Boots Riley's Directorial Debut is Wild, Uncomfortable, and Unforgettable.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the uncanny metaphor both films explore, that is, the way black and brown bodies are seen as disposable and, as Riley's ending scene shows, mutable.
Sorry to Bother You is probably the wildest movie you'll see all year. Boots Riley, the lead vocalist for The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, makes his directorial debut in what will probably be this year's cult sensation. The film is at once a social satire, whimsical romance, and Get Out hybrid up until it's outrageously unsettling finale. Riley has created the type of film that eschews all the pretentiousness and formalities of a summer release; this is, without a doubt, one of the most unique and energetic movies of 2018 about race/sociopolitical relations in the States.
Part of its charm is LaKeith Stanfield who nails the drowsy, defeated protagonist Cassius Green (as in "Cash is green"), a man with horrible posture who becomes a telemarketer to make ends meet. He is paid only commission and his lively artist girlfriend, Detroit, played by a stunning Tessa Thompson, isn't financially better off. They live in the garage of Cassius' uncle, Sergio (Terry Crews), whose home is facing foreclosure. You can probably sense the set up here: the fam needs money and Cassius just got a job that promises upward mobility…that is, as long as Cassius uses his white voice (voiced by David Cross).
There are plenty of stand-up bits about the infamous white voice and its variations as a cultural phenomenon, but Riley revitalizes the joke. As described to Cassius by an older telemarketer (Danny Glover), the white voice isn't so much a cultural dialect as it is a mentality: it's the carefree voice, the I-don't-have-anything-to-lose voice. It is, quite literally, a verbal performance of superiority and power and, when performed by Cassius, it's his golden ticket to becoming a power caller upstairs: think Wolf of Wall Street. Armie Hammer plays Steve, the cocaine-fueled CEO of the company who's a textbook megalomaniac, and nothing short of a white supremacist. There, Cassius learns what the company is actually selling—hint: slave labor—and is given an ultimatum by Detroit, who rightfully calls his work "morally emaciating."
In between Cassius' rise as a power caller, Sorry to Bother You becomes a satire on our current state of fake news and, more importantly, meme culture. There's a running bit about a meme where Cassius is hit in the head with a can of Coke, and even a satirical show where people get beat up on national TV. All of this sounds like it's added for shock value, and it is, but there are nuggets of social commentary that land. But there are also scenes that are absolutely cringeworthy for the sake of being provocative. A film like this naturally covers incendiary topics, but at times, Riley forgoes subtlety and completely lights the film on fire as a raging critique of global capitalism and outsourced labor. The finale—which has everyone frazzled, divided, and undeniably uncomfortable—feels like a deleted scene from Jordan Peele's Get Out. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the uncanny metaphor both films explore, that is, the way black and brown bodies are seen as disposable and, as Riley's ending scene shows, mutable.
The chaos of Sorry to Bother You feels warranted. This is a poetic, layered film that responds to bigotry by highlighting the absurdity of its very nature. It's enraged. It delivers punchlines at the speed of light and doesn't slow its momentum till the ending credits. It wants to bother you, disturb you, confuse you. It's about race and love, but at its core, Riley has made a film that depicts America's class divide. One of the most visually captivating films of the year, Sorry to Bother You marinates its allegories in lighter fluid and waits until the very end to spark the match.
Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.
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