Nerves, belly laughs from brilliant debut ‘Sorry to Bother You’

Stanfield carries the film, but he’s surrounded by a low-key cast of all stars in Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer and the voices of David Cross and Patton Oswalt. Image courtesy Annapurna Pictures.

9/10 Sorry to Bother You is a special, special film.

Cassius “Cash is” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is an impoverished Oakland resident living out of his uncle’s garage. He starts the film by getting a call center job, which gets him nowhere fast until he starts using his “white voice,” a nasal imitation of a wealthier white salesman (voice of David Cross). Elsewhere, millions of Americans are escaping poverty by signing up with WorryFree, a new company that directly provides housing and food instead of wages on a lifetime contract.

With the power of his white voice, Green quickly rises through the ranks at his call center, and is soon promoted from the basement selling encyclopedias to the top floor, where he sells arms and cheap labor from WorryFree.

Inspired by writer/director Boots Riley’s real-life experiences, Sorry to Bother You is a surreal, goofy satire that skewers capitalism as a concept, with special attention to the place of minorities within that system.

The film feels strangely honest, both in its technique and its plot. Instead of cutting back and fourth between callers, Green’s desk crashes in to potential client’s houses, and they share a space as he makes his pitch. The eerie white voice is provided by a deliberately out-of-synch voiceover. Everything is tinged with these supernatural extremes — characters react to the surreal elements, and viewers are expected to take them at face value.

Riley films his truth as directly as possible – Sorry to Bother You doesn’t argue for its Marxist viewpoints as much as it aggressively states them as fact. This is exactly the kind of bombastic black voice that we wanted to see more of in mainstream films.

Where real-world legalized slavery seems to have come back in the form of the poverty cycle, among other forms, Sorry to Bother You imagines a different evolution of slavery – a world that has decided to lean in to worker exploitation in the form of WorryFree, with which desperate workers sign a lifetime contract that provides housing and food for life in lieu of any actual wage. It is explicit that they are forced to work long hours, and other details imply that there is no way out of the contract.

Sorry to Bother You gets pretty seriously weird.

The main thrust of the film is that without genuine upward mobility, there is no real difference between people who are kept down by the cycle of poverty or those who have volunteered for this lifetime of servitude. Workers must participate in their own exploitation to survive. This is reflected in several ways, but I most notice the colorscheme – both WorryFree and the call center basement are decorated in sky blue and sunny yellows. When Green is promoted to the top floor, the colors shift to clean whites during the day, but stays blue and yellow at night – though they’ve now become rich navys and golds. The film signals that this is all happening in the same place, and there is no real difference between the two sets of workers.

Much like Get Out, which came out in February 2017 but was conceived early in the Obama administration, Sorry to Bother You was conceived and written in 2012. It’s sobering to think that both of these films, which seem so much like a reaction to increased racial tensions under the Trump administration, are reactions to problems that already existed and have only gotten worse over the intervening years.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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