Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You captures the crude madness that we live in every day under capitalism.
I’ve been rooting so long for somebody to make an anticapitalist black comedy that I’m shocked somebody finally did. Writer-director Boots Riley — front man for the Oakland-based communist hip-hop group The Coup, which has given us such cult favorites as “The Guillotine” and “Kill My Landlord” — makes his feature-film debut with Sorry to Bother You. This socialist-must-see indie film is earning so much money and critical acclaim that the press is all over Riley — including one of those reverent profile pieces in the New York Times that lets us know there’s a new star in the heavens.
If we lived in a sane country with a political system that made any sense whatsoever and a media to match, this film wouldn’t be generating so much excitement. But we don’t, and we haven’t seen a mainstream pro-union film since, uhhhhhhh . . . Matewan in 1987? That fact alone makes Sorry to Bother You a riveting experience.
But beware the hype. At this point, so many critics are raving about how “wild,” “crazy,” “screwy,” and “bonkers” this film is, you might go in wondering if you can handle the ride. It’s really not that wild. It’s just that movies now are so, so tame. The angry political stance of the film is probably striking people as just as “crazy” as its periodic outbursts of CGI-facilitated gags and dystopian sci-fi effects. These surreal aspects of Sorry to Bother You represent an honest attempt to suggest the kind of crude madness we live in every day, and that alone is enough to rate our rapt attention.
The film is about a black working-class anti-hero named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield of The Purge: Anarchy and Selma), who becomes a huge success in the telemarketing world by using his “white voice.” His older mentor on the job, played by beloved lefty actor Danny Glover, cautions him to be moderate: “Not talking about Will Smith white, though. . . . Sound like you don’t have a care, bills all paid — put a little breath in there, breezy.” (David Cross provides the white voice.)
In a series of absurdist flourishes, Cassius ascends to “power caller” status in the RegalView Telemarking company, crossing the picket line manned by his union friends as they scream “Fuck you, RegalView!” to take advantage of the dazzling promotion that’s been dangled in front of the employees from day one. “My success has nothing to do with you,” he tells them. “I’ll root for you from ringside.”
He rides a literal golden elevator up to the penthouse floor to find out what’s being sold there, by an elite company called WorryFree that’s promoting a “revolutionary new work-life solution” that looks suspiciously like warehousing slave labor. Its CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), is a bland-looking white guy with mad blank eyes, a book called I’m on Top, and a tendency to spout world-beater maxims familiar to us all thanks to America’s billionaire tech class. (“We’re transforming the economy!”)
Cassius’s attempts to curry favor with the boss end in a horror show, which isn’t much of a spoiler, I hope. You’ve had a job, right? Maybe even tried to succeed at your chosen career? So, you know how it goes. It’s a nightmare you can’t wake up from until you quit, die, or retire — if you can ever afford to retire.
Critic Michael Philips suggests, “Mr. Riley’s film risks a fair percentage of its potential audience by making Green a conflicted, compromised figure, i.e., by letting him make his own mistakes,” and he’s probably right about that. It’s a good example of our timid movie-going times, when a realistically “compromised” protagonist that was a staple of certain bold American film eras — such as 1940s film noir and 1960s –’70s New Hollywood films — is considered a substantial risk.
Boots Riley — who has one of the great American names and should get his own folk song — has gone to considerable pains to establish Cassius Green’s working poor desperation at the beginning of the film. He’s broke, he’s four months behind on his rent, and he lives with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson of Westworld) in a garage with a broken door opener that periodically exposes them to the jeers of random bypassers. (“Get a room!” “I got a room, muthuf–!”)
He’s a naïf who lectures his landlord (Terry Crews of Brooklyn 99) when he nags him for the rent:
God made this country for all of us. Greedy people like you wanna hog it to yourself and your family.
Cassius, I’m your fuckin’ uncle!
There are some pretty good lines in the film.
“You ever think about dying?” Cassius asks Detroit, in an apocalyptic thought process that leads directly to imagining the sun exploding and the end of everyone’s meaningless lives. Such ponderings are such a regular part of his routine that she later asks him, “Can we not talk about the sun exploding tonight?”
Finally, a movie protagonist I can identify with. It’s been a while.
That the apocalypse is tied to Cassius’s dire financial straits is no news to those who find their sense of cosmic doom lessens somewhat when they can pay their bills. Cassius lands the miserable telemarketing job after a demeaning job interview — are there any other kind? — which ends with the ringing endorsement of management: “You’re motivated, and you can read!” Then he has to scrape up forty cents in spare change to pay for enough gas to get there his first day.
The lethal hostility in such a world is so intense, you train yourself not to see the signs of it, just so you can function. Riley finds mocking ways to put the signs back into plain view with nice effects like Detroit showing up wearing enormous woodcut earrings spelling out “KILLKILLKILL” on one ear and “MURDERMURDERMURDER” on the other.
The film gets a ton right about the deadly conditions of working-class life and the longing inculcated in all of us to break out of it somehow, whether by some miraculous, lottery-winning luck or through the supposed merit that we’re told will do the trick. Boots Riley describes this well in his New York Times interview, noting the “better choices” we’re all supposed to be making to guarantee our success and using “resolutely capitalist” rapper-entrepreneur Jay-Z as the example:
When people listen to Jay-Z, they’re working all day or trying to work and pay their bills, and what they hear is someone who’s free. Who doesn’t have to worry about the electricity. But all we’re taught is that those who are rich deserve to be rich because they worked harder than the rest of us or they’re smarter. . . . [B]ut there are definitely very poor people who are very smart and work hard. It’s just that this system can only have a few people on the top. So Jay-Z is saying: “You can do this, too, I’m trying to give you game,” and it ends up explaining poverty as a system of bad choices. Yes, maybe you can make better choices and be the crab that gets out of the bucket — but that’ll be at the expense of all the other crabs in the bucket.
Riley satirizes the way all of us crabs are constantly beckoned to peek outside of the bucket at what we could be, and do, and have, if we got selected by some perceptive member of the elite who recognizes that we’ve got the right stuff to join the champagne drinkers in the VIP section. That we’re always being placed, both in real life and through the media, VIP room-adjacent, generates a good gag in the film about the way even ordinary clubs have set up VIP rooms, all named “Upscale Elegance.” Cassius can’t resist crashing one, even though there’s nothing special going on in there beyond overcrowding, jostling, and drink spilling. I’ve been at film-festival parties where the VIP section was literally separated from the rest of the herd by nothing more than a velvet rope, so that VIPs and mere proles literally rubbed elbows, and people still angled desperately to “get in.”
Riley marks the barriers to class ascension by literal doors — golden elevator doors to the top floor, the “magenta door” to the boss’s private lair, and the “olive door” that hides the terrible corporate secret, which Cassius discovers only because he mistook it for the “jade door” leading to the fancy bathroom. This is satire that hardly even exaggerates, since as we know there are physical barriers all over the place through which only the elite can pass. The sign of your crossing over to the world of moneyed power is almost always marked by the ceremonial conferring of the literal means of access — the door key, the key code, the password, the security-clearance ID.
In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a 1960 film about another duped worker scrambling for corporate success at the expense of his humanity, it’s “the key to the executive washroom” that marks a new life as part of the ruling class. In Riley’s film, it’s the key code to the golden elevator, which consists of so many numbers it takes minutes to punch it in. Then and only then does the smooth, digitized elevator voice of Rosario Dawson welcome Cassius and begin a steady stream of erotic compliments: “You are in your sexual prime . . .”
That the world of wealth is eroticized and the working-class world is de-eroticized is also no news, but again Riley finds some nice visual representations. The initial sex scene between Cassius and Detroit in the pathetic garage-apartment is anxious and interrupted not only by the door flying open but also by both of them having to rush to get to work on time. A later sex scene, during his career rise to success, shows their cramped, dingy living space transformed around their languorous bodies into a spacious white-on-white loft apartment with a view. CGI allows their possessions to give birth to sexier versions of themselves, such as a big sleek flat-screen TV erupting out of the obsolete cathode-ray box.
Cassius rationalizes all the monstrousness of his job, including being forced to rap in front of the boss and his orgy-ready acolytes who are demanding “some of that Oakland gangster shit.” As Detroit tells Cassius, “You sidestep more than the fuckin’ Temptations.” It’ll take a lurch into dystopian sci-fi and future-world monsters to send Cassius back to the union and his comrades with the realization, “You gotta start fighting somewhere.”
That’s not even the ending — Riley won’t leave it on that tentative note of uplift, and plunges on into a few more abrupt ending-like scenes suggesting the future-world is pounding on the door, and we may all have to creatively embrace our worker-monster in order to fight with any hope of winning.
The messiness of this is characteristic of much of the film, and it might be a hopeful quality. If you read the manifestos of radical left-wing Third Cinema of the 1960s, among the most important claims made are that a new cinema is required for a revolutionary working class, and nobody knows yet how to create it. Therefore, amateurism and rough improvisation are not qualities to be scorned, but welcomed and encouraged. In other words, we need a lot of these film experiments, and a lot of filmmakers willing to take big chances on a new “crazy” cinema.