Nothing captured the collective wake of society’s radical third eye going into the 1970’s better than Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical comedy Putney Swope in 1969. Shifting into a time of “post” Civil Rights Movement, free sexuality, anti-war rage, international and independent cinema interest, and a fraying sense of together-ness brought upon by modern political corruption via Watergate, the 1970’s can in some ways be seen as synonymous with the now as we move toward the end of the 2010’s. While Putney Swope commented on the world of advertising, race representation in Hollywood, the white power structure, and corporate corruption of nearly 50 years past, its wilder, more radical, and punchier 2018 cousin can be found in Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You.
This film, marked as Boots Riley’s directorial debut, is really fucking wild. It’s radical, it’s absurd, it’s dark, and it’s real. With the perfect title of Sorry To Bother You, the story follows Cassius “Cash” (Lakeith Stanfield) as he literally says the words “sorry to bother you” in his job as a telemarketer. That is, until he begins to code-switch and adopts the “white voice” (you know what that is) and quickly shoots up the telemarketing job ladder to the top. At the same time, he exists in a slightly offset future (reminiscent of Her (2013) but completely different) in which corporations are literally running off the backs of live-in contracted labor (so, the real world basically) and he must choose between working for The Man to make money or joining his activist friends who are at the forefront of the union protests.
It’s such a timely movie and honestly, quite relatable, even as far removed from its setting of Oakland as I am. For my friends and I who’ve had (and some still have) experience working for The Man (or The Mouse), this discomfort in selling your soul to Capitalism’s Corrupt Corporations, but still desperately needing money as people of color and wanting to work your way to the top to change things from within, is HASHTAG TOO REAL! Sorry To Bother You is really radical and just what the world needs, because what other film since the turn of the century has dared to comment on the encroaching death grip of real, hardcore capitalism? Just look at any recent news in the last five years and you’ll see the UCs and Disney presidents and CEOs pocketing millions while its students and employees are forced into homelessness for lack of adequate housing or pay. Or if you want an even harsher reality, just in the last year, Jeff Bezos has taken home 150.5 BILLION DOLLARS while his Amazon warehouse employees are forced to pee in trash cans because of reduced break times. How did it fucking get to this point?!
These realities are extremely, extremely…real and I never would’ve expected a Hollywood film to not only draw attention to this, but also make it comical. Sorry To Bother You, with all its applicable themes, is FUNNY y’all. Whether it was Terry Crews’ appreciated presence or the actual white voice that Cash adopts or the “Have a Cola and Smile Bitch” viral sensation or that truly decadent and cringe-worthy scene of Tessa Thompson doing performance art á la Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic in the style of #EXTRA, this film made my jaw drop and my toes curl in all the best ways.
*EDIT (8/9/18): Speaking of Tessa Thompson, her role here as Detroit, while highly enjoyable, calls for an interesting character analysis in that she's not really much of a character so much as she is a caricature. According to Jourdain Searles of bitchmedia in her essay "Sorry To Bother You's Detroit is More Radical Symbol than Black Woman", her character has the symbolic iconicity of a radical black feminist, but none of the real substance of a realistic person who has her own narrative outside the main male characters. I encourage everyone to read the article!
For his directorial and screenwriting debut, Boots Riley really knocked it out of the park because not only has he touched upon a timely subject in this mega tumultuous time, but the distinct look and the (perhaps intentional) choppiness he achieved in his film really solidified the narrative aesthetic of its story. Tessa Thompson’s now iconic reverse pastel ombre and MURDER / KILL earrings are not necessary but oh so necessary. The funky soundtrack (by Riley’s own political hip-hop group The Coup) is a great accompaniment to the film and Riley’s visual direction in the stylings of a radicalized Michel Gondry is the perfect amount of just enough removed from reality to make the very real story not completely upsetting. And for the record, Boots Riley liked my tweet about this movie and so my thoughts are 100000% valid.
While my one true love MoviePass is still around to scam the corporate movie theater chains who’re out here charging $18 for a movie ticket, please go see Sorry To Bother You in theaters. Maybe it’ll awaken your third eye if the cruel, harsh world hasn’t already pried it open. And you get to see Steven Yeun, so it’s already a win-win sitch.