors throw everything but the kitchen sink into their debut projects, leaving a somewhat jumbled mess by the time the credits roll. And yet, though Riley risks everything—ignoring all of the typical cinematic choices that come with displaying dystopias on screen—he knocks it out of the park. Sorry to Bother You highlights everything from our collective obsession with social media and reality TV, to society's numbness when it comes to facing atrocities and the overall greed of our nation.
Though the film asks its audience to open their minds well past what we understand as traditional storytelling, Riley never leaves us to flounder in confusion. His writing is witty and spot-on, and the brilliant cast packs a punch without ever abandoning that underlying thread of humor that runs throughout the film. Sorry to Bother You does stretch just a tad too long, but the enthusiastic tone of the material and the absolute absurdity of the things that are revealed will make anyone invested in the film forgive the additional runtime.
As Cassius' meteoritic rise continues and the money rolls in, he must confront himself, something he's avoided doing in the past. As he grapples with the path laid out before him, both he and the audience will be stunned by what's uncovered. It's so shocking that you probably won't believe what you're seeing. Though your reality might be tested, Sorry to Bother You is a film you'll feel deep down in your soul.
Sorry to Bother You is currently screening in select theaters. The film premieres everywhere, July 13, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu has her master’s in film studies from Columbia University. She wrote her 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 read her blog at chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.