Sorry to Bother You, 2018.
Directed by Boots Riley.
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer.
In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.
Rapper-activist Boots Riley makes a startlingly ambitious if occasionally uneven debut with this absurdist social satire, which mates Office Space with Dear White People to dizzying effect.
Shortly after starting his new job at a soulless telemarketing company, a black man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) learns that he can quickly climb the corporate ladder by affecting a “white voice” – in his case provided by the whiter-than-white David Cross – which makes him more amenable to the mostly white people he’s cold-calling.
Though Cassius’ success quickly starts to threaten his relationship with activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), it’s only when he learns the true intentions of coke-huffing company owner Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) that he’s forced to make a life-changing decision.
Riley clearly has a lot to say about the experience of being a black man in the United States in 2018, and wrapping this around a more accessible workplace satire was most certainly a smart idea. The notion that Cassius must maintain his veil of whiteness in order to climb to the top is both depressing and perversely hilarious, especially as that affectation ultimately becomes a tough habit to break.
The film’s mission statement is very obviously a call to black men – though it also partially applies to everybody else – to stay true to themselves while engaging with the capitalist system and the white desire to control perceived “rebellion”. As Cassius’ career thrives, Riley asks audiences whether they’d have the resolve to turn down “morally emaciated” employment, as one character puts it, for the sake of their scruples, and plainly mocks the extremes required for average people to take action.
Riley’s satire does feel a tad too broad for its own good on occasion, though. A company called WorryFree effectively carries out modern-day slavery, and an inane TV show exists called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me”, both of which feel like low-effort cheap shots compared to the more intricate examination of a system built to stack the deck against black people. That’s not to forget the obviousness of giving the protagonist of a capitalist satire the surname Green.
One dramatic subplot also feels rather rote and unnecessary, introducing a completely arbitrary love triangle element that’s so perfunctory it quickly fizzles out as though Riley gave up on the idea mid-way though editing. Thankfully the movie rebounds spectacularly with a bravura, live-wire third act, which takes things in a much nuttier and more unexpected direction. At this point it truly feels like Riley’s wackier sensibilities are channeled in the right direction, and the results are both hysterically funny and deeply pointed.
As a directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You is certainly more successful conceptually and stylistically than it is in execution, but thanks to an entertaining ensemble – Thompson, Hammer, Steven Yuen, Danny Glover and Terry Crews are especially good, alongside a terrific Stanfield of course – it never bores despite its arguably excessive length.
An audacious if messy and sometimes overly broad satire of race, capitalism and workplace politics in modern America.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.