It has been an experience watching people twist and bend, trying to slot Sorry to Bother You into some kind of familiar category. “It’s Michel Gondry married to Spike Jonze,” or “Wes Anderson by way of Charlie Kaufman.” Not only do these comparisons try to position this flawed masterpiece in a white filmmaker pantheon, but it also disrespects Boots Riley’s vision and execution. Let Riley live.
Oh yeah, let’s stop it with the Get Out comparisons. Lazy.
Boots Riley is the founder of the wildly underrated Bay Area hip-hop group, The Coup. Along with DJ Pam the Funkstress (RIP), and a rotating crew of musicians, The Coup has delivered some of the most thought provoking, innovative, and funky hip-hop music over the past twenty-five years. That Boots is rarely, if ever, mentioned in top five/top ten emcee talk is criminal. He is a phenomenal emcee; one of the best storytellers in hip-hop. So it is no wonder that Sorry to Bother You is as good as it is. With six The Coup albums, and a full album and EP with Street Sweeper Social Club (with Rage Against the Machine guitarist, Tom Morello), Boots has been writing this film in front of us, for decades. Now, it is just on the screen.
Sorry to Bother You is about being Black and navigating late-stage capitalism, in a rapidly gentrifying world. Situating the film in Oakland — the only other place that could have worked would be Brooklyn — makes social and cultural sense. People see Oakland as being in the shadow of the storied San Francisco. The hard scrabble lesser sibling who doesn’t take any shit, at any time, but suffers for its brashness. How in the world has Oakland — home to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Bruce Lee, Morrie Turner, Kamala Harris, Mahershala Ali, the Wiggins family, Daveed Diggs, En Vogue, Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee, Huey P. Newton, Isadora Duncan, The Pointer Sisters, Delilah Beasly, Amy Tan, Ryan Coogler, and probably the most radically politically active constituency in the country — become ground zero for gentrification? It was as easy as it was insidious.
People moved to Oakland because of its cool political and social outsider status — and (at the time) the cheap rent. But these same people cheapened Oakland’s cool by their very presence. The monied newcomers called the police on #BlackBoyJoy drummers by Lake Merritt, or called the police on church choirs who sang too loudly on a Sunday, or tried to criminalize black women doing hair on the steps of their homes, or Latinx folks selling food on the corner. Basically, the monied newcomers waged war on POC cultural life and cool.
The cool got cheapened and assaulted and the rents increased to the point where people had to take drastic measures just to stay in their city. This is exemplified by Cassius Green (played by the magnetic Lakeith Stanfield. But homey, were you trying to tank this film’s roll out with your homophobic “raps?”) He and his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson who nails the Bay Area performance artist steez and is long overdue to star in her own vehicle) live in Cassius’s uncle Sergio’s (played by Terry Crews) garage.
Cassius is behind in rent, jeopardizing Sergio’s ability to make his house note, putting him in danger of losing his home. Darius has to contribute, but isn’t exactly the most skilled person, so he goes after (no dis) a job where the skills needed are minimal: telemarketing. You can read? Hear? Sit? Talk? You’re hired!
It is slow going, at first. Cassius isn’t very good at his job, compounding his sense of worthlessness. His fortunes shift swiftly when he meets his telemarketing Yoda, Langston. As Langston, Danny Glover coaches Cassius to use his white voice to close sales. Once he moves from white voice padawan to master, Cassius quickly ascends to the ranks of Power Caller.
As a Power Caller, Cassius is invited to another more elite part of the company. Once situated, Cassius becomes a telemarketing machine. He’s unstoppable. His continued success puts him on the radar of the company’s founder, Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer, doing his best Tony Robbins meets Tim Ferriss.
If the white voices (David Cross, Lily James, Patton Oswalt) and the surreality wasn’t enough, the film takes a dive right into dystopian science fiction of the best kind.
I don’t want to spoil this film for anyone. Let’s just say the whole white voice as doorway to economic and social success is the least fantastical thing about this film: gene splicing, company towns, slavery, corporate uprisings, street rebellions, Nigga Shit/Nigga Shit/Nigga Nigga Nigga Shit, nightmare gameshows, the absurdity of videos gone viral (isn’t viral related to infection?), macktivists (played with revolutionary charm and smarm by Steven Yeun), and an ending scene that was so powerful, so breathtaking, the audience (I’ve seen it twice and experienced the same reaction) lost their collective minds.
Sorry to Bother You feels so necessary to me because what we’re calling the surreality of the film is actually the Black Norm. Granted the film is an exercise in social and political hyperbole, but most Black Folk will understand Cassius’ experience, and will be able to map parallels to their own. To get ahead, for Black Folk, is to code switch — a less violent euphemism for what is really happening when we do it. We give up pieces of ourselves, our cultural and psychic vitality to enter spaces that would rather not have us, to make money to acquire things that don’t bring us joy. The ‘white voice’ is a sign of surrender. It is us vocalizing our defeat in a world where our defeat is necessary for our survival. This is why the ending of Sorry to Bother You was so poignant. Go see this film. Today.
Just one word: Equisapiens. Damn.
Sorry to Bother You is out now.