What do you get when you cross magical realism (-ish) with sweeping commentary on the ills of modern society, including but not limited to: race, corporate America, slavery, art, entertainment, and social media? For the sake of argument, I’m going to tell you that you get Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s funny, smart, mind-boggling feature film debut. I watched this movie a week ago and I’ve been trying to let it percolate since in the hopes that I will magically happen upon divine insight that will amaze and convince my readers. That seems unlikely, but here we go.
We meet Cassius Green (say it out loud) at a job interview. On paper, he seems to be a stellar individual – he’s even brought along trophies and plaques to prove it. Turns out they’re fake, but Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself hired by Regalview Telemarketing anyway. His dreams of making bank seem dashed until an old hand (Danny Glover) suggests to him that he use his “white voice” to make calls – he should sound like he’s “without a care in the world … [a] guy who doesn’t even need this job at all.” He should sound, according to Glover, like the person his potential customers want to sound like themselves.
This theme turns up a lot throughout the movie – Cassius finds himself in a constant struggle with his identity. Early on a friend suggests that he’s only “sort of” black, and indeed, he finds great success in pretending to be white – his “white voice” (which sounds like David Cross) quickly promotes him to the upper echelons of telemarking. While his friends are attempting to unionize, Cassius becomes a “power caller” and is suddenly rolling in style with a new car, new clothes, and an entree to fancy parties. This identity doesn’t fit quite right either, though. His new-found success alienates him from his friends, including artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and he finds his product (WorryFree: a human workforce that looks suspiciously like slavery) a bit off-putting even as he’s making million-dollar deals.
All of this comes to a head when Cassius meets the CEO and Founder of WorryFree, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). It becomes clear that WorryFree’s agenda is not altruistic and might, in fact, be downright evil. This final of act of Cassius’ struggle to find his identity finds him attempting to make a u-turn and do what is right, even if it might cost him wealth and independence. It’s also where the movie goes from “entertainingly odd” to “entertainingly batshit crazy,” but I’m not going to give anything away here.
Sorry to Bother You is really hard to pigeonhole. The performances are all great, with Lakeith Stanfield leading the way. Cassius is very much a sympathetic, Everyman character. He just wants to get by and basically be a good human being. He wants to be valued and respected and we see how that directs his decisions and causes him confusion when things don’t quite work out the way he expected. The movie is also visually fascinating – there’s a lot of play with lightness and darkness that I don’t even want to try and interpret. The fantastical aspects are used sparingly but to great effect: in addition to Cassius’ “white voice,” he also finds himself physically dropped into close contact with the people he’s speaking to on the phone, regardless of whether or not they’re on the toilet or in the middle of having sex. At some points it leads the viewer to question whether or not Cassius is an entirely reliable narrator – the “white voice” is real, but the crashing into someone’s living room is imagined? What else, then, is real or imagined? The lines are quite effectively blurred.
There are a lot of ideas to focus on. Initially I wished that Mr. Riley had chosen just one of two to focus on: all of the statements he’s making are good ones that are worthy of more thought, but I found it difficult to keep track of. There’s Cassius’ identity, with what it means to be black (or white, for that matter) front and center. The few white people in the movie are varying levels of awful, and it’s very clear that their understanding of the black experience is based on what entertainment and “the media” would have us believe. A scene in which Lift and a crowd of white party-goers are disappointed when Cassius doesn’t have tales of gang violence and can’t rap is by turns hilarious and cringe-worthy. There’s corporate America, with its new spin on slavery, vs. art and independence. Cassius and his friends want to be self-reliant and to care about their fellow humans, but they’re also on the hook for rent. The issue of unionization figures prominently into that as well – can one’s own self-promotion function alongside a fight for the common good? The role of media and entertainment in the film is particularly interesting. The most popular show on television is apparently something called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me,” which is literally watching people get beaten up (in addition to other, apparently non-life-threatening? pleasantries). Cassius’ experience crossing a picket line (resulting in physical injury) immediately goes viral, resulting in memes and Halloween costumes, both of which he uses to his advantage later in the film. Its a somewhat damning but not really unfair look at today’s culture.
Ultimately, what I realize is that all of these themes can be tied to the bigger idea of what it means to be a person in today’s world. We are told different things by corporate culture, by entertainment and the media, by social media, by our own hearts. Which lead do we follow? We need to work to live, but we also need validation: we want to be special, to be good at something. Entertainment culture these days would have us all believe we’re just one viral video away from fame and fortune. But of course, what price fame? If we sell our souls for that fancy car, can we also concern ourselves with the good of others? Can we be famous without making other sacrifices? And where does it end? Is there one breaking point or do we all draw our own lines in the sand? While it may not be for everyone, Sorry to Bother You will definitely leave you with more questions than you walked in with, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for the answers.