Boots Riley’s debut film “Sorry to Bother You” is a visceral critique of the American capitalist process. Rapper turned writer and director, Riley expertly uses humor and music to allow the audience to recline amid the film’s daunting, contemplative social criticism on class struggles and race relations. But the film sometimes fails to fully develop relationships between key characters and the backgrounds of others — which, at times, forces the audience to work harder than they should to believe the film’s crucial call to action.
The film follows the journey of Regalview telemarketing employee Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he navigates a world increasingly dominated by Worryfree, a company that provides free housing and guaranteed work for contractual lifelong employees, helmed by leading entrepreneur Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Yeah so, slavery. Cash lives with his eccentric artist/sign-flipping girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in his landlord uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and earns a job at Regalview telemarketing to pay their rent. His efforts are initially hindered because of his inability to make sales in his own black voice. But with the help of Langston (Danny Glover), an older fellow black employee, Cash learns to sell by using a white voice and is on track to become a “power caller.” The crux of the film’s conflict comes from the choices Cash makes when his Regalview peers Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and Sal (Jermaine Fowler) plan a series of workers union protests just as Cash becomes a power caller and sales strategist for Worryfree, where employees speak in “white voice only.”
“Sorry to Bother You” pointedly takes place in an alternate present-day Oakland, Calif. Riley inserts clever plot details to develop the film’s otherworldly feel while maintaining the politically allegorical ideas around which the film revolves. For example, the most popular American TV show in Riley’s universe is a violent variety program called “I Got the Sh!t Kicked Out of Me,” a show in which the film’s protagonist eventually stars.
The film’s strongest elements are its excellent cast and poignant commentary on the normalized exploitation within modern America. Whether he’s worrying about the nadirs of his working class life or trying to juggle his duties as an employee of a “morally emaciating” company, Stanfield’s delivery remains striking. He plays Cash with an appropriate, varying level of anxiety, which is impressive considering the film’s numerous twists. But Thompson is the movie’s secret star of the film. Detroit is a woman who struggles to love and admonish a man whose life encompasses every conflict within the world around them. Thompson’s delivery of that struggle quitely carries the film. Furthermore, Detroit’s physicality and style, in addition to “I Got the Sh!t Kicked Out of Me,” are Riley’s generous reminders that we aren’t in our own universe anymore. The setting of the film is reiterated clearly through her distinctive performance art and technicolor hair and earrings. Other noteworthy performances come from Yeun and Fowler’s sobering union-organizing roles, which they humorously embody, and Hammer’s well-intentioned, coke-snorting antihero Steve Lift.
The film’s critique of racism and income inequality are woven throughout. At a Worryfree executive party, Lift encourages Cash to rap for the party’s predominantly white guests. Although Cash informs Lift that he cannot rap, Lift and the white party guests uncomfortably pressure Cash into performing for his fellow guests. It is a poignant commentary on how racism is often bolstered by false perceptions, like the belief that all black people can rap, or the notion that performativity of the oppressed — not structural change — is the solution.
Riley returns to the idea of performativity repeatedly. Detroit’s exhibition features a performance indicative of the activist work she does, as well as the themes the film at large presents. The Regalview workers union protests outside of Worryfree’s office are organized by Squeeze and Sal, two men of color, but a white participant is recognized nationally and given an advertisement deal for her participation. Most blatantly, Cash performs whiteness to earn money — it should not evade the reader that the protagonist’s name phonetically sounds out “cash is green” — while white characters perform blackness in order to be “hip.” The choices Cash makes to prove his legitimacy in a Worryfree-dominated world are indicative of capitalism’s harmful elements, where exploitive and discriminatory practices are often overlooked in favor of success.
“Sorry to Bother You”’s final scenes are jarring and motivate the audience to reconsider their attitudes on the bootstrap mentality, along with social injustice in its entirety. But the fate of central Regalview employees remains unclear in a way that doesn’t feel purposeful or committed to the film’s central theme. While this may be a minor consequence of the editing process or a poorly delivered message on ongoing processes of social change, it didn’t seem deliberate and became distracting. However, the attention to detail and powerful social commentaries delivered by the cast mostly compensate for this hiccup. “Sorry to Bother You” compellingly highlights the blights of the American social fabric and leaves the audience with a melancholic discomfort that the film indicates can only be remedied by political action.