Part of the fun of being a film buff, beyond the immediate immersive experience of taking in a movie, is detecting influences from past works of literature, whether onscreen or on the printed page. The best screenwriters and directors have a knack for walking the tightrope between inspired and derivative, between universal themes and hackneyed tropes. When a new movie comes out that manages to feel fresh and daring even while it hits plenty of checkboxes in the file drawers of my brain devoted to cinema history, I regard that as a reason to celebrate.
So this week provides the happy opportunity to recommend Sorry to Bother You – not to the pearl-clutching faint of heart, but otherwise to anyone who loves movies, sociopolitical satire, dystopian science fiction and transgressive humor. It marks the invigorating directorial debut of Boots Riley, heretofore best-known as the lead singer/rapper of the politically active Oakland band known as the Coup. (Note than not being a particular fan of hip hop should not disqualify you from seeking out this movie; the delightful score interweaves at least as much electronica/trance music as it does that genre.) Riley was born into a family of Chicago labor organizers and co-founded the Coup with a UPS co-worker, and his deep grounding in community activism informs Sorry to Bother You’s narrative in ways rarely seen in feature films these days.
But don’t walk in expecting a granola-fueled Barbara Kopple documentary, or even Norma Rae (though the latter does get an explicit shout-out in Sorry to Bother You). This movie’s DNA might best be described as a cross between Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969) – both being fantasias on the theme of unintended consequences of a black man accidentally attaining power in a white corporate power structure – and Lindsay Anderson’s homage to Candide, O Lucky Man! (1973), right down to the latter film’s creepy reference to The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Sorry to Bother You is set in an alternative-present-day Oakland, in which the most popular TV game show depicts people literally being beat up and humiliated onscreen and many of the poor are turning to a company called WorryFree that promises perpetual employment in the form of indentured servitude. Skillfully portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield, the protagonist, Cassius Green (called Cash, and the name is as metaphorical as can be), is four months behind on his rent to his uncle (Terry Crews), who is in danger of losing his home to his mortgage lender. Eager to help out his family, impress his artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (a terrific Tessa Thompson) and generally improve his socioeconomic status, Cash takes a commission-only job in a telemarketing firm called RegalView.
He flounders at first, but after being advised by a more seasoned black co-worker (Danny Glover) to cultivate his “white voice” for more effective cold calling, Cash learns to his astonishment that he has found something he’s really good at. Elements of magical realism begin to creep into the story at this point, only to escalate more and more bizarrely as it unspools.
Cash’s talents attract the attention of his supervisors, who dangle the carrot of promotion to the coveted status of highly remunerated “power caller” even as his co-workers, led by labor organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun), begin demanding better pay. Torn between loyalty and ambition, Cash crosses the picket line and soon discovers that the power callers are hawking stuff much less benign than encyclopedias: armaments, and the services of those virtual slaves who have sold their futures to WorryFree. Armie Hammer plays the villain, WorryFree’s billionaire CEO Steve Lift, whose indulgent lifestyle lures our feckless hero ever more deeply into a web of horrors. If you’ve wondered how today’s up-and-coming genre filmmakers of color were likely to top the hair-raising premise of Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is your answer – and hopefully the first of many.
It’s by no means a perfect film – there are pacing issues, and its budgetary limitations become apparent once the story’s science-fictional elements begin accelerating – but it’s one of the most tonic products to come down the pike so far this year. The screenplay is witty and smart, full of layered humor, the characters vivid and engagingly portrayed, their moral quandaries classic and yet exquisitely attuned to the politics of the moment. Put your money on Lakeith Stanfield (whose talents at physical acting are comparable to Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) as a rising star. Keep an eye on Boots Riley as well: This guy has important things to say, and the storytelling chops to go on saying them. Kudos!