Whatever else is true of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, it is above all flagrantly, abominably obvious that Boots Riley has never written a screenplay or directed a feature film in his life, and I for one hope that increased opportunity does not dull his wiliest and most flamboyantly idiosyncratic cinematic proclivities, vexations, and turnabouts. In this case at least, the refinement of cinematic diction so often sought within conventional education would only channel his wild mane of cinema into a too-coiffed package. Although his film Sorry to Bother You obviously travels in the wake of last year’s Get Out, inverting many of its metaphors, Sorry to Bother You replaces Jordan Peele’s conspicuously practiced and eminently skillful horror show, specifically sculpted for comparatively clear readings, with a spasm of wonderfully unpracticed cinematic bliss.
All of this is to say: at a deeply foundational level, Sorry to Bother You is obviously the work of a filmmaker who is not a schooled or learned but a born, intuitive filmmaker. Or rather, perhaps not a born filmmaker, or a man who knows a single thing about making a film. But if Sorry to Bother You is any indication, his education in the formal arts or in screenplay-structuring is an apocalypse we can all do without: Sorry to Bother You is idiomatic in the best sense, a truly undomesticated work that disfigures any Screenwriter’s Guide with the improvisational gusto and sketch-like ambition of a social-issue jukebox. It has one finger firmly on our social pulse, and another nine flying madly in many directions. I know not Riley’s career until this point, but if his music is as deliciously harebrained as his cinema, that will not remain true for long. His persona with a pen is a withering wit crossed with a sober observer, like a double helix of Jonathan Swift and Buster Keaton, but behind the camera, he’s a hair-raising hare with a mischievous smirk courtesy of Bugs Bunny. Stylistically, morally, and narratively promiscuous, and all with a gleeful indifference to logic, his film throws caution to the wind and twists any reality principle to oblivion even as he wrings dry a film which imaginatively attunes to everyday tensions and paradoxes that propagate in daily society.
When Cassius Greene (Lakeith Stanfield), an African-American man living in Oakland in his Uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage, is hired as a telemarketer for RegalView, he learns from elderly Langston (Danny Glover) that to sell his clients on his own confidence, and to inspire his customers, he needs to don his white-voice, provided by David Cross not so much as a parody of whiteness but an extension of its internal self-dream, an actualization of the sonic aspirations of 21st century white identity. Greene’s sales off the charts, he is quickly courted by Mr ___ (Omari Hardwick), whose own white voice is provided by Patton Oswalt, as a power-seller, numbering among the men and women who occupy the top floor and hawk monumental wares with clandestine insidiousness.
Certainly, Sorry to Bother You’s initial metaphor obviously calls on over a century of African-American modernism to explore questions of “double-consciousness”, to channel WEB Du Bois, and “masking”, to turn to seminal, but lesser-known, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and, later, post-colonial theorist Franz Fanon, both of which were most recently channeled cinematically in Peele’s epochal Get Out. Although it is undeniably unfortunate that it took 36 years, this film’s meditations on the performative and material valences of audio code-switching run with kernels of cinematic thought first mined in Julie Dash’s truly spellbinding 1982 short film Illusions, a film which explores not only visual racial passing in Hollywood but sonic passing in cinematic narratives through its story of a black woman passing as white who is herself in the process of hiring a black woman to overdub a white star’s voice. (In its disarticulated notion of audio-visual harmony in cinema, Illusions, much like Sorry to Bother You, distorts common assumptions about visual-audio harmony in film and the illusion of unmediated viewership which classical cinema trades on).
However, not content to hem its mind to its inaugural questions, Riley’s film runs amok with glorious thematic inconsistency all while using its constant reorganization as an indication not of narrative unscrupulousness but a reminder that race has too many valences in modern society to carefully manacle to one framework or guiding thesis. Still, Sorry to Bother You’s briskness and slippery sense of tone, genre, theme, and attitude belie not only its potent, provocative interrogation of the performative nature of race but its analysis of neoliberal insiders’ crafty manipulation of this racial fluidity. In other words, while it obviously navigates the brackish waters of internal consciousness in modern society, it is never a purely mythopoetic exploration of individual clarity in the face of the banalities and rationalist oppressions of modern society. For all its questions of consciousness, Sorry to Bother You is also distinctly a film about community, and its notion of the individual psyche is also distinctly political.
To this extent, the film certainly casts its net fascinatingly wide, coaxing out a dense array of questions and shifting allegiances through Greene’s understandable desire to rise through the ranks of what he increasingly realizes is a corrupt system preying on and catalyzing in-fighting among the working class. Beyond the obvious tensions which Greene’s possibly traitorous success stir among his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in the character of Squeeze (Steven Yuen), an Asian-American who leads a strike against RegalView for the low wages of the regular callers, the film mines interracial working-class tensions as both fracas and tragedy.
And when Greene eventually encounters Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), tech-bro CEO of WorryFree, a modern adaptation (and ostensible mollification) of chattel slavery doctored up in liberal-progressive airs, the film giddily jumps into, and then totally uproots, numerous other rabbit holes, particularly in a truly withering suggestion that Martin Luther King was a corporate patsy for a system which mobilized him as a shield against the more radical weaponry of Malcolm X and others, ultimately keeping the working-class in line. In its back-half, with its simultaneous critique of white liberalism and its bracing downshifts into horror aesthetics, the film obviously follows last year’s Get Out.
But it also hop-skips around that film, knowing no single cinematic or political master. With all apologies to Peele’s own deliciously effective and socially probing cinematic conjuration, Sorry to Bother You is both less beholden to its genre conventions and more fascinatingly playful with its central metaphors, less content to rest on the cleverness of its conceptual premise and more deliriously excited to implode its very foundational assumptions, and ours, about society and cinema alike. The way it gradually but constantly exposes new, darker, more contentious layers channels and extends a long history of African-American culture and fiction, each replete with figures who embody and perform domesticity while deeply contesting it, sheathing their rebellions in a plastic membrane of subservience.
So while Get Out’s final third largely follows the horror film style to a tee, criticizing the racial aporias of the classic horror films while following and thus deifying their formal style and thus ever-so-slightly collapses under the weight of superior horror films, Sorry to Bother You bracingly rushes into collapse and comes out the other side inverting and upending our understanding of narrative cohesion in the process. Fittingly, the dangers of following RegalView’s mantra of sticking to the telemarketing “script” refract not only onto the telemarketers but doubly upon racial scripts and racial performance, and triply upon any social scripts we follow when Doing As We’re Told. Finally, and most surreptitiously, the metaphor evokes the dangers of following film screenplays and conventional structures rather than casting one’s film adrift in the medium. In this sense, while Sorry to Bother You bears superficial similarities to a Black Mirror episode, Sorry to Bother You is more of a funhouse mirror in a dark carnival.
Riley’s film is also far less self-congratulatory than any given episode of that fan-favorite sci-fi show. It adopts the mode of extraordinarily brazen, self-conscious caricature, self-aware about how obvious racism ought to be confronted overtly and with extreme indiscretion toward subtlety and yet can still negotiate an enormous subtlety anyway. It weaponizes its sketch-like nature to warp and weave reality and to scramble its own consciousness, jolting us with increasingly batty, idiomatic ideas which seem to encode a society on the edge of sanity. In other words, this film treats its wacky, vaguely schizophrenic comic brio not as a twee accessory to make a theme more “entertaining” but as a genuine mission statement, a vision of jumbled existence that feels almost diabolically spontaneous. It’s cinematically feral to boot, even beyond the most overt gestures, as when Greene’s telemarketer calls are visualized as sudden invasions of the personal lives of his clients. Even better than that effective but obvious maneuver are the film’s roving camera and untamed color palate (courtesy of Doug Emmett), coupled with the antic sci-fi score by the Tune-Yards to feverishly disarticulate Oakland’s reality before our eyes. Here, the film plays with the simultaneous familiarity and otherness of workaday poverty and race to many Americans.
It’s delirious cinema, all-told, a true cinematic problem child emboldened rather than curtailed by the shambolic broadness and caricatured vagueness of its premise, told like a scatterbrained fable unleashed with folkloric aplomb. The totally off-its-rocker cadences of the screenplay and the visual dexterity salvage – and magnetize – what could have seemed a little too conspicuously manicured and managed to work years later as a cult sensation. (It may still become one, but we’ll get there in due time). But, although it’s ready for the future, this film always has its eyes on the society which hath wrought it, unraveling our beings rather than wagging its finger at us so it can eventually pat us on our backs. (Unlike most liberal do-gooder cinema, the film’s will to focus on a thoroughly compromised protagonist’s ability to rationalize his own complicity in the status quo is truly scabrous stuff). Ultimately, Sorry to Bother You is persistently mutinous to its own tone, and thoroughly invested in the possibilities of cinema not simply as a passive receptacle for social issues but a piston to galvanize them.
Score: 8.5/10 (maybe even a 9/10)