Razor Sharp Satire: A 'Sorry To Bother You' film review
by Will Lindus
Set in what can best be described as an alternate-reality version of modern day Oakland, Sorry to Bother You is the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a black man living in his uncle’s garage who tries to make ends meet by taking a low paying job at a telemarketing agency. While his coworkers plan a strike protesting unfair wages, Green begins to excel at his job by donning a caricatured white voice (provided by David Cross), placing him at odds with his own self-identity and with the needs of his community.
A scathing satire of the way modern society only allows black people to succeed if they change their mannerisms and demeanor to match white normative values, Sorry to Bother You challenges the notion that minorities should have to ‘stick to the script’ in order to be seen or heard. It would be easy to simply say that director and writer Boots Riley’s vision is razor sharp, and while it is, that analogy evokes imagery of fresh cuts and slices. More apt, Boots Riley uses his impeccable script to draw attention to wounds that have long existed and uses his platform to deride just how ridiculous this notion is. In many ways, Sorry to Bother You feels like an important film of the now, drawing similar attention to the way black people are expected to act in white spaces as Childish Gambino’s hit video from earlier this year, ‘This is America.’
The thing is, Sorry to Bother You is more than just an ‘important’ film. It is also a damned good one, a takedown so fierce and so funny that its impact cannot be denied. The trailers have done a fantastic job of obfuscating what this film is truly about and how it goes about getting there. Certainly, the story about Cassius and his rise to success using his white voice are front and center, but the film also goes to some incredibly bizarre places that come out of left field while still feeling grounded within the narrative of this particular version of Oakland. It isn’t a stretch to say that Sorry to Bother You might just be the single most ‘what the fuck?’ film of 2018.
Lakeith Stanfield has had a meteoric few years, with prominent roles in Get Out, Atlanta, Short Term 12, and Selma, but his work in Sorry to Bother You showcases just how compelling Stanfield is not only as a performer, but also as a lead. Stanfield is believable as the down-on-his-luck Cassius, a man with little in the way of money but lots in the way of love and friendships. He brilliantly captures the struggle of compartmentalizing these relationships as he conforms himself to the wishes of the RegalView telemarketing agency, and of rationalizing his own exceptionalism at the expense of the loved ones he leaves in his wake. This is a lot of emotional weight to carry in such an absurdist story, but Stanfield pulls it off. At his side is the ever-impressive Tessa Thompson, playing his love interest / rebel-rousing performance artist named Detroit. As always, Thompson is a delight, displaying real chemistry with Stanfield while also holding her own agency and power within the story.
Perhaps the biggest laugh and most savage takedown in the film comes from an elite party that Cassius is invited to. While there, the all-white party goers ask Cassius to perform a rap for them. Cassius declines, saying that he doesn’t know how to rap, but the party goers seem convinced otherwise for... obvious and unsettling reasons. The resulting scene must be seen to be believed, and I won’t spoil it here, but to me? It perfectly highlights what the film is trying to say about how society treats black people in white spaces.
There are other themes at play here. Much like our own world, this alternate-reality Oakland is obsessed with media consumption. The most popular show on television is a reality program called ‘I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me,’ where millions tune in to watch contestants get their asses kicked to win prizes. This programming, at best, is a distraction from the woes of the world and at worst engages in the minstrelsy of exploiting the suffering of the poor for the entertainment of the masses. The film also skewers the dominant role that company culture unfairly foists upon the lives of its workers, as seen in WorryFree, a company that requires its employees to become lifelong slaves to the company in exchange for free housing and food.
Boots Riley knows what he is doing here. Sorry to Bother You isn’t merely a look at an alternate-reality version of our world. It’s a mirror held up to our world, showing us the uglier side of ourselves that we too often ignore.
Bottom Line: Sorry to Bother You is a hilarious and scathing satire which pushes the limits of its story to absurd heights. It serves as a brutal takedown of white normalization, of the power abuses committed in the name of corporate culture, of the prevalence of media distraction, and it does so without every losing its heart, its soul, or its wit. Essential viewing, make sure you catch Sorry to Bother You as soon as you can.
4 out of 5 Bear Paws