“When I’m making my art, it really doesn’t help me to think about the definitions of what I’m doing. So what I do comes out ridiculous, or funny, or weird. That’s because the world is ridiculous, funny, and weird.”–Boots Riley
DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley
PLOT: Cassius Green can’t find a job and needs to pay bills, so he hires on at a telemarketing firm. Once he learns to use his “white voice,” he discovers he has a preternatural gift for selling, and while his co-workers stage a strike, he is promoted to a “Power Caller” selling questionable services to obscenely wealthy clients. When he reaches the top rung of the corporate ladder, the CEO of the company offers him a morally repugnant deal.
- Director Boots Riley was a rap musician, music producer, political activist, and former telemarketer for more than twenty-five years before writing and directing this, his first feature film. It was workshopped at the Sundance writing lab.
- The idea for Sorry to Bother You originated from an unused song concept where Riley would rap as a telemarketer selling slave labor. In 2012 his hip-hop band The Coup produced an album of the same name inspired by the then-unfinished screenplay.
- An early version of the screenplay was published in McSweeney’s magazine in 2014.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We don’t want to describe it, because it’s a spoiler. Just prepare for a shock after Cassius snorts a huge line of—cocaine?—off a plate decorated with a horse. Besides that, the iconic image for marketing purposes is Cassius in a business suit with his head bandaged and a circle of red soaking through, iconography suggesting a blend of the corporate and the revolutionary.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Commentary by earring; Mr. ___; equisapien MLK
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9.
Alternate promotional trailer for Sorry to Bother You
COMMENTS: Sorry to Bother You is sneaky weird; it strangens slowly but persistently, until a third act turn towards sci-fi and light surrealism that loses the mainstream audience (sample customer review: “The trailer showed a comedy, this was just a bizarre twisted story and waste of the short time I have with my husband and on planet earth!”) It begins conventionally, with Cassius Green interviewing for a telemarketing job for which he appears to be slightly overqualified. The interviewer quickly sniffs out that Cassius has faked his résumé, but doesn’t care; he’ll hire “damn near anyone,” as long as they can read (so that they can obey the telemarketer’s primary rule: “stick to the script.”) This opening is funny, and more importantly it gives us the perfect introduction to our protagonist: he seems basically decent, but driven to desperate measures to earn a living. He’s also a bit out of his league; even the entry-level league. He’s the kind of guy who tells the gas station attendant “forty on two” and means forty cents. So when “Cash” gets a little taste of success and some green in his pocket, you completely understand why he is willing to make a moral compromise or two, and even halfway root for him to get top dollar for that soul he’s selling. Of course, those moral compromises will quickly snowball into a moral avalanche, but there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, would there?
The first real hint that something is off in this world and that we’re not living in your everyday comedy, or even in the real world, comes in the form of an advertisement for “Worry Free Living”: a company offering a lifetime employment contract in exchange for food and dormitory-style shelter, an arrangement that looks suspiciously like consensual slavery. Sorry to Bother You orients its audience in a familiar Hollywoodesque comedy genre before springing surprise after surprise as the plot gets deeper and weirder. We’re eased into the strangeness with magical realist comedy sketches: still wearing his headset, Cash appears in the flesh at his cold calls’ dinner tables, among more intimate settings. Then there’s the uncanny “white voice” (explained in a monologue by veteran Danny Glover, who pops in mainly just to do this scene). By the time Cash is high on cocaine watching a stop-motion corporate propaganda film hosted by a topless ape woman1, you’re totally immersed and invested in an anything-can-happen world very different from where we started. Detroit’s confrontational earrings, a character whose name has been redacted, a blood-soaked performance art monologue from The Last Dragon, and a badly improvised humiliating rap are just a few of the cleverly absurd gags that help distract us the nightmare scenario at the center of the film. It works on two levels: genuinely funny, at times even hilarious, the laughs keep the audience hypnotized in their seats while the message seeps into the brains. Just like any good ad campaign.
As true narrative film, Sorry to Bother You follows a standard arc: humble hero accepts Faustian bargain, gains the world but loses his soul/true love, repents. But that familiarity is well-disguised by a barrage of techniques—absurdist comedy, magical realist sequences, fresh perspectives, and outrageous satirical conceits—to the point where the movie feels like something totally new. Its clichés are buried under what Riley calls “beautiful clutter.” As an accomplished creator, but an outsider to the world of film, it’s not so much that Riley is breaking cinema’s rules as it is that he never learned them. Coming from the world of rap music, he appropriates film styles like they were song samples: a littlehere, a little there, stealing only from the best. As a musical producer, he understands how to assemble a team of professionals to do their technical jobs to fulfill his vision. It might be delightfully ragged in temperament, but Sorry to Bother You is crisply produced and has a look that belies its relatively modest budget and rushed production schedule.
The casting is impeccable, with each character being likable or despicable as required. Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius is awkward and existentially confused. When he accepts deals requiring increasing levels of compromise, it’s not just because he’s greedy. It’s not that he wants to selfishly upgrade his car and his apartment—he gives a lot of his salary away—so much as that he’s desperate for the meaning and worth he assumes attaches to money. That’s why we sympathize with his every move; he feels that he is finally being recognized and earning respect for being good at something, a goal we can appreciate. He’s such a nice guy that we don’t feel bad admitting that we’d be tempted by the deals he accepts. Cash is easier to identify with than his idealistic friends, who are, well, ideals. They aren’t fully fleshed out characters like Cassius, but this isn’t a realistic drama; their purpose is to illuminate the hero’s dilemma. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is the girlfriend who validates Cash’s true human worth: smart, artistic, independent, she values him despite his lack of prospects. Steven Yeun’s Squeeze, the union organizer, represents political commitment; he’s logically a better match for Detroit, and therefore a real threat to Cash’s security. But he’s so decent that he won’t steal the girl away—unless Cash slips up royally. Jermaine Fowler is the high-pitched comedy relief and the unassuming friend who demands loyalty. This trio represents everything Cash turns his back on for corporate advancement: friendship, integrity, and real connection. On the other side are an increasingly unscrupulous series of rungs on the ladder of success: the scabby call center managers who tempt Cash with the promise of becoming a “Power Caller”; a flirtatious middle-management liaison (comic Kate Berlant) who knows the code to the Golden Elevator; the sycophantic elevator voice (supplied by) who assures salesmen that they are “the top of the reproductive pile”; Cash’s immediate supervisor, played by Omari Hardwick in bizarre facial hair and a bowler hat; and finally, at the very top, Steve Lift (Hammer), the debaucherous bro in sandals who throws the best parties with the best coke, and who’s willing to sell anything that will keep him on top. Yes, they’re all one-dimensional, but again, this is a comedy… and they’re funny.
And funny, of course, is the crucial strategy. Riley understands that a joke is more effective than a sermon. Sorry to Bother You’s world is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but askew enough off that the satire never seems like a paint-by-numbers allegory. There are no obvious characters from the current administration2, but there is a reality TV show called “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and it’s possible to become a 15-minute celebrity by having a video of you being brained with a coke can make the rounds on YouTube. The movie addresses issues of racial identity, carnivalesque cultural depravity, and the working class’ financial treadmill with a touch that’s light but firm. Corporations are the bad guys and union organizers are the good guys, true, but Sorry wears its leftist themes surprisingly lightly. By putting you in Cash’s shoes, it makes its case through empathy instead of lectures. It’s a sneaky sucker punch square in the zeitgeist’s gut. Sorry to Bother You has no reason to apologize.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… may be the most wonderfully bizarre film of 2018… if you dig the handmade surrealism of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry or the antiestablishment weirdness of Repo Man, then this one is undoubtedly for you.”–Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)
“‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley’s see-it-to-believe-it feature debut as a director, goes from agreeably strange to weird to surreal, but its brilliance lies in how it never stops feeling real, genuine, lived-in.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)
Sorry to Bother You – The trailer, some behind the scenes stills, and a link to some unique merchandise (mostly sold out by now)
Sorry to Bother You – Home – Official Facebook page
Annapurna – Distributor Annapurna’s “For Your Consideration” awards page won’t stay up for long but has a couple of free goodies: a downloadable copy of the script and a soundtrack mp3 of the song “OYAHYTT”
IMDB LINK: Sorry to Bother You (2018)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
IMDb Show | Interview with ‘Sorry to Bother You’ Director Boots Riley and Star Lakeith Stanfield – Short YouTube interview with the director and star
Boots Riley Mines His Experiences As A Telemarketer In ‘Sorry To Bother You’ – Interview with Riley for NPR’s “Fresh Air” (podcast and transcript)
Boots Riley goes from ‘musician with a script’ to potential hitmaker with ‘Sorry to Bother You’ – Another profile of the director, for the Chicago Tribune
Boots Riley on How His Hit Movie “Sorry to Bother You” Slams Capitalism & Offers Solutions – Heavily political YouTube interview with Democracy Now
Is Hollywood ready for the brilliant weirdness of Lakeith Stanfield? – Washington Post profile of Sorry to Bother You‘s star
Boots Riley Defends Tessa Thompson’s Sorry to Bother You Character: ‘Detroit Is Not a Prize’ – Riley responds to criticism of his characterization of Sorry to Bother You‘s only significant female character
Let’s Talk About Detroit’s Iconic Earrings in ‘Sorry to Bother You’ – Tejah Wilson decodes the hidden messages in Detroit’s earrings for “Black Girl Nerds”
LIST CANDIDATE: SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018) – This site’s original review of Sorry to Bother You
McSweeney’s Issue 48 – The original version of the screenplay as published in 2014
HOME VIDEO INFO: The DVD or Blu-ray (buy) arrive via 20th Century Fox in a timely fashion. A Boots Riley commentary is the main attraction. There’s also “Beautiful Clutter,” an 11-minute discussion with Riley; a stills gallery; and two promotional trailers along with the official trailer (and trailers for other current Fox Searchlight properties).
The movie is also available for digital purchase or rental on-demand.
- Credited to one “Michel Dongry.”
- The script was written during the Obama administration, and Riley changed a coincidental quote about “making America great again” so that people would not mistakenly assume this was a Trump diatribe.