In this politically-charged landscape the world finds itself, more artists than ever before are being noticed by a mainstream audience, eager to hear what they have to say. This hankering for partisan material has, consequently, seen new names and voices add themselves to the conversation, such as the director of this film, who is better recognised as a musician.
Cassius Greene (LaKeith Stanfield) is living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), and owing four months’ worth of rent, when he applies for a low-level job at the RegalView call centre in Oakland, California. Despite his application being riddled with falsehoods, the firm offers him a job as a telemarketer on commission, with Cassius beginning his job the very next day. Like all RegalView employees, he is given one golden rule: Stick to the Script.
Cassius initially has trouble being a successful salesman, until fellow caller, and African-American, Langston (Danny Glover) suggests the new recruit use his “white voice” to make himself sound empowered and carefree, thereby making products more vendible to his customers. Within days, Cassius has perfected his white voice and his making sales frequently, drawing enthusiasm from his supervisors and increasing his chance of a promotion.
Meanwhile, the employees of RegalView are planning a revolt are demanding a revolt against the company, with lead protester “Squeeze” (Steven Yuen) demanding better pay and entitlements. Knowing that he needs to clear all debts with Sergio sooner, rather than later, Cassius finds himself torn – he wants to support his colleagues in their fight, but their actions might take months, whereas a promotion would see Cassius earn more money instantly.
Sorry to Bother You is the debut feature of Boots Riley, an activist and lead artist of hip-hop group The Coup. Riley, whose politics are left-wing and somewhat radical, is an unashamed cynic of capitalism, a position that influences the world of his film: a dystopian consumerist culture where corporations freely exploit their workforce without interference from the government. To counteract this grim version of America, Riley adorns bright, loud colours throughout, providing his world with visual splendour.
Complementing the vibrant palette of Sorry to Bother You is a soundtrack written by Riley and fellow members of The Coup. Each and every one of the film’s compositions are energetic and upbeat, making proceedings even more fun. The catchiest of all is a song that has Cassius attempt an improvised rap, failing spectacularly, and reverting to uttering racial profanities repeatedly, to the delight of an all-white crowd – an easy contender for the movie’s most controversial, and hilarious, moment.
Scenes like these are actually quite rare, since much of the humour found in Sorry to Bother You is not so much shocking as it is quirky – there’s great delight to be found in Cassius’ low-cost solutions to his money problems, the daring fashion statements of his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and the surreal way he transports himself into the homes of the people he’s telephoning. In fact, the comedy becomes so subversive that by the third act, the viewer isn’t quite sure what they’re watching, but they remain engrossed nonetheless.
Furthermore, props should be given to Riley for amassing such a talented group of actors, all of whom are great. One name not already mentioned is Armie Hammer, the principal antagonist and deceivingly sociable head of the WorryFree Corporation, Steve Lift, who proves amusing in every scene; assisting him are the “white voices” that can be heard emanating from the black actors, including Patton Oswalt, Lily James and David Cross, the latter being a perfect fit for Cassius.
Provided one agrees with its worldview, Sorry to Bother You is a charming oddity that revels in its boldness and absurdity. Boots Riley’s directorial debut is a comedy unafraid to make a statement, yet equally willing to keep audiences fascinated by its colourful visuals, upbeat music and gifted cast members.