Boots Riley’s debut film, “Sorry To Bother You,” is a refreshingly defiant satire featuring magical realism to propel its story and message. The film skewers many ugly aspects of late-stage American capitalism while at the same time giving each main character plenty of space to express themselves, grapple with their role in a system, and choose whether to organize and resist.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in Oakland. He is unemployed and desperate for a job. A local company hires him to work as a telemarketer. Faced with the enticement of becoming a “power caller” and working his way up to the top, where he will be treated like more than a wage slave (and achieve the true American Dream), Green must decide which side he is on in the class war.
Pushing the boundaries of the war on working people is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of WorryFree Solutions. Billboards twistedly encourage those who struggle to get by to join and never worry about employment or their most basic needs ever again. This is an innovative way of selling slave labor to companies that want to keep their labor costs extremely low, and Riley layers on absurdity to explore the moral bankruptcy of WorryFree and those who profit off business with the corporation.
Having telemarketing be the focus of this anti-capitalist tale makes perfect sense. Telemarketers (or call center workers) are employees who face terrible risks of wage theft and other abuses. But also, Riley, founder of the hip-hop group The Coup, quit music when he was a young adult struggling with a bit of a midlife crisis. He committed himself to community organizing but found he was really good at telemarketing and could spend a day every couple of weeks making calls to help him continue political work.
Green’s girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), is a starving artist. She does low-wage jobs to survive and is a strong woman character, who acts as a kind of moral compass for Green throughout the film. Langston (Danny Glover) absolutely steals many of his scenes as a kind of mentor for Green while he navigates the telemarketing world.
Much of the film’s tone invites comparisons to the work of director Mike Judge in “Office Space,” “Silicon Valley,” and especially “Idiocracy.” The popular reality television show that seems to always be on air is “I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me,” somewhat like “Ow My Balls!” in “Idiocracy.”
What distinguishes Riley’s universe from the universe in Judge’s films is how Riley deconstructs capitalism. Judge’s work skewers people. “Idiocracy” is a vision of what happens when the population becomes overrun by stupid people who allow corporations to essentially destroy Earth. The decline of civilization is a result of people.
In contrast, “Sorry to Bother You” never mocks or degrades the people in the film. The plot does not revolve around the bad choices of characters, and the audience certainly is not supposed to laugh at them for making their life worse. We understand there is a pernicious system at work that gives these characters few good choices, and we recognize why they would make morally compromised decisions. And it is Riley’s ability to find the humor in this search for a way out of oppression that elevates the film into something transcendent.
The building inhabited by RegalView, which operates the telemarketing company, is where much of the magical realism appears. In discovering the moral indifference of this world, Green calls people and is teleported to a room where he can see them as he makes a sale. It gives him the unbearable experience of empathy, which he must disregard if he has any hope of success.
A luxurious-looking elevator takes “power callers” up to where they work. This part of the world illustrates the notion of climbing the ladder from working class to upper class, or even the top ten percent. Riley again plays with space, as the elevator takes unusually long to get to the highest floor.
At its core, “Sorry To Bother You” is a revolutionary film, with characters routinely speaking about how they want to bring a system that keeps them down to a halt. Riley shows characters as they organize resistance and prepare for riot police that elites like Lift wield to crush their resistance. There is also a recognition that culture plays a role in discouraging protest. Anything from a demonstration or riot can become a meme, which represents how amusement can be used to diminish risks of rebellion.
The film is bold and confident art for those in the bottom tiers of the 99 percent. It draws from movements for economic, racial, and social justice, but never takes itself too seriously. The scenes unfold very naturally as Riley builds the layers of this absurd but cruel world then deconstructs the world through the actions of characters.
Many risks in the film buck the corporate cinematic trend of churning out sequels and remakes, or formulaic stories, to turn massive profits at the box office. Audiences may reject the film, but if so, that possibly says more about how American culture has conditioned us to only certain films that come out of a cookie-cutter.
This is offbeat and fearless independent filmmaking, made with the same spirit that breathed new life into Hollywood in the 1980s and early 1990s and catapulted first-time directors like Riley into careers as filmmakers because we wanted to see more from them. We need more films like “Sorry To Bother You.”