Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

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Sorry to Bother You
Director: Boots Riley

Annapurna Pictures
In theaters: 07.13

Boots Riley’s directorial debut is a thumping and electrifying ride through the alternate present. Set in Oakland, Sorry to Bother You follows its somewhat passive, somewhat striving protagonist, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and spends most of his time with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a blazing artist-activist. While Detroit is off twirling street signs at her day job, donning homemade earrings (one set reads, “murder murder murder / kill kill kill”) or conceptualizing some anti-colonialist art, Cassius is four months behind on rent, so he lands a commissions-only telemarketing job at RegalView. There, he’s repeatedly reminded to “stick to the script,” starting each sales call, to no avail, with “Sorry to bother you.” But things change when Cassius’ coworker Langston (Danny Glover) teaches him how to use his white voice—the kind of “carefree” voice he’d use when he’s “stopped by a cop,” when he’s “got [his] bills paid” (aka, at least here, David Cross’ voice).

Meanwhile, RegalView’s employees have swiftly organized (led by Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun) and are staging phone strikes and massive picketing protests. Nearby, the Left Eye activists have turned their gaze onto WorryFree, a company that—disguised with the promise of lifetime employment in exchange for food and shelter—essentially produces and sells indentured labor to corporations. (It’s run by a maniacal cokehead-CEO bro, Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer.) While Cassius is sympathetic to the union efforts and disturbed by news of WorryFree, he finds his telemarketing gig propelling him to new vistas. The money flows in, Cassius finally feels like he’s found direction in his life, and he gets closer to attaining that mysterious but coveted Power Caller status.

When Cassius finally ascends, worlds vividly converge, and the magic realism of Sorry to Bother You’s absurdist, political satire takes a disturbing turn toward dystopic (almost apocalyptic) sci-fi. Things get shocking, but Sorry to Bother You maintains its sense of rhythm and panorama. The film is unforgettably visualized, soundtracked and performed. Buoyed by its people-power, anti-capitalist, revolution-minded readiness to jolt us awake, Riley’s filmic storytelling debut stays daring and endlessly inventive. –Kathy Rong Zhou