A paean to the proletariat. A pro-union battle cry. An ideological evisceration of late capitalism. A deconstruction of corporate greed and the concomitant commercialisation of self-worth necessary to succeed. A critique of identity politics. An allegory of institutional racism in big business. A lampooning of Silicon Valley bro culture. Sorry to Bother You, the debut feature of writer/director Boots Riley
, is all this, and more. Very much in the key of absurdist fiction such as Dino Buzzati
's Il deserto dei Tartari (1940) and Ralph Ellison
's Invisible Man (1952), as well as race-conscious satirical cinema such as Putney Swope (1969)
and Watermelon Man (1970)
, the film draws more direct inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (c.1806-1831), Repo Man (1984)
, and the work of Spike Jonze
, Michel Gondry
, and, bizarrely, Ken Loach
A black comedy/Juvenalian satire/science fiction/horror/magic realist/allegorical character study, it's impossible to classify. Dealing with the obstacles facing African Americans in a white-dominated corporate milieu, and positing that the experience of workers is determined by both labour conditions and race, the film examines labour relations, wage issues, worker solidarity, unionism, mass media, and the dangers of betraying oneself and choosing corporate advancement over friendships, relationships, and personal integrity. Although it's a beat or two too long, and although the spectacularly bizarre left-turn at the end of the second act will surely alienate a lot of viewers, the deconstruction and comic appropriation of code-switching results in a film that is constantly inventive, highly confrontational, and extremely funny.
Set in Oakland, California in an "alternate present", the company WorryFree offers food and lodging in exchange for a lifetime labour contract with no wages, a practice which the Supreme Court has deemed legal and not equivalent to slavery. Standing against WorryFree is the radical group "Left Eye", who organise protests and vandalise WorryFree's billboards. Meanwhile, Cash Green (LaKeith Stanfield
) is a telemarketer working for RegalView, who, upon the advice of a veteran co-worker (Danny Glover
), discovers his "white voice" and rises to the top of the company's food chain. Gradually, however, he learns that RegalView is selling slave labour to WorryFree. Torn between exposing WorryFree and his substantial earnings, Cash's dilemma is exacerbated when WorryFree CEO, Steve Lift (a spectacular Armie Hammer
) offers him a $1 million a year contract. However, Cash then makes a discovery that changes everything, not just for himself, but potentially for all of humanity.
At its heart, Sorry to Bother is an anti-corporate, proletarian rally cry, something with which Riley has been engaged for decades as lead vocalist for The Coup and Sweet Sweeper Social Club. However, unlike the recent satire Assassination Nation (2018)
, Sorry to Bother You is not especially interested in politics per se, certainly not in the explicit sense of films such as Stachka (1925)
, Medium Cool (1969)
, or Bulworth (1998)
This is not to say that the film ignores politics completely, rather it approaches the subject obliquely. For example, the country's most popular TV show, I Got the S--t Kicked Out of Me, involves people being violently assaulted by family and friends and then dunked in a vat of faeces, with Riley providing little to no contextualisation (think It's Not My Problem! from RoboCop (1987)
, where Bixby Snyder's (S.D. Nemeth
) catchphrase, "I'd buy that for a dollar", is used as a one-size-fits-all response to every situation). This mindless consumption of meaningless and morally questionable content indicates the passivity of the masses, their critical faculties either dormant or absent entirely (an inverse verfremdungseffekt, if you will). Clips of the show feature prominently throughout the film, allowing Riley to depict a milieu where popular entertainment has reached an unimaginable low. Another example of a pseudo-political aspect of the film are the ubiquitous billboards and TV commercials advertising WorryFree, suggesting the corruption or co-opting of mass media.
Riley's focus is very much on economic issues, with a lot of the humour derived from pecuniary-based situations. One of the easiest ways to parse the film is to approach it as a parable about selling out, equal parts polemic and acknowledgement that it's next to impossible not to sell out in some way. Indeed, the last act of the film explicitly deals with the literal dehumanisation of the workforce (and I do mean "literal"). RegalView and WorryFree exist in an economic system built upon impoverishing the many for the benefit of the few, with Riley attempting to expose the importance of a poverty line for the continued functioning of late capitalism. Within such a system, he suggests, it is exceptionally difficult for African Americans to succeed unless they are willing to code-switch. In this sense, although the concept of "white voice" does have a practical function within the narrative, its most salient characteristic is as an object of allegorical satire, a hyperbolic caricature of what African Americans need to do to survive in the Caucasian bro-culture corporate ranks of Silicon Valley; they must literally relinquish part of the self and pretend to be something Other.
Aesthetically, the film adopts a visual style obviously influenced by Michel Gondry, and, to a lesser extent, Terry Gilliam
. An especially interesting aesthetic device, as anyone who has seen the trailer can attest, is how white voice is handled - rather than having the actors simply speak in a different voice, Riley instead has the white actors' voices overdubbed; when Cash's friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler
) first hears Cash's white voice, he literally tells him "you sound overdubbed". However, the lip syncing is, presumably intentionally, far from perfect, with the voice not quite aligning with the actors' mouth movements. This throws the scenes "off" ever so slightly, creating an extra layer of surreality, and highlighting just how absurd the whole thing is, drawing attention to the lengths these people have to go to achieve real success. The fact that our culture places such value on "correct" intonation is, in and of itself, absurd, like an extreme version of the phone voice that pretty much everyone has, and by failing to perfectly sync white voice to black actor, Riley is able to deconstruct and draw attention to this absurdity.
The film's other big aesthetic innovation is having Cash plunge (not especially gracefully) into the living room of the people he calls, desk and all. Obviously, this draws attention to the level of intrusion with which most people greet telemarketers, but, at least in the early stages, it also highlights Cash's own discomfit at being the intruder, seen most clearly when he drops in on a couple having sex. This is an excellently-handled piece of visual shorthand, conveying Cash's internal process, without having him verbalise it at any point.
Also impressive is the acting. While the standout performances are definitely Hammer and Omari Hardwick
(playing Mr. _______, Cash's superior at WorryFree), Stanfield certainly holds his own, with his body-language providing a clinic of wordless performing. Early on in the film, he's hunched over and put-upon, his every movement seemingly uncomfortable, as if ill at ease in his own skin. Later on, however, after his promotion at RegalView, his physicality acquires a more easy nature, he carries himself more confidently, as if high-powered telemarketing has helped him to find himself, something which is, in the context of the whole, doubly ironic. And no matter how surreal things get (and trust me, they get very, very surreal), the cast keep everything grounded, as if what they're experiencing at any given moment is the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, it isn't all perfect. The wildly unexpected plot twist at the end of the second act will be too much for some people (there were multiple walk-outs at the screening I attended). The film is also just a beat or two too long, and the bottom does fall out to an extent before it reaches its madcap dénouement. There's also a mid-credit scene that serves as a kind of epilogue that I'm led to believe was a re-shoot when test audiences found the initial ending too abrupt. For me, however, it doesn't entirely work, and I would have much preferred the original, somewhat darker, ending. Also, with so much satire and humour floating about, almost by definition, not every joke lands, However, the flip side to this is that when Riley's humour does hit the target, it's sublime - Mr. _______ literally beep-denied a name, for example, or Cash's two-word rap being gleefully cheered by Lift's assembled yuppies.
Sorry to Bother You is as timely and relevant as it is funny and irreverent, as progressive as it is radical, and as inventive as it is confident. Exploring the intersection between race and economics from a wholly satirical point-of-view, the film both condemns and sympathises with those who choose to sell-out in some way so as to climb the ladder of success. Now in his late-40s, Riley is a veteran political protestor, a Chomsky-literate agitator, who is here positing that the most significant divide in the US isn't between white and black, it's between those with money and those without. Suggesting that the desire to cross this divide can lead to a herd mentality, the film argues that the labour force must never forget their collective strength, and must never turn on one another, as in such a situation, management will use workers like horses.