Ambitious. Witty. Original. Surreal. Ridiculous. These all describe writer Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You, and yet none of them quite encapsulate how innovative and genre-defying it is. It’s a screwball comedy, it’s absurdist sci-fi, it’s a satire on capitalism, and yet it also manages to be a political call-to-arms; a film quite clear in its anti-exploitation message.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives with his artist-activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in an alternate present-day version of Oakland, California USA, his home a makeshift garage in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) house, the car instead parked outside and held together with gaffer tape. Owing his uncle many months’ rent, and needing money badly, Cash ends up taking a telemarketing job at RegalView. He struggles to make any sales cold-calling until an older colleague, Langston (Danny Glover), convinces him to use his “white voice” – one that conveys a tone of confident, carefree affluence – to sell.
Cash discovers he’s highly skilled in using this (voiced by David Cross) and soon becomes a “Power Caller” – someone who makes high sales – and he is promoted by RegalView’s top seller (Omari Hardwick, with Patton Oswalt providing the white voice) to a premium department upstairs. Instead of sitting in a noisy open-plan office with multiple booths and dozens of staff, he’s now based in the penthouse of workplaces, all chrome and white and bluetooth headsets. But what RegalView is selling to companies and governments upstairs is human labour from WorryFree – a workhouse with life-long contracts for its inhabitants. Slave labour, basically. Cash is uncomfortable with this, but after he finds out what his pay will be, soon suppresses his discomfort.
Meanwhile, back downstairs there is disquiet: a demand for union recognition is ignored by RegalView management, and the staff go on strike to insist on a living-wage. With his friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler), new co-worker Squeeze (Steven Yeun), and girlfriend Detroit now on the picket line, Cash has to choose between continuing to support their battle for better pay, or being a ‘scab’ and pushing through the strike to continue receiving the new wealth he’s recently becomes accustomed to.
Falling under the spell of riches, and the charms of WorryFree’s CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Cash decides to follow the money – and accept the personal losses he faces. He soon learns though, that all is not what it seems at WorryFree, and the company is plotting far more evil things. Can Cash will break free from his new lifestyle and riches and help those less fortunate than him, or will he too become a slave to the capitalist machine?
Riley’s audacious script is refreshingly innovative and when it works it packs a real punch. But Sorry to Bother You’s many themes are also its weakness: it feels spread too thin, with too much going on, and is somewhat overstuffed in its sociopolitical message. The central characters would have benefitted from being given more authentic needs and wants other than money/justice, and it sometimes seems as if they’re little more than mouthpieces, lacking in their own emotional complexity. Some refinement and tighter editing would have benefitted the film greatly.
But it’s so innovative and captivating, and so wonderfully bizarre, with such great comedic timing – the sarcasm in particular is very effective – that one can mostly ignore this criticism, and focus on the question: can people escape their false consciousness and the entrapment of exploitative work and achieve freedom? It’s not answered here, but heavily suggested that emancipation can only happen when people work together against those that exploit them. It’s a timely piece, with modern-day socialist ideals, and Riley’s political and creative ambitions are promisingly bold.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack