Sorry to Bother You (2019): Satirical Anarchy
Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You (2018), starts off strong as an absurd, captivating tale but slowly spirals into a story that becomes so detached from reality that its message struggles to squeeze through. Undoubtedly, this is one of the more original and ambitious films to take on concepts that will, inherently, speak to some more than others.
Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) is broke. Living in an alternate version of Oakland, California, his uncanny ability to put on a “white voice” when selling over the phone soon has him climbing the ranks of a shady telemarketing company. In the midst of what could be considered the start of a political revolution, Cassius’ newfound talent Moving out of his uncle’s garage into a sleek apartment with girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) in a matter of days, will Cassius take on this new life of luxury or will it take over him?
Riley has solidified himself as a fresh voice providing a bizarre yet enthralling take on the state of the working class’ view on the black community. The character of Cassius is thought provoking and destructively honest – a characteristic definitely influenced by Riley’s early experiences as an activist and self-described ‘radical’. Making sure to keep as many skills under his belt, Riley is not only responsible for directing Sorry to Bother You, but writing the screenplay. It sounds like this has been a project for a long time, too.
With Riley also being the front-man for the revolutionary-charged band The Coup, Sorry to Bother You made its first appearance all the way back in 2012 as the band’s sixth studio album. Inspired by his film script but lacking the funds to produce it, the album mimics a large majority of the narrative’s anxieties on urban America’s reputation for discrimination.
I got scars on my backThe Coup – “The Magic Clap” (Sorry to Bother You, 2012)
The truth on my tongue
I had the money in my hand when that alarm got rung
We wanna breathe fire and freedom from our lungs
Tell homeland security
We are the bomb
Sorry to Bother You (for the most part) tells a story that feels sickeningly believable all while upholding its absurd alternate reality setting. The film juggles themes of racial oppression with a universally understood image of Western poverty – working a minimum wage job. Revolving the premise around a mundane and restrictive setting of a telemarketing office enabled Riley to shock and surprise viewers with his artistic vision.
By shifting sets to visualise how intrusive telemarketing is, Riley is commenting on the alienation of minority figures in a wealthy, white, consumerist state like California. By having Cassius masquerade as “one of them” as the film calls it, Riley is making it crystal clear how dismissive the populous majority are towards people of colour and ethic background. Entwined with the politically strained streets of Oakland (chosen after Riley’s hometown), the all-minority cast are constantly finding themselves in the line of fire over matters that aren’t even relevant to them.
Riley’s story isn’t one of reclusive work and immediate stardom, his work and ambition can be traced back year by year. Whether it be his involvement with the Occupy Oakland political movement or his frequent guest appearances in online media, Boots Riley is simply adding another notch to his belt of accomplishments. And he’s doing a damn fine job of it too.
Sorry to Bother You is exactly how to engage a majority public in a debate that only concerns the minority. In taking a harsh and too-real-to-stomach issue, blowing it up to eugenic proportions and providing an alternate (yet disturbingly familiar) reality, Riley has managed to captivate viewers of all backgrounds and explain his viewpoint in a way that we all can act upon.
“I think that what I tried to convey in this is that through all the craziness, there’s an optimism that comes when you realize there’s a way to fight back.”Boots Riley, 2018, Times Magazine [online]