Eleven months since its Sundance Festival debut, the audaciously high-concept comedy Sorry To Bother You – written and directed by progressive rapper Boots Riley in his feature film debut – has finally arrived in the UK, capping off a banner year for black filmmakers after Jordan Peele’s Oscar win for Get Out, and the phenomenal success and widespread visibility of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman. With a grassroots word-of-mouth momentum spurring this film on towards distribution in film markets that have not always catered amenably to black audiences, Sorry To Bother You seems poised to crash into contention for several year-end best lists.
In Oakland, California, Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is saddled with debts, living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, artist and sign-twirler Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and accordingly desperate for work. The only job available to Cash is a lowly telemarketing position with a defined script for making sales. Unable to close any offers, one of Cash’s colleagues (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” – a carefree tone of privilege and affluence (voiced by Arrested Development’s David Cross). A bewildered Cash soon discovers a natural talent for using this voice and subsequently ascends through the ranks of the company to the gilded yet mysterious position of Power Caller that traffics in ‘unconventional’ products.
The casting of Stanfield establishes an immediate intertextual point of reference with Donald Glover’s offbeat, “Twin Peaks with rappers” sitcom Atlanta, in which Stanfield broke out playing the eccentric aide-de-camp Darius. But while Stanfield’s previous work in Atlanta may prove a useful point of entry for getting to grips with Sorry To Bother You’s similarly pitched micro-observations and bewildering vignettes, Riley’s film expands an Afro-Surrealist aesthetic into the realm of uproarious Gilliam-esque absurdity. For a first time writer-director, Riley demonstrates an impressive aptitude for such inventive film language, whether it is the Godardian jump-cuts as Cash’s desk smashes through the ceiling, landing in front of his cold-call customers; the liberal use of bold, primary colours in the film’s art direction; or the nightmarish creature design of the ‘equisapien’ hybrid labourers who resemble a live-action BoJack Horseman as directed by David Cronenberg.
Crucially, these visual flourishes operate to service the themes of Sorry To Bother You, rather than being used as fanciful ornamentation. Amidst the film’s absurdities lies a richly textured strain of incisive social commentary, informed by Riley’s political persuasions. The central plot of the “white voice” glibly – yet shrewdly – satirises systemic racism and the nefarious operation of white cultural hegemony. This thread is consequently reinforced by the interaction between newly anointed Power Caller Cash and the telemarketing company’s primary client, WorryFree, whose billboards advertise a life without bills, and free food and living quarters. Part and parcel, however, of this arrangement is the signing of a lifetime work contract without remuneration, akin to a new slave trade – a comparison that is borne out by the film’s reveal that the telemarketing Power Callers are working on behalf of WorryFree to loan labour to other companies and world governments.
The unabashedly polemical tone of Sorry To Bother You is the film’s greatest asset, which, in tandem with its eccentric visuals, invokes an almost-Swiftian aura of cultural satire. Riley makes space within the narrative to equally skewer “New Jim Crow” institutions of illicit oppression, the heavy-handedness of violent police against peaceful protests, corporate antagonism towards labour union movements, and the continued hacking of the American gig economy by Silicon Valley types (namely, Armie Hammer’s douche-y Jack Dorsey-analogue character).
Moreover, while this review earlier advised against pigeonholing this film with Lakeith Stanfield’s other work Atlanta, there is a pertinent thematic link between Sorry To Bother You and another of Donald Glover’s projects, the now-iconic music video for Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’. The whimsical spectacle of Gambino’s joyous dance routine conceals and distracts from the many layers of action and subtle moments happening around him, as a riot erupts within a warehouse space and the figure of Death on horseback leads a cop car. The thesis extracted from ‘This is America’ was interpreted as a pointed comment on how forms of facile entertainment serve to distract from substantive political engagement and public discourse. Sorry To Bother You arguably bolsters this concept as part of its comprehensive satirical project. Having discovered the hideous truth about WorryFree’s unnatural biological augmentations of their workers, the only way Cash can convey the unpalatable information to the masses is by embracing his fame as the ‘Have a Cola and Smile Bitch’ meme – born out of an online video depicting an activist throwing a soda can at Cash’s head for crossing the picket line of the protesting telemarketers. Cash consequently must perform this viral character on a debased gameshow, ‘I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me’, dispiritingly bringing more attention to a facetious meme than the real-world exploitation that Cash is trying to highlight. Riley ultimately succeeds in his critique precisely because of this type of correlation between the theatre of the absurd and actual socio-political absurdities.