“Sorry to Bother You” is a surrealist sci-fi comedy written and directed by longtime rapper Boots Riley. It’s a critique of racial exploitation in a capitalist system that uses humor to strip away the status quo and broadcast the truly absurd side of the modern workplace. It also features David Cross as Lakeith Stanfield’s “white voice”. Intrigued yet?
This movie is quite a surreal head-trip. Surrealism is often the genre most open to interpretation—if ten people watch a David Lynch film, they’re all going to have wildly different takeaways, as surreal stories and images beg us to fill in the dreamlike gaps with our own experiences. But Boots Riley is no David Lynch: he’s a black American, born to a family of radical political activists, raised in a country that thrives off of his destruction. His brand of surrealism has something explicit to say.
“Sorry to Bother You” spools forth like a cycle of REM sleep. The dream is vivid and deeply weird. Cassius Green, strapped of cash, takes a job as a telemarketer in order to pay rent for his uncle’s garage. Whenever he makes a call, his desk teleports into the homes of his prospective victims. A golden elevator sits adorned in the lobby for the legendary “power callers” that sell more than just magazines. When the workday is over, vintage TVs around town air ads for the coming dystopia. The wonky production design, color palette, and strange tUnE-yArDs score harmonize into a spacey vision.
And like the deepest of REM sleep, waking up from the dream is a disorienting sensation. Not wanting his message to broaden in the space that surrealism offers, Riley punctures the fantasy with clear-cut social commentary that forces our eyes open. The symbols he offers aren’t subtle: righteous protestors belong to the “left eye” movement (left-wing activists), an immoral capitalist tycoon wears an eye patch and only sees out of his right eye (the blind right-wing), the protagonist who gets a taste of money and only wants more is named Cash Green. But these symbols aren’t crafted for nuance. They’re decoders, tools for dream interpretation that the film offers to guide us through the sci-fi allegory. What’s done with these symbols is where the ingenuity lies.
Riley dispels the myth that the best way to help the marginalized is to earn as much money as possible and use it to degrease the gears of the system. “Sorry to Bother You” understands the irony: capital is grease, and it builds up with greed. Its protagonist’s arc allows the audience to traverse the whole system and see it rotting from end to end. Like Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork “To Pimp a Butterfly”, it argues that people of color don’t escape the jaws of oppression by earning their way to the top of the food chain—the white men at the top just innovate new ways to exploit them.
But “To Pimp a Butterfly” struck a consistent tone: the infusion of hip hop, jazz, and funk kept pace with the album’s narrative without letting one genre influence dominate the other. “Sorry to Bother You” is not so consistent. It features a number of evocative set pieces, but transitions between them with bouts of relative normalcy that dull the film’s staying power. That’s not to say it’s ever boring—the bizarre sense of humor almost never falters. But it would’ve been better off shorter: the stretches between critical points in its narrative don’t drip with the tonal firmness of its most creative moments.
It feels like extra plot padding out some remarkable scenes into a full movie. Some characters don’t feel as fleshed out as they should be: Steven Yeun’s labor organizer Squeeze comes off like a flirtatious creep, as if to say that even the virtuous have their sins. But this is barely addressed after it’s brought up, suggesting either an incomplete character thread or that Riley didn’t actually perceive Squeeze’s behavior as creepy. Though “Sorry to Bother You” doesn’t maintain its momentum throughout, the potential is loud and clear for Riley’s future career.
The cast is also full of promise. Lakeith Stanfield continues to rise through the indie scene with the range of a great performer, while mainstays like Danny Glover and Terry Crews augment the weird world around them with ease. This is perhaps Tessa Thompson’s most distinctive role yet and she owns it.
“Sorry to Bother You” is a necessary movie for our time and a refreshing piece of art for the medium. Though it’s excellent in bursts rather than as a whole, if Boots Riley can develop his daringly unique style further, his movies are free to bother me in the years to come.