Roughly an hour into Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’, Cassius Green is sitting in an armchair…
… open-mouthed, his hands grip the rests on either side of him; his eyes are coin-round. In my head, I start swearing. Partly because it is what I am mentally willing our man to do and partly because I have been here before, watching Daniel Kaluuya fall into the sunken place, the words ‘get out’ start replaying in my mind. Of course, that’s not what happens.
The beginning of ‘Sorry To Bother You’ finds Cassius ‘Cash‘ Green (Lakeith Stanfield) hustling to make ends meet, living out of his uncle’s garage. In this parallel Oakland universe, ads play from a company called Worry Free, offering a legal contract of free food and housing in exchange for a lifetime of labour. Though tempted, Cassius finds a job at a telemarketing company where, by unlocking his ‘white voice’, he quickly becomes a ‘power caller’.
In the process of Cassius’ rise through the ranks, his fellow employees begin lobbying for fairer pay. Despite having pledged solidarity with the union, Cassius accepts the promotion— only to find out ‘power callers’ deal in arms trading and slavery. The newfound power of his salary, which enables him to provide for himself, his family and his girlfriend, allows him to put his scruples aside. Distancing himself from his former colleagues who continue to picket outside the company’s offices, he continues to excel in his work.
One night he is invited to a party hosted by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), leading to a meeting between the two which exposes the extent of the company’s corruption. Cut to our armchair scene. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Lift is the character Hammer might have been born to play— both he and Riley take no prisoners in capitalising on his particular brand of white-American prosperity in a performance that is as hysterical as it is horrifying).
What follows next is just under an hour of the most surreal cinema I’ve ever seen in my life. The first half of Sorry To Bother You is familiar fare for anyone who has watched Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and in a sense, the gags aren’t new. They rely on the same observations made by Peele: the erosions of self— of blackness— experienced by protagonists in the film as they try to function in a white-dominated world. But where Riley’s film succeeds is in its extremes. Sorry To Bother You is as much about our failings with capitalism as it is about race— the plot pivots on the poor decisions Cassius makes in the face of the comforts secured with money.
These messages, Marxist to the core, manage not to lapse into preaching by dint of how weirdly they’re delivered: with huge dangly earrings framing Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit’s (Tessa Thompson) face; with acid colours dripping off the screen. Perhaps due to his origins as a rapper, Riley follows a vanguard of African-American artists like Donald Glover and Janelle Monae intent on kicking down the sombre boundaries of how socially conscious work is delivered.
This is a film that lets you pick your jaw off the ground every so often to laugh. In my favourite scene, Cassius finds himself in front of an audience of his predominately white ‘power-caller’ colleagues, being asked to rap. Having failed to refuse and after a few botched attempts, he begins repeating the N-word to their rapturous delight. Once finished, the party resumes in all its coked-up champagne chaos. Cassius rolls his eyes, lets out a sigh, and dives back into the fray to enjoy the comforts of his new wealth. It’s a scene more subversive than the ‘white voice’ trope employed earlier in the film. It speaks to a more nuanced form of code-switching: a moment in which Cassius suspends his blackness in order to perform an untrue version of it. It is unignorable because he does so in pursuit of things we have all been guilty of wanting: money, recognition, sex, comfort.
More than anything, though, the excitement Sorry To Bother You generates is about the potential it creates on the heels of Get Out. It’s hard to ignore the feeling that what is emerging is a new genre of black cinema which has so far been following the path of (what Peele terms) the ‘social thriller’. Where it goes next is the question the credits leave in their wake.
Review by Jo Hamya
Sorry to Bother You
Director: Boots Riley
Screenwriter: Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick Armie Hammer
UK Release date: Friday 7th December 2018