Boots Riley is the truth. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is one of the most bizarre cultural commentaries you will ever see. The targets of Riley’s critiques vary, from broad concepts like race relations and corporate greed, to more specific ideas like viral fame and code-switching. But the setup is simple: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black man in Oakland struggling to make his rent – which he owes to his very generous uncle. He’s hired for a telemarketing job, but fails to find success until he listens to a seasoned veteran: use your white voice. Armed with the pleasant, non-threatening voice of a milquetoast white man (David Cross), Cash quickly climbs the corporate ladder – and stumbles into the weirdest things along the way.
Since the central conceit of the film is that a white man’s voice is better at selling TV trays or timeshares or whatever the Hell they are selling, it should be clear that Sorry to Bother You frequently addresses racial issues. As Cash succeeds, he is forced to choose between sticking with his friends who know who he truly is and adopt new friends who insist that he always use his white voice. Drawn by the money and the fame and the sense of accomplishment, Cash accepts this deal with the Devil (who, in this case, is Armie Hammer as a saccharine CEO of a company that provides de facto slave labor).
Cash’s journey takes place within a strange tone, a surreal kind of blur between fantasy and reality. There are poignant moments obviously set in the real-world and meant to comment on specific ideas, but there are also elements of pure fantasy (or, maybe, science fiction) that imbue the proceedings with a dream-like quality. This tonal choice from Riley is apt, as it allows him to both ground the basic thrust of his film in reality while simultaneously bending that reality to make his stances as clear as possible. Many times during my screening, I was taken aback by just how strange the film felt. Other times, I was startled by how commonplace, real, and depressing it was. That’s mastery; that’s Boots Riley.
The themes of Sorry to Bother You fall into two broad cateogries: the corporate and the cultural (though in certain situations these do intersect).
At the corporate level, Riley is concerned with the servitude of wage slavery (and, sometimes, actual slavery), organized labor unions and scabs, and the importance of climbing the ladder in business. Cash’s buddy is trying to get the other telemarketers to strike for more acceptable working conditions. But, as Cash succeeds with his white voice, he becomes a scab. At the same time, he is welcomed into the circles of upper management, joining in on swanky parties and other perks. And then, there’s always the matter of what he ends up selling: indentured servants at rock-bottom prices. The conflict between becoming “a success” and abandoning his friends and family is ever-present in the story. Detroit (a marvelous Tessa Thompson) tries her best to reign him in, but she has her own strange journey.
And this all ties in well with the cultural commentary in Sorry to Bother You. When Cash first hobnobs among the elites, the white higher-ups are all fascinated by his blackness. He’s just so thuggish and cool (he isn’t). They even ask him to rap for them (he’s a self-admitted terrible rapper. Still, he’s pressured into trying and does poorly until he stumbles into what passes for fire at this Caucasian gathering: “Nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga nigga nigga shit!”.
They love it.
This is at once a terribly reductive expression and a perfect encapsulation of the surface-level admiration often given to rap music by white people (especially the lamer ones). Like all forms of art, rap and hip-hop can be singular expressions of an artist’s worldview, idealized representations of their stories, thoughts and hopes. There’s more to it than “nigga shit”, than some fascination with a gansta, thug, or street life. It feels like Riley is targeting the laziest of rap aficionados who love rap because it’s a semi-defensible justification for screaming various N-Words at high volume and live vicariously as a playa.
There are more piquant bits of corporate and cultural commentary in Sorry to Bother You. But, one of my favorites melds the corporate and the cultural together. It is represented by the blood-stained bandage that Cash is seen wearing in the promotional material. See, Cash crosses a picket line to continue doing his job and earning the big bucks, and during one of these occasions he is hit by a full soda can. The thrower of that can, an unabashed anti-capitalist, was filming the throw for her YouTube channel. From there, the machinations of consumerism take over: the video goes viral, the thrower is given her own show, and Cash’s headband-plus-soda-can-accessory becomes the #1 selling Halloween costume for that year. Hypocrisy is bipartisan; when iconoclasm becomes profitable, even revolutionaries cash in.
Sorry to Bother You is unlike anything else out there today. It is a remarkable cultural vision from the bright and exciting new cinematic voice of Boots Riley. It’s almost a fever dream committed to memory, a wild stream-of-consciousness on the horrors of corporate greed, the hypocrisy of social media, and the insults of cultural appropriation. And yet, it is remarkably coherent, with a clear through-line focused on the character of Cash. Should you venture out to see it, Sorry to Bother You will knock your socks off, and probably leave you scratching your head at the same time.