White smile and white dial. Oakland, California resident Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is in need of employment. Any employment. What is the one industry that’ll hire on spot as long as a person has a pulse? Telemarketing. Cash is hired by RegalView to sell anything and everything on commission. Quickly, he finds he’s not good at it. This is bad, because his burgeoning radical artist fiancé in Detroit (Tessa Thompson) isn’t making enough alone to support the two. They’re four months behind on rent.
His older co-worker in Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a piece of advice to excel: Use his “white voice,” which is more inviting and warm. Taking this suggestion, Cash rapidly becomes the best telemarketer in the office, and lands a promotion as a “power caller” on the second floor, which includes a beefy salary and a diverse selection of products to sell for global power Worryfree. As he comes up, those on the first floor are looking to unionize for better treatment, which finds Cash in a predicament of sorts. Continue to become something he’s not, yet is supremely talented at, or stick to his guns and beliefs?
There’s a lot more that could be put into that summary, but that’s enough to whet the appetite. There’s only one thing to know going into Sorry to Bother You. In totality, it is one of the—if not the—most bizarre, WTF feature of 2018. This alone doesn’t put it as the best of the year, but it’s ability to weave a ton of themes and make them into a relatively cohesive and unique thought-provoking story is no easy feat, especially for a first-time feature film auteur.
That first-time feature film auteur is none other than Boots Riley, lead vocalist for the hip hop funk group known as The Coup. Sorry to Bother You’s screenplay was conceived in 2012 but with no takers or means to parlay into a movie, the concept was loosely focused into an album of the same name. Any way it’s sliced, this has clearly been on the mind of Riley for a while, and for a musician who is 47 tackling directing for the first time with no guarantee he’ll get the opportunity to do it again, Riley leaves no stones unturned.
Thematically, Sorry to Bother You examines a lot, from capitalism, hyper-efficiency in the workforce at any costs, the actual often soul (and physically) crushing American work industry, and race, particularly as it pertains to assimilation. The wildly humorous white voice aspect is the latter in a nutshell; the idea that many minorities in this world only get acceptance by playing the rules of the game the majority decides upon. Even then, the acceptance might be only temporary and revoked when it’s time to “perform” with those holding primitive viewpoints.
A powerful message is made about the brass ring theory. They’re ultimately imaginary and most know this, but somehow, companies can make a worker believe that they’re not and people will believe in them just enough to continue pushing on, often to the detriment of one’s well-being. There’s a five-minute stretch revolving around racial expectations that might just be the scene of the year to this point, a masterpiece on all levels. As for capitalism, Riley’s personal stance pulls no punches, and the third act blindside shocker may be the point for many that is the point of no return. Can’t definitively say that it’s pulled off perfectly and matches the quality of the first two acts, but nonetheless, it certainly will never be forgotten.
Riley’s film deals more in surrealism and absurdity than realism and sensibility. The color scheme says as much, putting a depressing and mundane gray in the office space and a consistently vibrant tint in other scenes, mainly as things escalate. But, the one grounded element that relates this futuristic world story to today’s is the performance of Stanfield. Adept at chewing scenery over the years whether as the de facto Purge mascot or as Andrew Logan King, he’s gifted an opportunity to be a leading man and passes the test with flying colors. Armie Hammer continues to solidify himself as an actor after The Lone Ranger, diving with confidence into every one of his roles. From supporting roles to the lead ones, no one truly disappoints. The only mild oddity is Thompson’s Detroit, not for her work, but the seemingly unclear goal of her character’s existence. Making a strong introduction, Detroit over the runtime comes off as a hazy concept rather than a fleshed out character.
Although a little too much is bitten off and chewed in places, Sorry to Bother You is nevertheless a novel movie that flits effectively between genres and themes. Riley has given moviegoers a present, and it would be unwise to look at this gift horse in the mouth too much.
Photo credits go to flickeringmyth.com, dailydot.com, and theatlantic.com.
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