Hip-hop and funk artist Boots Riley has had an illustrious career of being sorta’-known; as an indie political rapper (The Coup), a rock hip-hop vocalist (Street Sweeper Social Club), a producer, a high-school teacher, and an anti-imperialist enemy of the right-wing. It should come as no surprise that the artist most mainstream-famous for a song entitled “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” made a Marxist-socialist film satirizing liberalism and capitalistic greed. That said, Sorry to Bother You is much more than another dystopian satire of modern America. It’s an innovative, absurdist crusher about race, classism, and pop-philosophy in the modern age. Not to essentialize and homogenize black art, but what Get Out was for an America writhing in the fresh fear of Trumpism and the betrayal of white liberalism, Sorry to Bother You is for an America two years into the most absurd national collapse in history. Much to your surprise and your relief, however, Boots Riley – the middle-aged son of civil rights activists with the frenetic spirit of a man half his age – has not given up. Sorry to Bother You is not a surrender to fascism-cum-capitalism. It’s a spotlight on the surprising simplicity of society’s greatest threat (Hint: it’s private white wealth), and an effective, bonkers deconstruction of how our coping methods have fared against the soul-sapping power of the American ethos. I hate to toss around the word ‘groundbreaking,’ but that’s absolutely the goal here: not just to break new ground, but to shatter the Earth beneath your feet and cackle as you tumble down through the rubble.
Sorry to Bother You opens with a close-up on a young man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), which should tell you everything you need to know about what sort of film Riley has got coming down the pipe. Sure enough the story never strays from this central assertion: society teaches us that cash is green and green is good. After Cassius takes a job at a telemarketing agency and quickly proves his innate talent for ‘white-voice,’ he is thrust into the high-stakes world of ‘power calling,’ wherein the money is good and the morals are best left unspoken. Aspiring visual artist and professional sign-twirler Detroit (Tessa Thompson) has been seeing Cassius for some time and joins him at Regal View, along with their friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), old head Langston (Danny Glover), and undercover union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun). As Cassius climbs the company ranks, Squeeze recruits Salvador and Detroit to help him protest the draconian practices of Regal View management by unionizing, but predictably things take a bad turn. The bulk of the film follows Cassius as he struggles between his loyalty to his friends and his desire for financial security for himself, Detroit, and his struggling uncle (Terry Crews).
On the surface, Sorry to Bother You is a traditional pro-union story about one man’s conversion away from the toxic ethos of American capitalism with the help of his friends and community. The plot and characters are fully realized to this end, and even if you subtract all the madcap shit that fills every frame of Sorry to Bother You, you get a great anti-capitalist film for our modern times. The familiar conflict aside, this film is quite unlike anything you have seen before. It might be described as Quentin Dupieux meets Jodorowsky via Jordan Peele, but Riley’s debut is so much more than the sum of these parts. The world is a strange self-mocking ‘dystopian’ vision of America, with smartphones sharing frame with mid-90s’ box-TVs’ playing a reality show entitled “I Got the Sh** Kicked Out of Me!” in dive bars throughout Oakland. Meanwhile, a looming threat lurks in tech-yuppie Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) and his company WorryFree, which offers lifetime employment contracts to struggling Americans in exchange for housing and meals (i.e. slavery). The WorryFree employees prance around in Wes Anderson-looking get-ups while Cassius and his friends watch them smile for the TV cameras, and violent leftist groups battle against the plutocracy with street-art and street-violence. Riley’s vision of the Bay Area feels like it’s halfway down the road to Idiocracy. It’s such a near-cry to American absurdism that I’m hard pressed to even call it satire.
For a film so well crafted, Sorry to Bother You has a rather low opinion of the power of art – a welcome relief in the age of vapid #resist performance. Real action is taken on the streets and in the workplace, the film seems to assert, not by the safe luxuries of selling “meaningful” art to rich people that only advance the interests of the system. In this vein Riley empathizes with the day-to-day struggle of the ‘average’ American; not the pretentious, lofty interests of art rebels and branded liberal superstars. Granted, the ‘average’ becomes extraordinary and macabre in the absurdist universe of the film, but Cassius himself – and indeed all of his friends – are not political superheroes on the cusp of some grand national redesign. They’re real people struggling and surviving, and it is on their futures Riley stakes his claim.
To the point of race: Sorry to Bother You includes a scene in which dozens of white rich tech socialites chant “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” at one of only two black men in the room. I feel like I can’t fucking say anything more than that without ruining the experience.
Boots Riley has created an activist film for the Twitter era. In a time when cynical fatalism and curated despair have never been more popular, during which the self-mocking threat of suicide might count as a political statement, Riley has emerged to remind us of the hope that remains. Sorry to Bother You speaks in pithy blurbs of irrational angst, but they all point toward a vision of hope in collectivism, in socialism, in unionization against the powers-that-be. It is an expertly and uniquely made film, with sharp visual innovation set at a breakneck pace. Some of the cinematography in this film feels as fresh and unexpected as anything out of the mind of Spike Lee (or Spike Jonze), and the comedy is done sparingly enough to make sure you take the film seriously, but effectively enough to get you laughing right when you need it most. The acting is fantastic across the board, with Tessa Thompson turning in an empathetic but cloying performance and Stanfield pivoting the slack-shouldered ease that serves him so well in Atlanta into street-hustling pluck. Armie Hammer delivers on a much-hyped cameo, which culminates in a party scene which no doubt earns “iconic” status.
As the denizens of Riley’s exaggerated America play their roles with gusto – tech-magnate, salesman, manager, activist, artist, hustler – the film reinforces the corrosive nature of individualism. When everyone is looking out for #1, nothing will change, much less for the better. To paraphrase a line from Squeeze, “When people see a problem they can’t solve, they just get used to it.” Boots Riley demands you do not get used to it. Sorry to Bother You stands as a deliberate and ironic contradiction of its own title – it is certainly not sorry to bother you, and it is not sorry to wake you up. Riley hijacks the absurdist discourse of American politics, in which “Guccifer 2.0” is a popular news item, and embraces the chaos. Sorry to Bother You speaks in the dadaist language of the times, yes, but it has something very important to say. The least you can do is pick up the phone and listen.
Absolute crusher of a movie, well-executed and well-integrated Marxist-socialist theming layered over an absolutely bonkers story with great visuals and amazing performances. This is the 2018 zeitgeist right here.