If you’re still convinced the industry is stuck in an originality crisis, I’d like to grab your face and point it aggressively towards Sorry to Bother You – an urgent, shocking satire that balances wit and crushingly perceptive socioeconomic observations within one of the most original concepts of the year. Boots Riley directs Lakeith Stanfield’s ‘Cassius’ through a futuristic rags-to-riches story, which sees a struggling telemarketer rapidly ascend an increasingly disturbing occupational ladder. Laced with visual symbolism and sharp examinations of class and race, Sorry to Bother You goes to all the crazy places you won’t expect – but it’ll keep you captivated for the whole duration.
Since his affecting debut in Short Term 12, it was clear Lakeith Stanfield had something to offer the silver screen, and he serves up yet another powerful and zany offering here. The support – including Armie Hammer and Tessa Thompson – are equally witty and convincing. The entire ensemble is crucial in helping us buy into Riley’s dynamic, eccentric direction, because they help fill his strange world with absorbing characters that espouse values we’re used to seeing in our own world.
“Laced with visual symbolism and sharp examinations of class and race, Sorry to Bother You goes to all the crazy places you won’t expect – but it’ll keep you captivated for the whole duration”
Whether it’s in its dialogue, direction, or editing, Sorry to Bother You sometimes tries to be too quirky for its own good – but the film manages to be so compelling when everything lands, that the fall-backs become charming flaws. And eventually, the film’s unapologetic, stylistic bravery acts as the perfect vehicle for its piercing social commentary; it carries itself with immense conviction. It doesn’t matter if it feels absurd – look around: some co-operations literally insult their own customers on Twitter as a marketing ploy. Capitalism is already absurd.
Early on in the film, Steven Yeun’s character, Squeeze, remarks to a colleague that ‘it’s not that serious’ – what at this point is just a union protest over salaries, is deemed ‘serious, but not that serious’. Of course, there’s far more going on beyond this protest in Riley’s world, but we discover the horror of this reality at the same rate as Cassius. And as we discover it, as we transcend the film’s humble, sober beginning, Sorry to Bother You transcends its own genre, dipping unsettlingly – and effectively – into horror.
I’ve seen some criticise the film for messiness and losing track of its own sub-plots – but it doesn’t lose track of them. It deliberately throws them into the shadows so it can illuminate the daunting presence of the powers that pull the strings in this surreal universe. And an illumination of such an exploitative, morally corrupt power dynamic is exactly the kind of parable we need in 2018. From labour exploitation, to the ever-agonising racial divide, to the ever-terrifying, ravenous pursuit of capital, Boots Riley serves up an alarming buffet of social commentary that is hard but important to swallow.
Day by day, beyond justifiable anger at the state of things, social media is drenched in individual bewilderment at the state of things. And understandably; technology is increasing the capacity of the socioeconomic arena that capitalism works within, while political and institutional powers continue to explore these new areas in manners that are perpetually corrupted. Sorry to Bother You nails this zeitgeist, by shoving a no holds barred, inflated version of our own reality down our throats – what’s so alarming is the parallels that we can taste. It’s a satire that stings so much because it’s so alive to the socioeconomic crisis the world seems to be stuck in.
‘If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, you just decide to get used to the problem’. Squeeze delivers this line in the (maybe excessively) chaotic final act – the ‘problem’ for them may be specifically more unusual, but it’s an apt culmination of the reflection of society Riley had thus far managed to construct. By this point, he’s directly questioning his audience’s moral compass. And sure, for all its urgent, zippy pacing, the film does end in a frenzy that teeters on the edge of dragging. Yet, not only does the film manage to keep making mistakes on their own, admirable terms, it translates its own chaos into provocative social commentary. The final 10 minutes offer a stirring answer to the crisis that Squeeze outlined, reminding us that we don’t have to be submissive to the system, but a messy process is unavoidable.
The film’s uncompromising approach forces us to comprehend the endurance of these evil power dynamics: labourers continue to be exploited, and African-Americans continue to be dehumanised. But it’s also a call-to-arms: a reminder that our resistance needs to be as perpetual as the oppression.
Its discussion of race is slightly more covert than that of Get Out, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther – but it holds an important place in the powerful renaissance of African-American art that we’re all lucky enough to be witnessing. It’s a movement that of course extends far beyond those cinematic highlights, and Riley’s careful and poignant entrenchment of race issues within a broader rubric of economic crisis is an achievement that boisterously joins this defiant cultural crusade. Sorry to Bother You has so much to say, and it’s not afraid to shock you into listening.