There’s crazy, there’s satire, there’s dystopian and then there’s “Sorry to Bother You.” Musician Boots Riley’s 2018 directorial debut takes place in an alternate universe’s Oakland — but don’t let the term “alternate universe” fool you. The film is a funhouse mirror for our world that only reflects everything going on in our reality.
In this Oakland, where eye-popping ads for a mysterious, monolithic Silicon Valley-esque company called WorryFree litter the background of every scene, a man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) becomes a telemarketer for a corporation called RegalView. Green, who lives in his uncle’s garage with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), stumbles his way through the job until an older coworker, Langston (Danny Glover), tells him to use his white voice. That, voila, is the key to being good at his job.
Despite underlying tremors among the other telemarketers, who are attempting to organize a strike for increased pay under the leadership of labor activist Squeeze (Steven Yeun), Cassius finds that he’s very, very good at selling products to people with his white voice (David Cross). He’s so good that he gets promoted to the previously ephemeral role of “Power Caller” and rides up a literal golden elevator from the basement cubicles to a pristine open office space. As he excels in his new role, Cassius’s talent at using his white voice catches the attention of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who asks him to perform a disturbing role in a new project that redefines what it means to be part of a labor economy.
The science fiction of this sci-fi satire doesn’t really emerge until the second half of the film, but Riley is stunningly adept at using coloring and scene transitions to make the world feel slightly askew, the same way a “Black Mirror” episode resembles our world in an uncanny way. There’s an element of chaos in every scene, especially toward the beginning of the film, even if the chaos has nothing to do with the plot. In one striking shot, the camera centers Cassius in the foreground of the frame, while in a room in the background, a copier apparently malfunctions and starts shooting paper at the poor people trying to fix the machine. The result is a look at Cassius’s mind, overwhelmed and unprepared for the job and everything else that’s about to come as a result of his new role.
World-building is a task easier said than done; the filmmaker simultaneously has to include enough details to make the world feel real without overwhelming the audience with unnecessary information. For a first time director, Riley walks this balance skillfully by adding in violent TV programs, nausea-inducing advertisements and glimpses of tents littering a city sidewalk without explicitly addressing how these details might have come to be. With these details, he creates a world that operates as a skewering critique of gentrification, the gig economy and deteriorating race relations. It all culminates in Cassius facing a largely apathetic, affluent white crowd at Steve’s party and “rapping” for them using a racial slur, only for them to respond enthusiastically and repeat the slur back at him.
This scene is pivotal, as he performs his blackness and the inherent violence, oppression and poverty that is associated with it. Unlike in the earlier scenes, when he uses a white voice to appease clients over the phone, Cassius is required to produce a fetishized version of himself as a black man because this is what is required to satisfy the CEO of WorryFree. Ultimately, whether he is wanted as a white man or a black man, Cassius is left devoid of any complexity or nuance as an individual, and the viewer sees him after his rap performance utterly drained, as if his life was sucked out of him.
While the film is masterclass in skewering various societal issues with razor sharp observations, there is still one issue “Sorry to Bother You” isn’t able to address with as much precision. Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit is only one of two female characters who are named in the main cast, and despite being an intriguing and colorful character in her own right, she’s ultimately left to function relative only to the various male characters of the film. One might think she acts as Cassius’s foil, as the radical activist girlfriend who is also part of a secret resistance group against WorryFree — but that role is fulfilled by Yeun’s character Squeeze, who actually ends up romantically tied to Detroit later in the film. Her role, instead, is as Cassius’s heart and conscience, as the link to the world of struggle that Cassius turned his back on once he was promoted. She’s ultimately unable to exist outside of this function; a critical scene centering around her and her art turns into scene where Cassius berates her for performing something “crazy,” a statement that we, the audience, end up agreeing with.
“Sorry to Bother You” has a development in its second act that seems so outrageous that it almost threatens to drag the film down into camp territory — but it instead raises the stakes for all of the issues the film has addressed in the first half, so that they become questions of human existence. Literally, the film asks what it means to be human, as well as what happens if that humanity is stripped away from us. What does it mean to want everything Cassius wants, while also knowing that these desires come at a crucial cost to others and ultimately to ourselves? Hopefully, we don’t have to live in Cassius’s world to find out.