In Boots Riley’s trippy new film Sorry to Bother You, hunger is the main throughline. The hunger for truth. The hunger for justice. The hunger to succeed personally, and even more so in one’s professional life. At RegalView, a low-level telemarketing firm in Oakland, one path to success presents itself in the form of code-switching. The disaffected Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) is hungry to prove himself.
He’s a damaged soul eager for anything other than failure and hardship. On the advice of a coworker (Danny Glover), Cassius begins to use a “white voice” when speaking with prospective customers—what white people “wished they sounded like,” Glover explains—and its pay-off is immediate. Cassius becomes the company’s top salesman, earning the title of “Power Caller” and a promotion upstairs, where it’s required he talk in his white voice at all times.
But professional advancement comes with a moral clause. Cassius is wedged between doing what is right and what is profitable; one reason he took the job in the first place was to help his uncle save his home, which was in foreclosure. These are questions of survival Riley is volleying at us—what, exactly, are you willing to give up for the American Dream? Your friends? Your principles? For someone like Cassius, there are always conditions to Making It. For black people, in particular, success has its own fine print.
Sorry to Bother You is a deliciously untame thing: an allegorical satire about the exploitation of labor and land. (It joins a cohort of black futurity coming to the screen in recent years, including Get Out by Jordan Peele and Random Acts of Flyness, which debuts in August on HBO; Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death is also in development at HBO.) Like reality, the film is a genre mash-up in the most satisfying of ways—part workplace comedy, part existential drama, with elements of science fiction. The movie’s heart centers on economic injustice and class struggle. It’s heavy stuff, and rightfully so. These are heavy times. But longtime activist and rapper Riley, who wrote and directed the film, never burdens the audience with too much at once: he garnishes the film’s steady unease with splashes of dark humor courtesy of its leading cast (an exceptional Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Armie Hammer).
The tsuris surrounding Cassius worsens as coworkers form a union and threaten RegalView brass with a strike. “Trouble’s already here,” Squeeze (Steven Yeun), the lead organizer, says at one point. “I’m just helping folks fix it.” But it’s too late for Cassius; intoxicated by the taste of success, he refuses to join their cause, even as his artist girlfriend, Detroit (a radically enchanting Thompson), finds his new situation at odds with her own beliefs. (According to one of her t-shirts: “The future is female ejaculation.”)
Riley’s gonzo dystopia begins to unfurl in greater detail once Cassius settles in on the executive level, where he sells slave labor “over the phone.” RegalView, as it turns out, is part of a larger corporation called WorryFree Solutions. Its deranged visionary of a CEO, the bro-y, coked-out Steve Lift (a role Hammer was destined to play) offers people lifetime employment, housing, and food in exchange for non-stop labor. WorryFree, however, is anything but paradise. Individuals who sign up live in prison-like accommodations, eat scraps, and work as indentured servants for the rest of their lives. It’s a perverse critique of human capital—the gig economy, mass incarceration, an underpaid workforce in one sinister illustration—and an existence that doesn’t feel too far from what one possible future holds in false utopias like Silicon Valley. In this, Riley gives us one of the year’s sharpest pieces of political art. Sorry to Bother You arises from the best kind of fiction, one inspired from the fury and turbulence of real life.
In the film’s final and most revealing act Cassius is stirred from slumber. After a one-on-one meeting with Lift takes an absurd turn, he’s forced to reconsider the cost and question of his success (I won’t spoil the surprise here). For his part, Riley reconstructs the do-anything pursuit of capitalism into a collage of racial horror. The conclusion is both shocking and oddly poetic, but never once did it read as unbelievable. Throughout, the film’s aims remain locked on the issue of hunger. Only, in the end, Riley isn’t afraid to take it one step further and show how the powerless, and people of color in particular, no matter how much fight they put up, ultimately get swallowed whole.
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