Sorry to Bother You is the kind of thing you might say when you’re a little afraid that someone might not appreciate what you’re about to ask. It’s also the title of the debut film by the rap artist Boots Riley, who wrote and directed this freewheeling satire on white supremacy and corporate culture. I can see how a black filmmaker might pause and say “Sorry to bother you” when he’s trying to present a comedy about race relations, but Riley is only saying it sarcastically. There are no apologies here, and it’s this heedless, take-no-prisoners attitude that makes the film worth watching.
Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a young unemployed African American living in his uncle’s garage in Oakland. He’s dating an avant-garde artist named Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, who scrapes up a living waving one of those advertising signs on the street corner. But when he gets hired at a telemarketing center, he gets the attention of the owners when he takes the advice of a co-worker, played by Danny Glover, and uses his “white voice” when making sales calls, and this results in spectacular sales figures. One of the many surrealistic touches in this movie is that Cassius’ “white voice” is done by another actor, comedian David Cross. And other white voices for black characters pop us as the film goes on.
Cassius’ advancement in the corporate ranks puts him at odds with Detroit and his co-workers who are trying to start a union. And it seems there is a connection between the telemarketing company and a shadowy cult-like corporation promoting a lifestyle called “Worry Free Living” and headed up by a phony hipster billionaire played by Armie Hammer.
If that plot description confuses you, well, that’s just the framework. But across the framework is spread a multitude of gags, visual jokes, science fiction-style gimmicks and send-ups of mass culture, including hilarious newscasts, game shows and corporate team meetings. The underlying dilemma for Cassius is that in order to succeed in this bizarre system, he must deny himself and try to act like the white person he’s expected to be, which is of course absurd and impossible in itself, but also a pretty good description of the black predicament in America.
You might recognize Lakeith Stanfield from his supporting roles in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the FX series Atlanta, both of which also play with genre to take satiric shots at racial attitudes in mainstream American culture. In Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s visual flourishes are often brilliant—in one sequence, the old second-hand furniture and accessories in Cassius’ pad morph before our eyes into sleek upscale items as he becomes more affluent, the camera pulling back eventually to reveal a beautifully stylish white toned skyscraper apartment. Another scene involves an impossibly complicated corporate elevator where someone has to punch in dozens of digits in a coded sequence in order to get to upper management’s floor.
The whole movie is like this, but not all the jokes hit their mark. It is Riley’s first film, and it has some of the typical flaws of a first film. He tries too hard, and throws too many jokes out there hoping they’ll stick, but the fact that the humor is always seasoned with exasperation and outright anger makes the movie more effective overall than a safer, more self-controlled style would have been.
As the picture goes on, things get really weird. And if you’ve been paying attention to the news, that’s also kind of the reality in America right now. Sorry to Bother You is the right film for our current wrong time.