Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Sorry to Bother You’ brings Black absurdism to life

Boots Riley’s first film will make you uncomfortable in the most entertaining way

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‘Sorry to Bother You’ brings Black absurdism to life

(Photo taken from the official Sorry to Bother You Facebook page.)

(Photo taken from the official Sorry to Bother You Facebook page.)

(Photo taken from the official Sorry to Bother You Facebook page.)

(Photo taken from the official Sorry to Bother You Facebook page.)

By Courtney Song, Collegian Correspondent

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“Sorry to Bother You” is a movie that leaves you with the same feeling of walking into a room that’s all corners.

Boots Riley’s directorial debut is an exploration into the social paradigms that undercut everyday life in a so-called “post-racial” America. Riley approaches topics such as code-switching, the capitalist myth of upward mobility, glamorization of Black culture, modern slavery, poverty and more in ways that are both entertaining and biting. It’s a film that doesn’t feel like a lecture, as it so easily could when broaching such difficult topics. This can largely be attributed to its heavily stylized nature and vibrant characters and dialogue. For “Sorry to Bother You,” Riley seems to be channeling his inner absurdist Spike Lee.

Lakeith Stanfield, best known as Darius from the hit show ‘Atlanta,’ employs his mesmerizingly monotonous tone and stoner style of philosophy as Cassius “Cash” Green. Cash is an ambitious, but directionless, unemployed young Black man who finds work as a telemarketer at RegalView. Cash is initially disillusioned by his inability to sell to angry, preoccupied, uninterested white audiences. It’s only when his Black coworker, Langston (played by Danny Glover), teaches him that the secret to making sales is to adopt a “white voice.” Cash’s white voice (dubbed over by David Cross) experiences great success and earns him a spot in the coveted “Power Caller” group. Meanwhile, Cash’s coworkers, which include Squeeze (Steven Yeun), his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), organize a union against RegalView. This is the beginning of a rift between Cash and Detroit, the artist-cum-anarchist who begins to resent Cash more and more for backing out of the union, though she continues to reap the benefits of his increasingly lavish Power Caller lifestyle.

The film is split into two focal points: one side follows Cash and Detroit’s exploits while the other exists as a dystopic advertisement for “WorryFree,” a company whose services include a life-long contract in exchange for a ‘worry-free’ lifestyle. Viewers will be disturbed to find themselves almost comforted by the notion before being jerked back by the terrifying implications. These two factions come to a point when it is revealed that Cash’s new gig as a Power Caller involves selling WorryFree’s human labor to corporations. Meanwhile, Detroit joins “Left-Eye,” a militant group that protests the company, referring to it as a form of modern slavery. Cash turns a blind eye to his complicity in WorryFree’s obvious immorality until he becomes faced with a dilemma unlike anything either he or the audience could have expected. Steve Lift, the CEO (made deliciously detestable in a flamboyant portrayal by Armie Hammer), plans to turn his contracted slaves into super-efficient human-horse hybrids.

‘Sorry to Bother You’ is scandalously funny in a way that can almost make you feel uncomfortable. It’s one of the few movies that I’ve seen that has found a way of accurately depicting what it’s like to be non-white in a white world—specifically, to be Black in America. It’s the only time I’ve come close to understanding how it feels to walk into a room and find you’re the only Black person there. The reductive trope of adopting a “Black voice” to convey anger or ignorance is turned on its head, using the “white voice” to intimate a duplicitous mildness. The image of a Black man using a white voice to sell slavery over the phone is simultaneously ludicrous and far too familiar. Riley goes out of his way to subvert expectations at every possible turn.

The performances are as loud and aware of their own bravado as the movie itself. Stanfield is, as ever, charming and playful, with a far-off look in his eye that always leaves you guessing. Thompson’s impenetrable smug smirk and gorgeous costume design make her unforgettable. Steven Yeun plays an Asian man that is not the sarcastic sidekick or silent observer—he is sly, unapologetic and, most notably, sexy. It is a side of Asian men that we don’t often get to see in Hollywood. Omari Hardwick plays an unnamed Power Caller that rarely drops his own white voice and plays effortlessly off of Stanfield. Armie Hammer is tremendous once again and proves that he isn’t afraid to take roles out of his comfort zone; here, he feels out of place yet not unwelcome. Kate Berlant also makes a short but still memorable comedic appearance.

In a market saturated by repetitive sequels and reboots and genre-films that feel shackled by their own categories, it’s important to reward uniqueness. ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is nothing if not unique. Riley’s writing and directing styles perfectly complement each other, creating a vision that is intensely enjoyable both intellectually and aesthetically. And from a technical perspective, it is a rare film that makes you aware of the quality of editing. There is a self-referential quality to ‘Sorry to Bother You’ that has a way of making you feel like the film is looking back at you. It is as chilling an experience as it is entertaining.

It is always fulfilling to support black auteurs who tackle their reality in novel ways. This new pseudo-sub-genre of meta Black television has emerged into the mainstream as of late—’Atlanta,’ ‘Insecure,’ ‘Get Out’—and ‘Sorry to Bother You’ easily secures its place in this particular Hall of Pop Culture Fame. The film isn’t perfect by any means; there are plotlines that trail off and might feel unresolved, and some jokes simply don’t land like they’re meant to. Regardless, it is a promising look into the future of Riley’s film career.

There is a point of the film that almost perfectly encapsulates itself: Detroit stands among spectators viewing her anonymous Left-Eye street art, a statue that depicts a man fornicating with a horse. Two men beside her debate pretentiously on the meaning of the piece. “Maybe the artist is being literal,” Detroit says, deadpan, a bit of black still smeared under her left eye. “Maybe WorryFree really is turning humans into horses.”

 

Courtney Song can be reached at [email protected].

 

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