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SXSW Review: Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is the kind of deliriously brilliant, socially outraged firecracker of a debut that can only signal the arrival of a great, singular, significant talent. A thrillingly gonzo, devoutly off-the-wall polemic primarily bent on skewering capitalism but also filled with colorful, creative invective for a dozen or so other social ills, this rock-em-sock-em debut for musician-turned-director Boots Riley is wackier and wilder than anything else you’re likely to see in a movie theater this year. That’s a good thing, likely even a great one.

But how does one even begin to talk about something as devoutly strange as Sorry to Bother You, a film that aggressively, openly defies both cinematic convention and basic plot description? It’s a tricky task, one that I’m loathe to attempt for a variety of reasons, ranging from how my whiteness makes me a (rightly) less valuable voice in discussing this film’s proudly Black perspective to how Sorry to Bother You thrives on zigging when common sense dictates it should zag. To spoil its bonkers progression, from biting social commentary to surrealist acid trip and back again, would be to do both the audience and the filmmakers a great disservice. Sorry to Bother You needs to be watched; it needs to percolate in the viewer’s consciousness, evolve and expand in hindsight. It does not need, nor does it want, a synopsis. 

Is it already obvious I’m treading water? Probably. No, definitely. What I can say is that I think you’ll very much want to watch this sui generis satire, a confrontational and wildly entertaining work of art that has much to say about our current sociopolitical moment but even more to offer up about the wider history of Black America facing the insidious, unspoken demand that it exist within – and bow to – white models of economy, communication, and industry. 

The Black experience in working-class and corporate America, one defined by conformity and flagrant dehumanization, is a major element of Riley’s ingenious, wide-reaching script (the title references the groveling, on-one’s-knees opening many a telemarketer has used to ingratiate themselves to an instinctively resentful consumer), as is, more broadly, the loss of identity and individualistic purpose any non-white person faces in a labor system overseen by upholders of white supremacist doctrine. 

Lakeith Stanfield is at the center of this story, playing a middle-class Oakland kid by the name of Cassius Green (sound it out), who lives in his uncle’s garage with activist-artist girlfriend Detroit (the luminous Tessa Thompson) and desperately needs some cash to pay off all kinds of debts. As the film opens, Cassius deals by going into telemarketing, eventually finding that his generic sales-pitch obligations get progressively easier once he slides into his “white voice” (dubbed in, hilariously, by David Cross). 

With this funny yet quietly horrific tool at his disposal, he rises up through the ranks, gaining wealth and reputation even as he leaves behind everything that made him Cassius before he sat down at his cubicle. His selling out spells trouble for his relationship with Detroit, who’s somewhat hypocritical but still committed to at least not submitting that much to the systems governing their lives. Once his work friends attempt to unionize, and Cassius falters, tempted by the promise of going upstairs to even greater affluence, Riley sinks his teeth into a condemnation of capitalism as a system that demands not just personal self-annihilation but a stated betrayal of one’s brothers.

There’s a hell of a lot happening in Sorry to Bother You, and the film rarely sheds its characters or dynamics even as its drunken screwball of a plot shifts through around three distinct genres. That keeps things interesting, especially once Cassius rubs up against the CEO of a work community called Worryfree (played as a cocaine-snorting, mellow-harshing douchebag by Armie Hammer), who’s promptly exposed as the forefather of a new, bizarrely easy-to-swallow form of 21st century slavery. 

Riley – best known as a member of political hip-hop group The Coup – is an avowed radical, and his social satire is of the fuck-the-system, burn-it-down variety. The ambition this elicits is absolutely staggering throughout Sorry to Bother You, extending so far as to encompass fictional reality shows like “I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me” (tributes to the general public’s penchant for commodifying humiliation, especially as a form of oppression) and the absurdity of meme culture. The film is a curious, shaggy-dog experiment in how gregariously it jumps from one comment to the next, but it’s clear Riley has thought through the implications of the just-impossible-enough-to-feel-authentic world up on screen. He also employs a cloister of clever sight gags throughout, from Detroit’s oversized, outspoken earrings to a handle of alcohol that swings open to reveal a smaller, more expensive bottle inside. Such touches evoke Soylent Green and They Live, movies that tapped into deeper cultural anxieties by postulating kookily sinister, inhuman undercurrents to our greedy, product-based capitalist systems. 

Much will be written about Sorry to Bother You. Special attention will be paid to its genre-reinventing third act, a coked-out political protest that also works as gonzo fable, high fantasy, and biting commentary – it deserves every word that will be written about it. The wild directions in which this movie goes need to be seen – and discussed – to be believed, let alone interpreted. Riley’s debut is slickly made, thrillingly original, and so matter-of-factly fantastical in its execution that it – along with Blindspotting – will likely spur more spirited debate than any other movie released this spring. It’s devastating, quirky, and brilliant, art as an interpretation of realities too unspeakably true to depict in reality. It’s vibrant repudiation. And it’s altogether one of the maddest and most indescribably important films in quite some time, alive to the systemic racism and oppressive hierarchies of this age but interested more in exposing these constructs’ illogicality, underscoring the absurdity of their implied end goals, than directly yelling down the human saps embodying them. 

No one is making movies like Sorry to Bother You right now, and its arrival amid a recent cascade of groundbreakingly mainstream Black works (among them Black Panther, Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, and FX’s Atlanta) will and should be greeted with open arms. These works are starting valuable conversations, giving non-white audiences a chance to discuss the conditions of their realities in unprecedented fashion while forcing white people to shut up, sit down, watch, listen and (hopefully) learn. They’re not just changing our cultural landscape – they’re evolving it, for the better, in ways that (thankfully) cannot be undone so long as they’re championed and upheld. One can only hope Riley will keep making movies and capitalizing on this lurid introduction to his thought-provokingly batshit, groundbreakingly true worldview.

10/10

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