It’s rare to find something that you’ve never seen before. Actually, it’s nearly impossible. And when I say, “never seen,” I don’t mean an amalgam of references. Some art reaches above its influences to create a unique vision. Boots Riley‘s Sorry to Bother You is one such piece of art. It’s a form of racial and class satire that’s rarely combined, if ever.
The film opens with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an individual who at once represents race, class, and age. He’s searching for a job in telemarketing, hauling around an “employee of the month” plaque and a trophy that he made up into his interviews. Satire, especially the best, reveal not only a punchline but a truth within the punchline. The punchline is Cassius hauling in self-designed plaques and trophies. The truth, is that from the jump, we know this character is willing to do anything to succeed.
Stanfield, one of the hottest actors going, is paired with an equally candescent Tessa Thompson, who plays his girlfriend, a woman named Detroit. While Cassius lives in his uncle’s garage and lacks any clear path or motivation, Detroit is a politically driven artist. Soon, both Cassius and Detroit both work at the same telemarketing firm: RegalView.
From here, Sorry to Bother You is at once a study of character, Cassius, and a measure of environment. Within RegalView, there are lower telemarketers: selling the stuff not worth selling, and then there are power callers who sell what should never be sold. The power structure of RegalView is analogous to a plantation. There are low-paid workers, then there are overseers, and then there are “slave owners.” And when I say “slave owners,” I’m not being overly dramatic. Not only do power callers get the highest wages, and ride in a decked out elevator, they literally deal in slave labor. Riley’s commentary is obviously relatable to a corporate landscape that values low wages, minimal benefits, and diversified profits, while demoralizing its young desperate workforce.
Nevertheless, Cassius wants to be a power caller and the only way he can he do it is by using his “white voice.” At RegalView, every telemarketer is taught S.T.T.S: “Stick to the Script.” However, Cassius has very little success with the script. Instead, it’s Langston (Danny Glover) who tells the “young blood” to use his white voice. This strategy, and its success, is indicative of a culture that’s more likely to listen to a whites than a blacks. The observation isn’t new. There are reams of studies that claim and prove that blacks are disadvantaged in interviews and in obtaining callbacks. However, white washing is often a touchy subject in film and the fact that it’s here is daring.
And while RegalView’s plantation model, and the strike later led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), co-workers of Cassius, erupts at RegalView, there’s also “WorryFree.” Led by Steve Lyft (Armie Hammer), WorryFree is a company that offers, through a lifetime contract, the opportunity to give up bills and “worries” to live in a barracks where they serve prison food. The addition of a dystopian bent makes Sorry to Bother You a mixture of the Handmade’s Tale and Glengerry Glen Ross. The film culminates in an ending that’s too outlandish to be believed. And Armie Hammer in the role of Lyft, especially within his opulent pleasure palace, is the right balance of out-of-touch and sadistic. Hammer’s growth in the last couple of years has been stellar.
Sorry to Bother You is a continuation of woke black cinema. With every hint of Cassius hiding his blackness or Detroit displaying art shaped like the African continent, there’s an unspoken exposé of black America within white America. There’s a judgment of the devaluation of the black experience when put in relief with the riches of white America. And if Sorry to Bother You stayed on this track, it would still be an enlightening watch. Instead, it supersedes it. Because so often race and class are antagonistic rather than cohabitative. Lower-class whites are typically pitted against discriminated blacks. One cannot receive something without other left wanting. Riley addressing both at once is an advanced and required approach. And while he does fall prey into the feel-good vibes of his ending, he never loses the mark when it comes to his film’s political and social repercussions. He’s never “sorry to bother us” for the issues that still plague our everyday.