Sorry To Bother You is the feature film debut of Boots Riley, a musician, producer, and activist. It stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green (Cash) (Cash GREEN, get it?), an Oakland native who rises through the ranks of a telemarketing business to sell serfdom to corporate clients higher up that ladder.
It’s a weird and dark social satire set in a world where a prison is advertised as a great place to work for free indefinitely. It’s sold with a wink & a smile with billboards in neighborhoods where people risk eviction and brush their teeth in their shiny SUVs. That’s right off the bat as Cash gets his job, and he struggles in a business that viewers of this film would recognize to be a difficult one, where you do a cold hard sell to strangers who would otherwise never let you into their space. Cash is told to use his ‘white voice,’ a sort of weaselly David Cross that goads his callers as if he was your frat buddy all this time.
This was the selling point of the film, “look the black kid has to use a white voice! isn’t America racist?” but the film is thankfully deeper than that. To paraphrase Jello Biafra, we’re in a class war disguised as a race war, and Riley, in a parody that could have been surface level, knows this and digs much deeper. It’s a world where the adherence to money and consumerism from They Live is out in the open and everyone seems okay with it, and a step away from Idiocracy where everyone is getting dumbed down information and all they can do is roll along with it.
Even as Cash goes from alienating the people he’d like to band with – people who still want to go to a crappy job – to trying to expose the system, little might change if the world embraces the elevated tech bro who has turned Cash’s bay area into an unaffordable playground and can’t do any wrong in their eyes. I nod along because there’s a billionaire who wants to build a not-so-mass-transit train line in Chicago that would actually go along a CURRENT train line that people already use every damn day. Here, the lauded techbro, whose greed is celebrated as humanitarian, wants to replace the workers already stuck in their prison work home, with a race of genetically altered horse people.
That might be where the story goes off the rails, but frankly since it’s a social satire, it’s already off the rails since the world I described is just an out in the open corporate feudalistic nightmare. Maybe since the story got deeper than goofy caricatures who do come off as real people with real life goals, maybe the horse part didn’t need to be there. But, the real life goals of the characters aren’t deep – it’s great that Cash’s coworkers want to unionize, but it’s for a crappy business that still plans to use horse people even if their stand is successful.
Otherwise, this gets two coffee ups. Two consumed coffees. I liked it. It’s a quick hour & 50 minutes, the actors are engaging even if they’re over the top, and the cinematography is pretty great. I was actually sad to leave Cash’s blue workplace and his awful supervisor’s horrible yellow office. I laughed out loud at the ridiculous corporate art in the upper floor of the business. A lot of thought into setting up these scenes – the settings absolutely underline the satirical business and sales dialog Cash uses to sell his soul to make deals and life worse for other people.