“Sorry to Bother You” is a very unusual movie.
The brainchild of first-time writer-director Boots Riley (a self-identified Communist activist), it plays like an extended episode of “Black Mirror” co-written by Tom Wolfe and the “Chapo Trap House” podcasters. It’s darkly funny, unsettling, self-aware, incendiary, and frustrating—sometimes all at the same time.
As the film opens, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is hired by Regalview, a telemarketing outfit based in Oakland. But Cash doesn’t stay there long: by using his “white voice” (voice of David Cross) on the phone, Cash soon becomes one of Regalview’s top encyclopedia sellers. A promotion—and undying glory as a Regalview “Power Caller”—await.
As it turns out, one of Regalview’s biggest clients is Worryfree, a thinly-veiled Amazon analogue. In the hands of CEO Steve Lift, author of the bestselling book “I’m On Top,” Worryfree invites workers to sign up for “lifelong labor contracts” in the style of indentured servitude. With that much labor at their command, Worryfree and its services are in high demand around the world. And they want Cash to help broker the best deals.
It’s certainly a disquieting, Dickensian vision of the near future, just realistic enough to turn the stomach. Coming in for particular critique here are Silicon Valley’s weird attempts at blending personal pseudo-amiability—“we’re a family here”—with profit-maximizing ruthlessness. This tension, Riley contends persuasively, can only lead to people living profoundly disordered lives.
He doesn’t stop there. In a cringe-inducing scene that recalls Wolfe’s essay “Radical Chic,” Riley skewers white liberals’ embrace of black culture as a self-indulgent attempt to absolve themselves of their own prejudices. Midway through the film, over Cash’s protestations, Lift orders him to “rap” to entertain a party full of white guests. Cash’s “rap” consists of repeating the n-word over and over—a chant which is delightedly taken up by the assembled guests, “Borat”-style. The sequence is both painfully long and wrenchingly unforgettable.
Riley also pulls few punches when it comes to the worst excesses of contemporary media culture. When Cash needs to disseminate a terrible message to the public, the only available venue is “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!,” a brutal game show in which contestants are physically beaten and humiliated for audience amusement. And as it so happens—in a montage that echoes the haunting “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of “Black Mirror”—the public is totally incapable of interpreting his message as anything other than another form of entertainment.
Misanthropic? Maybe. Disturbingly plausible? Unquestionably. Yet for all the pungent force of its social critique, the cohesiveness of the film’s diverse themes sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
For one thing, the movie doesn’t quite know what to say about race vis-à-vis class. The subplot involving Cash’s “white voice” is certainly a biting critique of persistent cultural stereotypes. (After all, who can forget the infamous Jamal-and-Lakisha resume experiment.) Yet it sits uneasily alongside the film’s apparent call for colorblind worker solidarity. The coalition of workers that eventually challenges Regalview for better wages and working conditions is impressively multiethnic—in fact, it’s led by a charismatic Asian man (Steven Yeun)—but it’s unclear how any concessions they might win could meaningfully combat the norms that lead Cash to act “white” in the first place. This is the very debate roiling the modern left, but unfortunately Riley largely shies away from tackling it.
Additionally—and perhaps more unavoidably—Riley offers viewers a tragically denuded vision of culture. Cash’s girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a radical activist and performance artist whose work is single-mindedly devoted to critique. Her gallery and performances are filled with the iconography of exploitation, urging immediate action against the injustices of the world. And few side characters do much of anything during this film except organize, talk about organizing, and bemoan the failure to organize more effectively.
There’s no concept here of art for its own sake—as a lens through which to contemplate the beauty of the world—or of life without constant social struggle. Instead, “Sorry to Bother You” leans into Carol Hanisch’s famous adage—the personal is political—to a highly unappealing degree. When Cash crosses a Regalview picket line, for instance, Detroit immediately breaks up with him. (Deviation from some orthodoxies, clearly, is unforgivable.) In casting his call to arms as purely a matter of economics, Riley unintentionally conjures up an existentially myopic world, one that few ordinary people would likely wish to inhabit. But, then again, they probably wouldn’t flock to work for Worryfree either.
At the end of the day, “Sorry to Bother You” is undoubtedly a niche movie. It’s sprawling, highly irreverent, nakedly political, and indulges very few of the impulses that lead most people to go to the movies. But one needn’t agree with Riley’s leftist politics (I certainly don’t) to appreciate how well his film works as a ferociously acerbic satire of modern life. Whether or not his solutions make pragmatic sense—or really speak to human beings’ deeper longings—he’s put his finger on some of the current order’s most dystopian tendencies and unmasked them with aplomb.
Maybe, just maybe, the #Resistance has finally produced some memorable protest art.