by Torraine Walker
Sorry To Bother You begins with Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson making love in their Oakland bedroom, surrounded by art and bathed in muted amber light that evokes a womb. It’s a warm, intimate, safe space their characters have created for each other that the outside world brutally intrudes on. That clash between idealism and reality is at the heart of Sorry To Bother You, by writer/director Boots Riley of political hip-hop group The Coup.
Depressed, broke, and behind on rent, Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green takes a dead-end job at a call center where the key to success is how well you can imitate a white voice, a process that bleeds over into his behavior, dress, and worldview. After mastering this technique Cassius rapidly moves up the corporate ladder while being caught up in labor disputes and moral compromises that lead to him becoming progressively more ruthless as his economic status rises.
Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius as an awkward, noncommittal everyman, reluctantly pulled along by whatever forces are stronger than his will at any given moment. Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, is an artistic idealist with a wardrobe full of radical slogans and performative politics, the spiritual descendant of 60’s flower children and modern activists. The movie is loaded with standout performances including Steven Yeun and an unrecognizable Omari Hardwick as a labor organizer and a corporate superstar vying for Cassius’ soul. Armie Hammer plays a billionaire CEO of the type given godlike status in the real world.
The film does an excellent job of highlighting the connections between worker’s rights, individual freedom, and corporate control. The most chilling scene in the film comes when Cassius is offered a choice that will, should he accept it, satisfy his every material desire, while altering his life irrevocably. The scenes leading up to that moment will be familiar to anyone aware of how white culture views African-Americans as entertainment, and the revelations the Me Too Movement brought to light. In the world of the film it’s the behavior of elites, but it’s also the sort of choice working class people make every day. It forces the viewer to consider how secure you are in your identity and principles when both are challenged, especially in a society where everything can be exploited, including your rebellion.
Sorry To Bother You feels like an extension of the themes Boots the hip-hop artist consistently addressed in his work taken to surrealist extremes. Race, class, capitalism, and the internal acts of submission people make to survive under the weight of those social constructs are blended seamlessly. It’s a brilliant, hyperreal visual and psychological trip grounded in the truth of an old African-American proverb: Everything that looks good ain’t good for you.
Sorry To Bother You opens Friday, July 13th nationwide.
Torraine Walker is a writer, independent journalist, and content creator for digital media. His work has appeared in publications including the Huffington Post, Fusion, Abernathy, and Brain Mill Press. In 2015, his blog SUMCity won WordPress' Freshly Pressed Award for best new blogs.