Sorry to Bother You
Sorry to Bother You takes place in alternative-present day Oakland. The film chronicles the journey of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) and his friend as they struggle to make ends meet. They all eventually find themselves working for a call center that pushes crap produces and sells the team on performance to become a Power Caller. Power Callers make bank, but Cassius finds out with greater cash comes compromised morality.
The Great Filmmaker’s Melting Pot
Sorry to Both You is somewhat indescribable. It’s a whimsical Coen Brother’s comedy, with some Charlie Kaufman flair. The satire is as stylistic as it is biting, just like an Edgar Wright film. There’s a M. Night Shyamalan twist that will break your brain (and for some the movie). The dialogue oozes with African-American colloquium, like a Spike Lee Joint. Hard to believe so many tones and styles can coexist in one screenplay? This list of modern filmmakers less illustrates what Sorry to Bother You is, and more demonstrates the insanity and inconsistency of what is packed in here. At the end of the day Sorry to Bother You is Boots Riley and Boots Riley alone.
I have been a tangential follower of Boots Riley for years. I come from a radical left background of activism. It was my fellow socialist sympathizers that originally Exposed me to The Coup, Boots Riley’s political hip-hop outfit. Immediately I recognized, tracks featured in Tony Hawk’s Skate as well as every comedy nerd from the aught coming of age masterclass: Superbad. In 2009 when my favorite guitar, Tom Morello (of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine), formed a new rap rock supergroup with Boots I was there day 1. Street Sweeper Social Club did not take the ’10’s by storm as I had hope. Rap rock was officially dead. The proletariat where not awoken by vanguards Morello and Riley and I kind of assumed that Boots Riley fell off the face of the earth. Needless to say, I was shocked that he returned with a screenwriting and directorial debut in 2018.
One of the biggest aspects to highlight with Riley’s film debut would by the word “debut.” This film has all the of triumphs and shortcomings of a first film. On the positive side of the scale: this film is loaded to the gills with ideas. Riley blasts on the scene with a lot to say and a unique way of telling it. Unfortunately, it might be a little too much for one feature. The message may be fresh, but it could use a little refining.
Codeswitching is so… 2016
The linguistic term codeswitch came to cultural prominence in mid 2016. NPR launched a podcast under the title. Key and Peele became the ambassadors for term as they did their late-night circuit tour promoting their first feature film Keanu. (Sidenote: Let’s be honest- Key and Peele have been the ambassadors for black culture for the white people of my generation for about a decade at this point). The basic idea of codeswitch is simple. To better blend in to polite society and not upset well-to-white people, African-Americans actively sanitize their language of cultural colloquium. They even sometimes alter tone and speech patterns. Riley’s film defines codeswitch simple as using your “White Voice.” Several African-American characters, including Cassius, harness the power of their White Voice to climb the call center pyramid. At times, this can make a powerful statement about selling out one’s own cultural identity in order to advance economically. White Voice is more frequently used for comedic effect.
In the film Riley actually has white actors dub the voice line over the black actors to actualize White Voice. Cassius’s own White Voice is performed hilariously by comedian David Cross. Cross’s saradonic tone and excessive formality really gives Sorry to Bother You some satirical scruples. The other famous White Voice is for the character “Mr. ________” and is voice by our favorite rodent chef: Patton Oswald. White Voice regrettably feels more like a gimmick than full fledge commentary. There is a scene in the film that gives extreme Eyes Wide Shut vibes where “Mr. ______” break from White Voice for only a second to remind Cassius of his place. The seriousness of what is being said packs an extra punctuation with the character breaking into “Mr. _____” true voice.
Socialism: A Bizarre Black Mirror Episode?
Riley’s former political sympathies are present and well in Sorry to Bother You. With album titles like Steal this Album and Kill My Landlord, or song titles such as “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A '79 Grenada Last Night” and “Fight! Smash! Win!” Riley has never been subtle with his message. Unfortunately, the film suffers from some its beat-you-over-the-head idealogy. At times Riley doesn’t even stop to make a full-scale case against “the system,” he just rattles off some socialist talking points and moves on. By changing medium, you would think Riley had a desire to reach a more mainstream mass audience, but not a lot is done with this pulpit. I am sure this for his fans and the people of this movement this film was a breath of fresh air. For the rest of it it’s at best chauvinistic and at worst lazy propaganda.
The laziness of some of the socialist critique is really what is the most disappointing part. Corporations are only the most bloodsucking and inconsiderate possible. The undercover labor organizer comes across more Christ-like than Mr. Rogers. (That being said Steven Yeun is about the only good part of The Walking Dead and it’s great to see him branching out!) The evil CEO in this movie, who is played brilliantly by Armie Hammer, is cartoonishly evil in every conceivable way. He carries a handgun, makes Cassius rap like a performing monkey, and does ALL of the cocaine (like Blow meets Wall Street levels of cocaine). The evilness of the badies and saintliness of the goodies really waters down the message and makes it all feel a little too Sean-Hannity-of-the-left-y.
Up until this point I have kept this review pretty spoiler free. There will be a massive plot twist spoiler below. If you have not seen the movie and do not want this ruin please stop reading, see the film, and come back.
Its ok. I’ll be right here. Promise.
And Then There Were Horse People
In general, I want to keep these reviews pretty spoiler free. Riley makes a pretty divisive plot choice at the beginning of his third act that made it impossible to not discuss. There are Horse People in this film. They are nasty. And this is the choice that brought me back on board.
The Horse People rear their ugly head into this movies (literally) and the somewhat coherent reality of this film completely goes out the window. It’s really something you do not recover from. The audience either loves it or hates it. I unequivocally loved it.
One of the reasons I love the horse people is it’s an incredible metaphor. One of the film’s most salient pieces of dialogue is: “When people are presented with a new problem they have no way of solving they just learn to deal with it instead.” This movie spends a lot of time focusing on this company that sells a service to a customer base that guarantee housing, food, and shelter for the rest of your life in exchange for manual labor. All you have to do is sign a “life contract” and all your worries about providing will go away. Sounds an awful lot like slavery, yeah? In a world where iPhone factories are fenced in, barbed wired, and guarded by armed men no so farfetched. The disgusting reality is WorryFree is already real and people don’t do anything about it. We all collect our fruits ripped out of South America, buy our new iPhone manufactured under duress, and drive our Priuses powered by bloodied rare earth metals harvested from Africa. In a world where things get worse every day and we are numbed into complacency you really need a jolt to remember that slavery its bad (like its super bad you guys). Slavery is old news. But genetically modified human slaves? That’s a bridge too far! Here in liberal American we expect our slaves GMO Free!
The second reason I love the horse people is its just bold. The film is already challenging stylistically. Its already overwhelming idealogically. To add Horse People to this movie you would have to have balls the size of a… I think you get the picture. This is a choice that could only hurt the movie commercially and yet Riley kept it in. It makes the most salient point of the movie. Some things have to be about more than money if we are going to wake up and fix this crazy world.
Sorry to Bother You is a pretty mixed bag. My gut impression is it will get better with age. It is written in a very reactionary moment in American history and it captures truths of that moment that we are too close to see or understand. My guess is it will improve with multiple viewings. The plot is so bombastic and scattered it’s hard to walk out with the message while you’re trying to track the story. The biggest hesitation to I have to recommend this film is it’s challenging. It’s not fun to watch. You spend most of it feeling uncomfortable and you walk out feeling dirty. Ideologically I think Sorry to Bother You is some harsh, harsh medicine America needs to take, but Riley’s message might have gotten in the way of sexing it up enough so we could take it.