Sorry to bother you, but I’ll keep this short and promise to allow for some insight into the socially conscious, surrealist feature debut by musician turned filmmaker Boots Riley. Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man with a punny name (cash is green) slumming it with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in the Oakland, California, garage of his uncle (Terry Crews). He needs a job to pay his uncle rent, so he takes the only one that requires no experience: telemarketing. What follows is an unflinching takedown of how capitalism has not only dehumanized people but compromised the social revolution for the working class with roots that go as far back to the founding of a country built by slaves.
Nobody seems to want a plot spoiled nowadays, so let’s skip all that. Besides, a straight narrative does not seem to interest Riley as much as symbolic representation of the deep seeded issues that have compromised our culture. Take the subplot of Detroit. She seems to have more integrity than Cassius, joining the “Left Eye” cause to protest a community called Worryfree, where families are given shelter and food and have no bills to pay. It’s slogan? “If you lived here, you’d be at work by now!” To make her living, Detroit twirls signs by day and sells custom “statement” earrings that declare “Tell Homeland Security/We Are the Bomb.” But she really aspires to be an artist. Beyond expressionist painting on canvases shaped liked Africa, she has come up with a startling form of confrontational degradation art that speaks to the problematic presentation of putting down her people to make a statement.
Riley, who first made an impact as a founding member and producer of the Oakland funk/punk/aggro disco/hip hop band The Coup (who are also behind the film’s soundtrack), addresses this again when, at an office party filled with white co-workers, Cassius’ boss, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), coaxes him to rap. Our hero bombs at the rhymes until he pairs the N-word with “shit” and leans into that when his audience perks up and joins in. It’s an instance that speaks to a recent incident involving Kendrick Lamar and a white fan he brought up on stage to sing along to “m.A.A.d city.” Stereo Williams’ put that whole incident in sharp perspective in a Billboard article this past May titled “Kendrick Lamar, Black Language and What White Fans Don’t Get About the ‘N-Word’.”
This is just a taste of what Riley is doing with his amazing feature debut. I’ve glanced at too many reviews that praise the film but just call it bizarre, bonkers and weird, highlighting a freaky plot twist that kicks off the film’s third act. But, please, viewer, consider the roots of the early 20th century confrontational art movement that lays the groundwork for this movie: surrealism. It popped up out of the Dadaist movement, which was driven by a desire to confront the status quo. It became an anti-bourgeois movement, most cunningly executed in film at the hands of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel criticized it all with a body of work that took down the intellectuals, capitalists and fascists.
With Sorry to Bother You, Riley has adapted this style of filmmaking to take down similar types while not letting his fellow black brothers and sisters off the hook. His confrontational “Afro-surrealism” is an extension of his music in The Coup. Just look at “Not Yet Free,” from the group’s debut album in 1993, in which Riley compares capitalism to a spider’s web. It’s all so seductive, but it will trap you, people. Of course Riley has grown more sophisticated since then, and his first film offers a richly dark world filled with humor that takes no prisoners.
SCREENING UPDATE: Catch Sorry to Bother You at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for its Spirit of the Independents series now running through January 13, check their calendar for details.
Sorry to Bother You runs 105 minutes and is rated R. It’s now playing at most theaters. I caught this during a free screening provided by producer Cinereach at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami, where the film continues its run till at least Aug. 2. For screenings in your part of the U.S., follow this link.