Sorry to Bother You feigns politeness in its title, but in actuality the film is all intrusion. It comes at you hard, bright, and fast. This is an angry, explicitly funny movie that refuses to conform to a three-act structure. Instead, it plays like a series of loosely connected skits riffing on the impossibility of black identity in a United States that’s hurtling toward classist, capitalistic implosion. Call it How to Succeed in White America Without Really Dying.
Set in a version of Oakland, Calif., that’s vaguely off (it could be the near future or it could be an alternate dystopia), Sorry to Bother You centers on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an existentially agitated African-American who has just landed a job as a caller for a telemarketing company. His race at first doesn’t seem to be an issue, but a veteran in the next cubicle (Danny Glover, sly as ever) gives him some advice: “Use your white voice.” He goes on to describe it as “sounding like you don’t have a care … put some breath in there … you’ve never been fired, only laid off.” Cassius does as he’s told (David Cross provides the prim, nasal whine) and he’s suddenly a success, propelling himself and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of their garage apartment and into a stark-white triangle loft with views on all three sides.
But what is Cassius selling? Earlier in the film, we’ve seen billboards advertising Worry Free, a company that hires workers for life, then houses and feeds them so that they never have to concern themselves with such complicated choices. (The analogy to slavery is underlined by television ads that show the workers sleeping in stacked bunks.) It turns out Worry Free is one of the telemarketing firm’s clients, and perhaps not even the most nefarious. Cassius is more than willing to keep talking (like David Cross) to make his money, but none of it sits well with Detroit, who is a sign spinner/performance artist given to wearing massive earrings that double as protest statements (Thompson brings a bold, unpredictable energy to the part).
Sorry to Bother You is the writing and directing debut of musician and social activist Boots Riley, who uses his camera as if he too was a performance artist. Many of the scenes play like mini-installations set within a haphazard narrative. Consider the visual gag, early on, whenever Cassius calls a potential client: his desk literally drops from the sky and crashes into the home of the person on the other line, literalizing the sense of intrusion. Then there is the sequence that marks Cassius’ moment of moving on up: the camera holds on him and Detroit in their makeshift bed, while their thin sheets slide off of in fast motion and are replaced by luxury bedding. Social climbing can be as slick as that.
Despite its title, Sorry to Bother You comes at you hard, bright, and fast.
Meanwhile, outside of Cassius’ loft, we sense a neighborhood (if not a society) on the brink of collapse, with tents taking over the sidewalks, serving as the last refuge of the have-nots. The higher Cassius rises—eventually getting a promotion and an invite to a debauched party at the mansion of Worry Free’s founder (Armie Hammer)—the more desperate the situation on the streets become. There are labor strikes, violent protests, and … well, you really won’t believe what’s in Armie Hammer’s basement, and what it means for the future of the workforce.
With its wide-ranging political targets and aggressive sense of humor—to say nothing of the bold use of color—Sorry to Bother You recalls some of Spike Lee’s most agitated efforts, Chi-Raq and Bamboozled in particular. Yet there’s something intensely personal about it, as well. Like the work of Donald Glover, on television’s Atlanta and elsewhere, Sorry to Bother You considers the way “selling out” means something uniquely painful for African-Americans, in that it involves acquiescence to a socioeconomic system that, not all that long ago, literally allowed another human being to buy you. Play the game, the powers that be say, or—literally, in the case of ostracized NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick—you won’t be allowed to play the game.
This is the existential dilemma that’s written all over Cassius’ face, even before he takes the telemarketing job. How can he live a life that matters, that allows him to flourish, while at the same time not feed an oppressive system? Stanfield, so good in just a few moments in Get Out and in a supporting role on Atlanta, has a quiet mumble that makes him always seem out of place, as if he’s trying not to attract attention. It’s the vocal equivalent of keeping your head down. And so there’s significance, not only humor, to the “white voice” gag—it’s only when using it, as silly as he sounds, that Cassius carries himself boldly. (This yo-yo quality is perhaps the best thing about Stanfield’s riveting performance.)
Detroit, with her “job” as a sign spinner that doubles as protest art, perhaps offers a truer way of living, but at the same time she’s something of a fantasy figure. If Sorry to Bother You loses some verve, it’s in an ending that attempts to offer a bit of comfort, a sense of closure. There’s no need for a movie this challenging—formally and intellectually—to tie things up for its audience. Better to stay intrusive, and angry.