Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, delivers bold and inspired social commentary, but it’s also among the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Riley has been advocating for systemic changes to the United States government through his music and activism for decades, and this film feels like a culmination of that work. While the film wears its politics proudly on its sleeve, it is also surreal, joyously irreverent, and loaded with visual metaphor and allegory. It is not without minor faults, but I left the theater feeling like I had seen a work of art that was truly entertaining and necessary.
In a not-too-distant future, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), sits sharply dressed and enthusiastic, clutching an employee of the month plaque between his hands like a Bible. Meanwhile, a slovenly white man—his potential supervisor—leans back lazily in a dingy and cluttered office. Cassius, who lives in his uncle’s garage with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), is desperate for a job, and has turned to telemarketing as his last resort. He learns that using a “white voice” when talking to potential customers is the key to success, and thus begins his meteoric rise through the ranks of corporate telemarketing. While his white supervisors shower praise and adoration onto Cassius, his personal relationships deteriorate, and his group of friends are starting a strike the day after he earns a huge promotion. Cassius’ journey is a relatable allegory of our contemporary social struggles and the way that those struggles push and pull our society until it becomes monstrous.
Although this is his first feature, it is clear from the film’s opening moments that Riley has a deep understanding of the complex relationship between economics and race relations in America, and he is clearly having fun playing with those ideas in the wild space that he has created. From reality TV send-ups to comments on the destructive quality of viral videos, there are a lot of moving parts at play. The tone of the film sputters a bit early on while those various parts are still locking into place. As Cassius works his way up the corporate ladder, however, he quickly finds himself in a vision of the future that has the same fun-house mirror quality of Terry Gilliam’s best work. (see Brazil for a similarly off-kilter dystopia)
Riley uses special effects not for spectacle, but to achieve a magical realism. Cassius suddenly falls through the floor as his potential customers answer his call. He lands in their physical space as he reads the script forced on him by the telemarketing company. The result is confrontational and claustrophobic, and a perfect visual representation of what the film does as a whole. Riley’s approach here is maximalist; bright colors, quick pans, and sets filled with visual details compete with the bombastic soundtrack for the audience’s attention. Like the fuzzed-out bass of the film’s opening music, the frame is often filled with a barrage of imagery overwhelming the senses. Riley is not, however, throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Every detail is placed with intention. The result is an overwhelming film that is as funny as it is thought-provoking.
Like America, this film is a patchwork quilt of ideas which constantly threatens to collapse under the weight of its own grotesque girth. Riley’s formula will no doubt prove divisive, but it must be argued that Sorry to Bother You brings more to the table than any comedy in recent memory. It is as if Riley is looking at our world through a kaleidoscope and seeing patterns in the carnival of chaos that spins wildly around us. The real success of the film is that it manages to say so much about how horrific our world is and could become, while provoking sustained laughter all the way from its opening to its incredible (or incredulous, depending on who you ask) ending.
Riley worked for many years to produce Sorry to Bother You, and it shows. It is unlikely that he could have pulled off this impressive balancing act between the ridiculous and the revolutionary if the film had been made back in 2012, when the screenplay was published as a paperback. Riley has had time to pull back the reins of his narrative just enough to keep the wheels from coming off, but I am grateful that he didn’t pull back any harder. Sorry to Bother You explodes like a Molotov cocktail smashing into a statue of Ronald McDonald. It is as dangerous as it is hilarious, as confounding as it is familiar, and unapologetically demands your attention.