You’ll feel uncomfortable for all the right reasons
Enter Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield, of Get Out fame), an unlikely looking protagonist, whose hunched and wary amble is not because he’s yet another intimidating black male character plotting his attack. On the contrary, as Sorry to Bother You unfolds, Cassius is rigged with a crisis of self-confidence and a keen desperation to understand the meaning of life and his purpose in it. He’s also so broke that he stumbles into the offices of RegalView telemarketing replete with invented accolades, thereby establishing the basis of the film’s premise: deceit.
Cassius’ desperation gets him the job and after initially struggling to secure sales, he acts on advice from a fellow African-American colleague (Danny Glover) to ‘use [his] white voice’ during calls, deceiving potential customers into believing that he is speaking with carefree authority, affluence and power. A ridiculous and racist concept which proves so effective that Cassius’ sales skyrocket; he is promoted to ‘Power Caller’ which earns him tailored suits and a slick pad, while also leaving him ostracised by his friends and girlfriend who are busy unionising against the terrible working conditions RegalView imposes.
Indeed, the ‘promotion’ requires Cassius to sell the most controversial ‘commodity’ of all and in true theatrical style, he spends a significant period of the film donning the bloodstained head bandage of the release posters; a walking motif for his guilt.
Set in current day Oakland, California, in his directorial debut, Boots Riley cleverly catapults us into a technicolour dystopia, with a hyperrealist feel, punctuated by enough laughs to help us digest the moral message without detracting from it.
It’s a dystopia that’s only a slight exaggeration of present-day reality. And therein lies the rub; the audience is quickly made to feel extremely uncomfortable about our current status quo: the brute and absurd onscreen fictional show I got the S**t Kicked Out of Me is not dissimilar from some of the reality series dominating our real TV screens; the human labour contracts advertised by leading corporate giant WorryFree are worryingly similar to the alarming rise in zero-hours contracts; and WorryFree’s CEO, Steve Lift (a disturbingly convincing Armie Hammer), oozes all the crude charm, conviction and craze of the current American President.
Stanfield, hailed for being empathic and nuanced in Glover’s Atlanta, seems to effortlessly portray Cassius as affable and relatable, albeit vulnerable and capricious, whose body language smacks of a confident, almost-reckless powerhouse when his role demands it of him.
Cassius’ character is juxtaposed by his girlfriend, Detroit, an in-your-face-radical-feminist (impressively played by Tessa Thompson), who sports penis earrings and t-shirts declaring ‘The Future is Female Ejaculation’ but proves more blazing stereotype than complex individual.
Weirdly, the only other (just-about!) speaking female character, is Detroit’s antithesis - a ridiculously sycophantic WorryFree lackey. They don’t even talk to each other, and so the film shamelessly fails the Bechdel test - a lesson that one ‘strong female character’ in a film does not give licence to omit all others.
Nevertheless, Riley skilfully ensures that all the elements of his film create a creeping, chilling realisation by the audience of just how ugly and embarrassing the excesses of our capitalist, reality-TV obsessed, dog-eat-dog world are and how blind and apathetic we have become to it all.
As Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) have demonstrated recently, Riley’s debut reminds us that black directors can command the attention and respect of Hollywood. But, more than this, even if Sorry to Bother You leaves you unsettled or alienated by the off-piste sci-fi revelation, too laced in obvious CGI to be truly convincing, Riley deserves credit for taking risks to make his message explosive and memorable.
Just like the cold callers who claim they’re ‘sorry to bother you’ before delivering an imposing sales pitch, Riley isn’t ‘sorry’ at all - he wants you to hear him loud, clear and buy into his compelling message. And the risks he takes in doing so, even if they don’t quite take your fancy, must be respected in a world of over-done, over-marketed, sequel-and-remake-sodden features. Especially when the message strikes at the heart of human greed; something even the poorest among us are often guilty of.
Images: Sorry To Bother You
Kemi J Williams
Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.