It’s tough to know where to begin with Boots Riley’s dark and bizarre comedy Sorry To Bother You. The not-too-distant world presented to us is already ten degrees south of normal and gets stranger as we follow the rabbit hole of Riley’s outlandish story.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) resides in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) – a full-time artist and part-time sign twirler. Months behind on rent, he has no option but to accept a job in telemarketing where he is advised by a co-worker to adopt a “white voice” to keep customers on the phone. This catapults him to unprecedented levels of success as a “power caller”, which undermines the growing union of co-workers that were once his equals. As he ascends the corporate ladder, he complies with the debauched, fascistic and callous inner workings of his company until he reaches his limit.
Cassius’s name alone acknowledges the fundamental importance of financial security. His desperation and lack of options are synonymous with struggles the majority of society face. He is seen as selling out though we know he has debts, responsibilities and insecurities that his promotion may go some way to accommodate – even if he is selling slave labour and abandoning his friends within the unionising team to join the corporate team. Some lower themselves to appear on the reality television show “I Got The S**t Kicked Out of Me” (which promises exactly what the title suggests), whilst the elite either ridicule them or pretend the only distancing factor between them is the willingness to celebrate “team playing” and corporate interests.
The rhetoric of this corporate world feigns a wholesome, nurturing sense of humanity that is contradicted through militaristic sales metaphors like “bag and tag” or “drop the bomb”. This cynicism extends to the “white voice” connotations of instantly assumed success, trust and a lack of hardship engineered to keep customers on the phone and guarantee sales. Cassius is frequently reminded that it’s “white voices only” in the elite realm of the power caller, yet he is pressured to perpetuate African American stereotypes as entertainment for his overwhelmingly white colleagues and superiors when it suits them.
Riley successfully utilises magical realism to tell his story and displays astonishing visual flare. The sense of heightened reality is achieved through distinctive production design as well as visually comedic touches such as matching scene transitions, smash cuts and dramatic whip pans and lighting cues – often echoing the work of Michel Gondry. Riley even manages to make telemarketing cinematic by having Green literally drop in on customers and interact with them directly. These touches appropriately address the discord of nonsense and injustice with smatterings of violence that waver between slapstick and brutally indignant.
Riley’s debut feature is hilarious, arresting and thought-provoking in equal measure!