Sorry to Bother You movie review: An anti-capitalist satire on selling out in corporate America
In Sorry To Bother You, Boots Riley shows tremendous promise and remarkably confident vision, channelling all his political fury into a timely satire.
castLakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer
Imagine if Donald Glover, Terry Gilliam and Charlie Brooker got together to brainstorm for a ground-breaking, transgressive film; but somehow, they couldn't quite unanimously agree on all its plot elements, visual gags and themes; so, they blend all their best ideas into one gloriously absurd concoction. Boots Riley's debut feature, Sorry to Bother You, feels a lot like that.
Because trying to spell out the film's plot feels like a gloriously absurd exercise in itself.
But let's try anyway: It's a high-concept, low-budget magic realist, sci-fi fable about a poor black telemarketer named Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who discovers the key up the corporate ladder lies in his inner “white voice” (lip-synced to the deliberately jarring voice of David Cross). So, he sells out to "the man" by ascending in a literal golden elevator. He goes from selling encyclopaedias to — what could really be a pyramid scheme for — arms and slave labour. His swift rise in the ranks attracts the attention of charismatic billionaire CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) — think Elon Musk-meets-Daniel Plainview — with a fiendish plan to genetically transform his slaves (again literal) into what he calls “equisapiens”, horse-human hybrids that make for a stronger, better workforce. In addition, Steve wants Cassius to be his spy to keep his mutated workers in check — an “equisapien Martin Luther King Jr," as he calls it but one that he can control. So, will Cassius redeem himself by exposing Steve's plan or will he go along with it?
Riley clearly has a flair for the absurd and Sorry to Bother You is a commendable first effort from the Oakland rapper. The film's socio-political subtext is a bold indictment of capitalism, consumerism, and cultural appropriation. With subplots involving labour relations, corporate greed, grassroots activism and racial stereotyping, Riley provides timely social commentary on the unfortunate reality for a lot of black people and minorities alike. And he serves them all up in a colourful, zany package.
The film sees Riley take aim at plenty of targets but he hits the bull's-eye with his criticism of corporate America. When Cassius — after "selling out" — makes his way across the picket line to get to work, he gets pegged in the head with a soda can by a female protestor, who shouts, “Have a cola and smile, bitch!" The video of the soda-can assault instantly goes viral, gets the meme treatment and turns the protestor into a celebrity. But it doesn't stop there as the corporation uses the protestor and her printable catchphrase to sell anti-capitalist merchandise and profit off their very protesters. A legitimate labour revolt becomes a manufactured social movement with corporations co-opting it for their financial interests. Remember when Pepsi thought a can of soda and Kendall Jenner could change the world?
Sorry to Bother You is a clever critique of white hegemony and the capitalist structures that vindicate it. Corporations seduce us with bogus incentives and promotions to continue participating in a rat race with no visible finish line. Cassius's new position as “Power Caller” puts him at odds with his friends and associates, including his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who — along with his best friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and union organiser Squeeze (Steven Yeun) — embody the film's dissident voices. Prostituting his values and abandoning his friends in the service of capitalism, he dedicates himself to his job, unaware that he is expendable and can be easily replaced by another cash-hungry, power-seeking drone.
We're all slaves held hostage by capitalist forces and they come in various forms — from technology to entertainment. We cheer on as reality TV contestants are objectified, harassed and humiliated on stage. Similarly, in the world of Sorry To Bother You, the most popular thing on TV is literally titled "I Got The Sh*t Kicked Out Of Me", where contestants get beat up on national television in front of a live, cheering audience.
Riley's sense of humour or his metaphors may not be subtle, but they certainly make an impression. He also employs some neat visual tricks, especially the way he depicts telemarketing phone calls. As Cassius makes his sales pitch to potential customers, his cubicle literally collapses into their homes, revealing the reactions of these unsuspecting people often at inopportune times. In another clever scene, we see Cassius and Detroit in bed in his uncle's garage as it transforms into a luxurious apartment around them, to illustrate his rise up the social ladder.
But the film is far from perfect. It suffers from a cluttered narrative that has been stuffed with so many ideas and subplots that it begins bursting at the seams by the third act. Some of these ideas are never fully fleshed out to their potential and feel like they would have worked better as stand-alone sketches on Chappelle's Show or Atlanta. Tessa Thompson's Detroit feels like another huge opportunity missed as Riley only scratches the surface of her character, sadly reducing her narrative scope to her eccentric but bold fashion choices. He often lets Detroit's earrings and t-shirts describe her radical politics, rather than her words.
Sorry To Bother You has a few rough edges and a lack of self-restraint that you’d expect from a debutant filmmaker. But Riley also shows tremendous promise and remarkably confident vision, channelling all his political fury into a timely satire. While some of the questions posed and the messages conveyed might get lost in the clutter, the film does leave you excited for his next feature.
Sorry to Bother You will be screened on 28, 30 October and 1 November at Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival as part of the "World Cinema" section.
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