Sorry to Bother You is undoubtedly one of summer’s best surprises. Director and writer Boots Riley brings a provocative and timely film to life with ease and plenty of humor. Sociopolitically charged and boasted by fantastic performances, the film is creatively, technically and narratively superb.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is living in his uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland and desperate for a job. After being caught in a lie during an interview (which is exactly what the manager, Anderson (Robert Longstreet), was looking for), he’s hired as a telemarketer. Promised the big bucks if he does well enough to be promoted to “power caller,” Cassius is taught to use his “white voice” to get people to buy from him and gain their trust. As he gains attention at work for being a great employee, his coworkers, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), make plans to form a union after being underpaid and mistreated for so long.
Cassius joins the union, but he’s promoted to “power caller” not long after and abandons the cause. His new job, however, is much more ethically questionable, causing his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), the rebellious artist whose forms of expression are against that of the system, to question where he stands. Everything is further complicated after meeting Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of Worry Free, a company that has workers sign lifetime contracts.
Sorry to Bother You, in short, wants to bother you. It wants to make you think, to analyze, to question. It’s thought-provoking and beyond being a metaphor for the issues with capitalism, it also touches on the issues of being black in a system meant to favor white people, where getting ahead means leaving something behind, where code switching is the norm to gain favor in a white corporate America, and in which the initial willingness to become a part of the system to earn money and be considered a hard worker despite all the obstacles is also questioned. It’s also very funny and balances its serious and crazy moments with hilarity. One scene that stands out in particular is one where Cassius and Salvador are raising their voices at each other, clearly angry, and in the same tone Cassius is saying he hopes “you have a spectacular day.”
There are many who have already compared it to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but it isn’t. Sorry to Bother You may touch on some of the same things, but it’s also very much its own thing, with its own personality and style and to claim otherwise is disingenuous. Riley’s film is creative, has a strong point of view, and touches on sociopolitical topics with ingenuity. It’s a boldly executed satire with an original spin that delves just as much into capitalism and its exploitative nature as it does everything else. Riley doesn’t stray away from the bizarre or absurd; rather, he leans into it to prove a point. There’s truth to be found in what, on the surface, seems outlandish and ridiculous.
Lakeith Stanfield is fantastic, bringing a nuance to his performance throughout all the stages of Cassius’ journey, as well as great comedic timing. Armie Hammer as the rich and manipulative businessman of Worry Free balances on-the-surface politeness behind a more terrifying reality. Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler as the primary union activists stand out in their supporting roles, with Yeun’s Squeeze serving as a perceived antagonist to Cassius’ attempts at upgrading his life. But it’s Tessa Thompson’s Detroit who embraces the spectacle and is staunchly against the system, wears her resistance in small ways (earrings, articles of clothing, etc.), and portrays it in her art.
Sorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s debut feature film and it’s clear he’s intent on making a splash. His filmmaking is distinct, thrilling, and touches on topics that will stir your thoughts, while certain scenes will make you laugh. The film is one of the best of the year, a fantastic ride from beginning to end and Riley has made a strong impression as a director that will have lasting effects.