Sorry to Bother You is a film out now in the theatre and has been billed as a science fiction/comedy, but neither one of those labels fits. It offers an alternate version of our world where a television show called “I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me” featuring people being beaten up and then dumped in a tank filled with excrement is number one. It also offers satirical critique of race, class, and capitalism which makes it a “comedy,” although the rest of the audience and I did not laugh very much during film.
Boots Riley wrote and directed the movie from his own screenplay. It’s hard to believe that the screenplay was written in 2012 and that it wrapped up filming a little after our current president took office. In fact, in the screenplay version, there is an organization called “Make American Great Again” which may give you an idea about the relevance of this film. Cassius (Cash) Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield is a young African American man who lives in a furnished garage owned by his uncle (played by Terry Crews). He is four months behind on his rent, and he takes a job at RegalView, a telemarketing firm where anyone who can read is hired. Cash struggles with his job and cannot keep anyone on the phone long enough to finish his script. He seems ready to quit when Langston (played by Danny Glover) offers him advice: talk white. He describes “talking white” as not about speaking in a nasal voice or like Will Smith but speaking instead “as if you don’t even need this job.” It’s a carefree sound, he says,” It’s what white people wish they sounded like. What they think they’re supposed to sound like.” Ditching his natural voice and following that advice, Cash has fantastic success and begins to outsell everyone at the firm. He converses with his white customers, decidedly not following the company’s motto of “Stick to the Script,” and tells one person he has to hang up because he is due for a game of squash. I did laugh at that one.
When the RegalView employees go on strike, organized by Squeeze (played by Steven Yeun), we see Cash’s transformation from enthusiastic participant-leader to benchwarmer. Although he led a ten-minute work stoppage at the firm with a fiery chant, his later success causes him to hesitate on more radical moves like union organization. When he is summoned to his boss’s office, he assumes he is fired, but, in fact, he receives a promotion to the “Power Callers” who have a separate lobby, a furnished elevator, and pervasive secrecy. This promotion ultimately leads Cash to cross the picket line, a decision unpopular with his friends and Detroit, his girlfriend (played by Tessa Thompson). Detroit is obviously in love with Cash but cannot tolerate his “emaciated morality,” and she ends the relationship with him, as we knew she must. She is part of the movement fighting against the very forces that have seduced Cash. She continues to create politically-charged art and participate in acts of civil disobedience and vandalism, and Cash continues to want to attend one of her art shows but his new job keeps holding him back. It’s a sign that maybe Cash isn’t a complete convert to his new lifestyle (he drives a Maserati and lives in an apartment with amazing windows and natural light once he closes a huge deal).
While the plot plays out, we have a glimpse of the film’s world. It is both our time and not our time. A company called Worry Free Living has taken over the market share of, well, everything, and it offers its workers a lifetime contract with a comprehensive package of food, scrubs, and shelter. It reminds me of amazon, although they haven’t become that yet. Cash’s uncle is tempted to join Worry Free after receiving word that the bank plans to repossess his house, vehicle, and possessions. Worry Free’s corporate model receives pushback from young people who see the company as exploiting the concerns of everyday people and obtaining a lifetime of slave labor.
I don’t want to spoil the film for you, so I won’t detail any more of the plot because there are some important surprises. Suffice it to say that the film does take off into some even weirder realms with twists and bizarre scenes, yet I was completely along for the ride by that point. I did find an interview with the writer/director Boots Riley (some of you may know of him from his work in The Coup). He was raised in Oakland in a politically active family, and six years ago, he was caught up in the Occupy Oakland movement. In the interview, he talked about the spectacle of protests and how they really don’t accomplish much. He believes his film is in a way part of that spectacle, but the hope is that it could potentially spur someone to action. The tension that we see in Cash’s character between paying the bills and protesting injustice is not accidental. Riley told the LA Times that social justice seems to be something that people can fit in on weekends because weekdays they have to work for a living. He said he feels like many movements have not been successful because “we haven’t been organizing in a way that pays the bills […]. People shouldn’t have to get involved after work; they should be able to get involved at work.” He is on to something here.
I highly recommend this film. See it before it’s out of theatres for good — its critique of capitalism means that it probably won’t be out for much longer.
Sorry to Bother You
Released July 13, 2018
Written/Directed by Boots Riley
Starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson