For the employees at RegalView telemarketing firm, a major setting of the satirical science-fiction film Sorry to Bother You, the most important rule of all is “stick to the script”— advice which the film itself refuses to heed, no matter how many times the characters are reminded. Written and directed by rapper and music producer Boots Riley in his directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You feels like it has enough ideas and energy to fuel a dozen other movies. The surreal aesthetic and the fascination with faux media make it feel like an Adult Swim infomercial-meets-Black Mirror, and the mise-en-scène and stop-motion techniques evoke the work of Michel Gondry (in fact, there is an actual stop-motion Claymation sequence in the film, credited to the fictional “Michel Dongry”). Though this script has been in the works for years and has stylistic nods to diverse influences (Riley has named The Coen Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Toni Morrison as sources of inspiration), it still manages to create a messy, uncomfortable, insane portrait of modern America that feels as timely as ever.
The film starts out with a simple enough concept: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is living in his uncle’s garage in an alternate present-day Oakland, and desperately needs to find work. He gets a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView, selling anything and everything over the phone to anyone and everyone. But things become very surreal very fast: each call sends Cash’s desk crashing into the customer’s home. Then, with the advice of a coworker (Danny Glover), Cassius discovers that the key to making big sales is to use his “white voice,” cleverly dubbed by David Cross. While workers at RegalView eventually go on strike and try to unionize, Cash uses the white voice to climb the corporate ladder and ascends to the status of “power caller.” Things only get weirder from there, with most of the developments nearly impossible to predict (some which I won’t spoil here). The flow of scenes can be a bit choppy: the film is prone to dropping an idea as abruptly as a dropped phone call, moving quickly onto the next just like Cash jumps from customer to customer. Not every attempt is a successful sale to audiences, but the ones that go through have big payoffs.
What the story lacks in cohesion and clarity, though, it makes up for in inventiveness and provocation. It seems intentionally on-the-nose that the protagonist’s name is “Cash Green,” as the film takes the inherent absurdity and selfishness of capitalism to the extreme. But Cash is far from the only character who’s forced into “selling out” in service of the corporate dollar—and advertisements and conspicuous consumption are everywhere. Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is an artist and activist who makes radical art about black identity. Yet in order to make a living, she works as a sign twirler outside a store that makes signs—an advertisement for more advertisements. Billboards and commercials advertise for a company called Worry Free, a dystopian megacorporation that offers people free food and accommodations in exchange for a lifetime of labor. The face of its over-the-top CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is plastered on magazine and book covers. Worry Free residents show off their paltry food and accommodations on a television program that is a parody of MTV Cribs. Even one of the leaders of the radical “Left Eye” movement, which protests Worry Free and the culture of wage slavery, sells out to appear on a cola commercial.
Sorry to Bother You is also a response to the racism of corporate America. People of color often need to constantly perform whiteness (or other versions of their identity deemed acceptable) in order to be taken seriously. Cash is only able to succeed at RegalView when he “acts white” over the phone—the voice he uses is not just what white people sound like, but what they “wish they sounded like,” performing a performance. Later, at a party, he is goaded into rapping for the white guests, forced to perform their idea of blackness. Meanwhile, Detroit’s art and performance pieces are distinctly about African heritage and the subjugation of the human body by capitalism— yet even she resorts to speaking with a fake British accent in order to impress rich, white potential buyers. There is seemingly no escape from performance if one wishes for economic success in America today. Everything becomes a sales pitch, and everyone becomes a product.
Cash’s journey shows what happens when you side with the oppressive forces trying to erase your individual identity. As Oakland residents begin to protest RegalView and Worry Free’s dehumanization of employees, while Cash pushes through the crowd to his upstairs office, his own complicated relationship with the corporations at times seems insufficiently explored. One of the more interesting (but underdeveloped) characters is Squeeze (Steven Yeun), another employee at RegalView who instigates the strike to demand fairer wages, and encourages Cash to act as an early figurehead. Squeeze is a labor organizer who, prior to RegalView, helped the workers at his previous job unionize. He is also a foil to Cash, who distances himself from the strike after his promotion to power caller receipt of a mega salary upgrade. But the film chooses not to fully test our protagonist’s politics against Squeeze’s, or expand upon the implications of Cash’s decision to accept the promotion. Instead, the two men mostly come into conflict over—wait for it—Cash’s girlfriend, whom Squeeze later hooks up with after she and Cash briefly break up. The Cash-Detroit-Squeeze love triangle feels unnecessarily shoehorned into a movie that has far more interesting things for the characters to fight about than who kissed whom. Detroit is an activist. She wears glittering penis earrings and graphic t-shirts with sayings like “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE EJACULATION,” which feel as much radical fashion statements as they do a pointed response to Melania’s “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket. These characters really do care, and so should we.
There’s no escape from the constant news updates and the awareness of media’s influence. Television broadcasts are often shown onscreen, including one game show I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, which Cash watches at home and while out with friends, and eventually appears on himself. It satirizes ridiculous game shows and the current preoccupation with violence, but also the willingness of many viewers to sit and watch other people suffer, and even to enjoy it, without getting involved. Complacency—whether that’s with racism or misogyny, the corporate exploitation of labor, or the people in power—is the ultimate villain here, not just capitalism. The worst thing you can do in the face of injustice is to do nothing and just “stick to the script,” and follow the path dictated to you by higher-ups.
The title “Sorry to Bother You,” in addition to mirroring the language of telemarketers, is also addressing the audience. You should be bothered by this film, even its sloppy moments, and not just pretend that it’s a surrealist fantasy, or something on the screen that doesn’t involve you directly. Even if the film might not exactly provide a specific call to action, it still succeeds in making the viewer uncomfortable. The best way I can describe this experience is that watching made me let out an audible what the fuck multiple times when things got weird, despite what usual movie-theater etiquette would tell you about making noise. It seems like that is exactly what Boots Riley would have wanted. After the film’s over and everyone goes back their ordinary lives, someone still needs to be willing to say what the FUCK is going on when the situation requires it – and not be sorry about it.