Boots Riley’s debut film, the deeply weird and deeply thrilling “Sorry To Bother You,” was the toast of Sundance 2018. And it’s poised to become the most talked-about movie of the summer. The satirical anti-capitalist cri de coeur is the synthesis of Riley’s life and work as a politically conscious rapper and Oakland, California, community organizer, and it’s the perfect film for the moment. The absurdist parable set in a dystopian alternate timeline somehow feels entirely plausible, and it hits home.
Riley has crafted a world that looks and feels very much like ours, slightly off, a bit theatrical and definitely ironic – until it all goes completely bonkers. He’s cast it perfectly with a host of total weirdos, cool kids and cool weirdos. Lakeith Stanfield, an actor with a pair of captivatingly empathetic eyes we haven’t seen the likes of since Bette Davis, stars as Cassius Green (say it fast, get it?), a young striver who becomes the figurehead for the struggle between the American dream and human morality.
Cassius is a dreamy but unmotivated type. He lives in his uncle’s garage with his uber-cool artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and laments his legacy, what he might leave behind for posterity. But his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) is breathing down his neck for the rent, and bills don’t pay themselves.
In this Oakland, it seems the only jobs available are in marketing and sales, which isn’t so unfamiliar. Detroit twirls a sign on the street to finance her radical artwork, and she also dabbles in secret anarchic anti-corporate activism. Cassius is tempted by the lifetime guaranteed work/life contract at the mysterious company Worry Free, though the violent protests by former workers alleging the company engages in human slavery deters that thought. Instead, he scams his way into a telemarketing job with a DIY employee of the month plaque.
It’s a dead-end job, and though some of his co-workers are planning a union bid, Cassius is intrigued by the promise of becoming a “power caller.” He receives a tip from a longtime employee (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) on the calls, and soon, the sales commissions are rolling in, and he’s rocketing upstairs in a golden elevator.
That elevator turns into a rabbit hole all the way into the corrupt heart of the corporate stranglehold, embodied by pepped-up billionaire entrepreneur Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Steve’s business innovations are so unconventional they’re monstrous, inspiring a revolution in the streets, and the protestors don’t even know the half of it. Cassius struggles to decide which side he’s on. The financial promise and comforts are tangible, but what he uncovers is unbelievably bizarre, inhumane and terrifying.
And yet. It’s not too far off from the kind of ethos espoused in the most troubling corners of the tech industry we know, where productivity and profit are enthroned as sacrosanct. Riley just spins the idea out into a surreal cinematic reality that’s simultaneously silly and nightmarish.
It’s a truly stunning debut film – specific and singular, every detail wonderfully haphazard but perfectly placed. With a thrumming punk-rap hybrid soundtrack by his group The Coup, and a daring, confrontational vision, Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” will at once delight and rattle you to your bones in equal measure.
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