“More like apples and the Holocaust”
If you’re still unsure about whether capitalism brought the United States to its current position with extreme political divisiveness and the fallacy of what’s left of the “American Dream,” rapper-turned-writer/director Boots Riley is here to break it down via a debut as satirically sound as it is insanely, absurdly surreal. The film is Sorry to Bother You and it was born from the artist’s own time as a telemarketer wherein success forced him to change who he was to earn higher sales. By putting on a “white voice”—one possessed by psychological markers of confidence, etiquette, admirable entitlement, and genial persuasion—he could advance by preying on his customer base’s inherent bigotry. And the promise of incentivized compensation only pushed the establishment’s hand further up his puppet’s behind.
This is the goal businesses strive to achieve. Hire large numbers of disposable employees on commission to chew up and spit out within a revolving door of anonymous strangers. Failure does nothing by waste a few days real estate on a desk amongst thousands while success creates a stooge to toe the company line with as little pushback as possible in hopes of climbing a corporate ladder specifically designed with a few missing rungs between your highest height and your employers’ lowest lows. It’s a system that works within a company’s walls and outside them thanks to a greedy government run by bribes, favors, and blackmail. We’re told a little hard work is all we need to succeed in the greatest nation on Earth. The truth: everyone’s expendable.
How do you react? By accepting that statement’s veracity as a challenge, rapidly ensuring there’s always someone less valuable than you on the food chain? Or do you accept it as a target of inequality demanding to be erased? This is what separates those who strike to earn the salary their worth warrants and the opportunistic scabs swooping in to take whatever they can. For most the choice is easy: band together so you can be as strong as your strongest participant. As for that strongest participant: nobody knows where the line separating moral decency and selfish greed is until presented the chance to test everything you’ve ever stood for. Why fight for less than what you’re being handed? Why stand fatigued when you can sit in luxury?
Enter Lakeith Stanfield‘s Cassius Green. That’s right: “Cash Is Green.” He’s a down-on-is-luck twenty-something from Oakland trying to find any job that can offer him the scratch necessary to put more than forty cents of gasoline in his piece of junk car while also paying back-rent to an uncle (Terry Crews‘ Sergio) who’s heavily in debt himself. RegalView offers exactly that because it doesn’t care who answers its phones as long as the sale light flashes. Get that electricity flowing steady by sticking to the script and you won’t simply get pats on the back from bosses sticking to their own cookie-cutter agenda (Robert Longstreet, Michael X. Sommers, and Kate Berlant caricaturing cubicle generals we all know and revile). You might just secure the ever-elusive title, “Power Caller.”
The film therefore becomes an astutely comedic representation of office life and the rigid dichotomy that keeps underlings in check by fueling a false ideal of promotion through subservience. Green’s fiancé (Tessa Thompson‘s performance artist Detroit) and best friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler) enlists in the game too, pulling enough money to help ends meet as one of two or more jobs. They see the injustice of what’s happening and gravitate towards Squeeze’s (Steven Yeun) agitator for union rights. But before a strike can commence, Green is given the “white voice” advice from old guard telemarketer Langston (Danny Glover). The power this newfound weapon provides Cassius is too much to ignore and he excels at wielding it. Before long, enigmatic “Power Caller” Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick) must come calling.
Everything that follows needs to be seen to be believed because Riley goes beyond kitchen sink status to aim for the jugular where his message, irreverence, and karmic payback is concerned. The background details of an Amazon-like establishment of slave labor passing itself off as America’s savior (WorryFree, run by Armie Hammer‘s Steve Lift); a liberal activist group of incendiary radicals using guerrilla tactics to unveil the evil that’s easily permeated our society (The Left Eyes); and the media’s transformation from journalism to reality television entertainment wherein one person’s bad luck becomes the world’s universal pick-me-up converge until every little thing Riley has put onscreen earns relevance beyond throwaway laugh. His visual and aural onslaught of triggers often becomes overwhelming, but it’s nothing if not meticulously assembled.
We’re talking Michel Gondry levels of imaginative practical effects too (a creepy video shown later is even directed by a “Michael Dondry” despite being the least Gondry part of the film) where Cassius’ desk is literally dropped into the house of every potential customer he calls so they can interact face-to-face. It’s an intriguing maneuver that starts as a gag before evolving into a scathing commentary on white people’s reaction to black people’s voices (“he sounds educated”) when those inches away from Stanfield suddenly don’t mind because David Cross‘ voice is coming out of his mouth. The whole movie is like this—jokes becoming more and more pointed as the plot progresses further towards its wild climactic reveal of the rich man’s “God complex” in full eugenics splendor.
But there’s also commentary on the art world forcing its creatives to sell-out in order to “make it.” There are plenty of laughs at the expense of the white elite being goaded into participation in a way that emboldens them while also exposing their overt racism. There’s the exploitation and appropriation of black culture, the commercialization of identity through our message-laden t-shirts and jewelry, and the desire to be edgy and “included” in things that aren’t for us through the misunderstanding of the appeal and meaning behind powerful work for which you just hope the aesthetic makes you cooler. Sorry to Bother You isn’t sorry because it wants to put a mirror up to your bullshit so you laugh at yourself before realizing it’s you who are onscreen.
Some of the jokes go too long—or maybe those weren’t for me because there are multiple levels of satire in play overlapping at speeds that refuse to let us catch our breath or discern where one ends and another begins. But others had me laughing so hard I missed the next one. And it’s all relatable thanks to Riley’s heightened world being unconscionably familiar to our own. That’s the power inherent to art like this. It augments the humor we too often pass over due to becoming intentionally numb to the insanity of a world growing smaller and more volatile by the second. He spotlights the carnage, calls out complicity, and presents the reality that it’s never too late to realize you’re a puppet too.
Rating: R | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: July 6th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director(s): Boots Riley
Writer(s): Boots Riley