Sorry To Bother You / Directed by Boots Riley
Before I invite you into this review, I should mention my most obvious bias toward this film: last month marked the nine-year anniversary of when I saw Street Sweeper Social Club open up for Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails in concert, the summer after 7th grade. On that day, frontman Boots Riley told me that he was not fronting a band, rather he was inviting all of us in the audience into a social club. The headliners of the concert were well and fine, but on the way home our minds were on that man, the one with the military jacket and the hidden eyes. Today I saw Boots Riley’s inspired frenzy of a feature film debut, Sorry to Bother You, and one of the many things it made me feel was a regret that I had not been annually renewing my membership to his club.
Before I even popped my shoes off and sat in the almost-empty miniature theatre reserved for creative projects, I knew things would be good. In line, after seeing the manager of the AMC getting belittled by an angry guy who thought this man decided when Mission Impossible gets released, I gave him a warm smile and put my debit card on the table:
Sorry to Bother You.
No, it’s fine, man.
ME (giggling, opening up a special place in my heart for this man):
Sorry to Bother You, 4:15.
I’ve seen worse, seriously.
Really? That guy was an asshole, I hope your day gets better.
Yeah… so what are you seeing?
OMG :)! Sorry to Bother You!
Oh, shit, I’m sorry man, here’s your ticket! Enjoy. Sorry to bother you.
And with that adorable interaction over and done with, I got ready for a world that I knew from Riley’s time with The Coup and SSSC would be, at least, provocative, and more importantly, inviting.
We meet Cassius Green (a puppy-eyed Lakeith Stanfield) at a job interview for RegalView, a telemarketing company that pushes encyclopedias in Oakland. Unemployed, Cassius is armed with a trophy celebrating his achievements at the local bank and a plaque honoring his year-long streak as Employee of the Month at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, the guy who could hire him worked at the bank from 2014-2016 and knows he’s full of shit. “You steal that?” he asks (here we go). On the contrary, Cassius had them custom-built for the interview. Of course, he’s hired.
From the beginning, we know that this man is a self-starter. And, like many self-starters, he can’t afford the rent. He lives in a garage attached to his uncle’s house that is so homey and messy-artist-chic that you wouldn’t know its a garage if the damn door didn’t keep opening up at the most inopportune moments. Every world he enters simply wants to fuck him over, but he is too creative for that— most of the time. Every card he’s handed leads to a gamble that might bankrupt him. Because of this, what Cassius thinks he wants evolves into a serious issue.
Throughout the movie, Cassius is haunted by this shadowy want, rising to the top, “making a difference,” and is more concerned with pursuing that than evaluating his actions on a case-by-case basis. This leads to issues with his best friend (Jermaine Fowler’s stone-faced straight-man Salvador), his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson's Detroit—- more on her later), and his family (Uncle Sergio, Terry Crews). By the middle of the film, the man’s only friend and vice is his “white voice,” David Cross. After all, he “sidesteps more than the fucking Temptations.”
Whiteness threatens Cassius’ identity as an African-American man throughout the movie. Salvador pokes him at the bar for being “mostly white,” all his higher-ups are white (with one notable exception), and the White Voice is a magical tool all the black men at work must use in order to sell any hardcovers. What begins as a joke and a party trick quickly becomes a distancing mechanism between Cassius and all of his friends, an indicator of how deeply buried his anxiety about this is. To rise up in this company, to help his Uncle pay the rent, to get a nice house, must he compromise his identity? Obviously, this is not a question that I have any business trying to answer. In fact, it is something Cassius himself has buried, but it is certainly something that Riley wants everyone in the audience, whether they immigrated from Mexico, China, or Ireland, to consider. White corporatism’s role as the engine that runs society has forced Cassius, and many others, to live a life running uphill.
This Oakland’s surreal elements are so grounded in serious truth about privilege in the U.S. that it might be more fair to call it magical realism. There is a ladder of the ridiculous: at first, Cassius’ sales calls actually place him in the room of his potential customers. Then, he gets a full glass of whiskey spilled on him in the VIP room at the club and he says, straight-faced, “that was some baller shit.” Then, we start seeing a TV show on which contestants volunteer to get the shit beat out of them… and so on. How far off is this from what we know? Even RegalView affiliate WorryFree is just a hop away from Amazon; abuse, picket-lines, and all.
What allows for such a successful combination of the real and the fantastic is the tightly constructed screenplay and visual world. Sorry to Bother You follows a guy whose nickname is Cash, and a ringing phone consistently populates the film’s atmosphere. [In fact, the only “plot hole” in the film might be that Cassius elects to buy a landline after receiving his promotion!] Production Designer Jason Kisvarday, known for his work with directing duo Daniels, colors expressively: WorryFree boss Steve Lift’s (Armie Hammer) spices up his house party with evil red light, Detroit’s art show is decked in noble blue light, and Cassius’ post-promotion pad is shark-tooth white.
The beats of the story are often predictable, but this is what allows us to sit with Cassius’ actions rather than waiting to see him change, as a more traditional story demands. Not only that, but we are asked to question why we shame him for the kind of hypocrisies that maybe we, certainly I, commit. At least twice, the camera backs away from Cash in disgust: when we first see his new apartment, when he sits lost after rapping for the entertainment of the guests at Lift’s party. The camera telegraphs emotion to us when it needs to, handling comedy, remorse, and violence with the maturity and patience that DP Doug Emmett showed us on even the weakest episodes of Room 104. Much of the buzz about this film has (deservedly) gone to its story, but there are several unforgettable images, including one of the first wides: a train running across the top of the frame and two gas pumps on Cassius’ sides create a border for the pathetic and hilarious moment during which he requests 42 cents in gas from the teller. The editing is particularly strong during Tessa Thompson’s masterful work, as she brings to life Detroit’s performance art piece, a melding of Motown movie The Last Dragon and Marina Abramović’s “Rhythm 0.” Detroit stands reciting dialogue from the film while everyone throws bullet casings, old cell phones, and balloons of sheep blood at her. Whenever the take cuts, it is to another brutal MCU of her body being violated. The violence in the film is as sure-handed as the comedy. Sometimes, it is happening at the same time.
Detroit’s stillness begs Cassius: don’t be a sheep, don’t cover me in your blood, be something as true as what you have repressed. The movie’s title is, of course, Cassius’ anxiety, and the triumph of the film comes as we realize that it is not his, but a much greater power’s fault that he is this way.