By Liam Lacey
There's a ton of combustible cultural information to unpack in Sorry to Bother You, a low-budget, high-concept movie by Oakland rapper Boots Riley. It’s a roiling mix of wry race comedy, economy-grade dystopian sci-fi, and Silicon Valley satire. Also, it's as funny and as caustic as hell.
This is the first feature from the 47-year-old Riley, frontman for the political Oakland hip-hop band, The Coup and the son of two 60s-era radical activists and union organizers. His film is reminiscent of the free-wheeling, surreal and messy political satires of the Vietnam era. The words Putney Swope popped into my mind while watching it.
That 1969 film, by Robert Downey Sr., followed a token African-American executive who, through a voting procedure accident, ends up as chairman of the board of a Madison Avenue marketing company, and ends up turning it into the Truth and Soul company. I also had a flashback to the whimpering "pig man" sequence in Lindsay Anderson's 1973 anti-capitalist O Lucky Man!, a movie that shares some of the young-man-on-the-make story line and surreal twists.
(I had to check: Riley has seen O Lucky Man! and counts Lindsay Anderson as an influence. He has never seen Putney Swope, though when he was work-shopping his film at the Sundance lab, mentors kept mentioning it.)
Most viewers are going to note similarities to Jordan Peel's Get Out, as a similar "code-switching" movie, about black people adopting white cultural norms. A key plot point involves the protagonist of Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who, on the advice of an older co-worker (Danny Glover), becomes a star telemarketer by using his nasally "white voice" (dubbed by comedian David Cross). But Riley's satirical targets are many, including humiliation television, the gig economy, and contemporary tech culture of the Bay area.
Cassius (Cash for short, of course) is living in his uncle's garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a painter and performance artist whose day job requires her to stand on a corner, twirling an advertising sign. Various kinds of signs are a running theme in Sorry to Bother You, both as a marker of ubiquitous branding, protest placards and a whole array of images of what might be called "cultural signifiers."
Cassius's "white voice" is one of those cultural signifiers that works to his advantage. He is soon promoted to the opulent upstairs office where he's busy calling corporate honchos around the world with an amazing new recruitment plan called WorryFree. Essentially, it's a form of modern indentured servitude, where employees sign up for lifetime of work in exchange for food and shelter. In contemporary Bay area tech shops, where employers offer staff 24-hour free meals and sleeping pods, the idea doesn't seem much of a stretch.
What happens next is considerably more far-fetched. Cassius is summoned to meet his company's CEO, a glibly narcissistic tech mogul named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who wears a jacket and a sarong. Steve has game-changing, envelope-pushing plans to transform the modern workforce. Unfortunately, it has similarities to a previous, since-outlawed American workplace model, but updated with a bit of genetic engineering.
As politically pointed as Sorry to Bother You is, it's far from a screed. Much of the fun happens on the individual scene level, sequences occasionally feel like stand-alone comedy sketches. There's a nice scene where the underpaid telemarketing team are being given a pep talk when Cassius has the nerve to ask about money. The instructor goes on a ramble about the changing meaning of capital and social media commodity, which sounds so full of b.s. it could have been torn from an actual management manual.
In another sequence, Cassius and a former friend, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) — now on the other side of the picket line of striking telemarketers — have a bitter argument, which consists entirely of them trying to out-do each other with exaggerated bro compliments, a parody of corporate civility.
As I said, Sorry to Bother You, is packed with ideas, and most of the time, the sheer energy of Riley's inventiveness excuses the rough spots in the execution. Key to the film's success is the gently contained performance by Stanfield (Get Out, and the television series, Atlanta). As Cassius, his default expression somehow combines wide-eyed expectation and a preparation for crushing disappointment. The disappointment is both with his personal failure, selling out to fit in, but also for the fatuous, warped society that he and his generation have inherited.
Sorry to Bother You. Written and directed by Boots Riley. Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, and Danny Glover. Opens wide July 13.