Usually I approach watching films with as little background knowledge as possible. Sorry To Bother You (2018, Dir. Boots Riley) is not one of those films. I have been a passenger on its hype train since my friend showed me the trailer last year, and I have been waiting with bated breath for it to make its long-awaited, just-about-made-it landing in the UK (distribution is complicated). I still did my best to keep myself in the dark about it, but I have been amped for a long time.
What I couldn’t expect however, was how amped Boots Riley would be. Because Sorry To Bother You is a molotov cocktail into your cinematic consciousness.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is a newly employed telemarketer. Poverty, and all its trappings, hang over his world like a gloomy cloud in the sunny sky. But after some tutelage, Cassius uses his “white voice” (overdubbed by David Cross) to climb the corporate ladder, while the socio-economic tensions in his life become amplified by him “selling out”. Cassius’s enemy, the villain which parades through the film is the invisible relationships of capitalism and the pressures it creates and enforces. Friendship, financial stability, self-worth and self-“progress” all become complicated by Cassius’s elevation. And then the rest of the film spirals out, into a whacked-out and cerebral movement through some of current society’s most brutal and bizarre corners. In case I didn’t convey it properly, the film is a lot.
In short, the film has ambitions, and is very clear about you knowing them. Boots Riley wants you to be aware, of the subtext and sub-conscious forces operating in the world around you. The news is not just the news. Blackness is not just blackness. The corporate environment of the highest echelons of our society does not exist in a vacuum, and it does not exist in stasis. Everybody wants things done, from the poorest to the richest. Often their aims conflict, and Riley drops that image in the form of a brutal strike action combatted by anti-riot police, with added extras. The mechanisms of our lives have layers of meaning, and layers of action. Cassius’s “white voice” is a tool which elevates him, not just a fun party trick. What people present, and how they present it, is an idea which keeps recurring during my watching of the film.
And there are moments where the film goes beyond my understanding. There’s elements of misé-en-scene, of character interactions and scenes which left me a little unsure of what was happening. And I think that’s good, because Riley has purposely presented a world which is dense, complicated, full of ideas bursting and spiralling off from the main plot. Comments on late-stage capitalism, the role of the media, the role of art and performed whiteness and blackness. Riley’s script comes through like an avalanche, ideas and critiques shifting and falling onto even the most politically aware viewers, saturating you with the complicated images of the world. Which is fantastic, because a complicated and unresolved world is the one we live in. To make a satire really function, it has to reflect the world it’s satirising. And for Boots Riley not to capitulate to a sense of order, to keep things purposefully complex, I think is really cool.
More importantly, while Sorry To Bother You may not possess any sense of “classical unity”, it is still a unified film, and it doesn’t forget to be entertaining. Devilishly funny cinematic moments occur, and Cassius’s internal struggle is one which resonates, even if the landscape he navigates is highly surreal and exaggerated. The score by The Tune-Yards and The Coup (Boots Riley’s band), is one which singes the edges of the film with a cool fire, one which feels just as alive and playful as the films ideas. It’s cinematography aswell, shot mostly under the hot Californian sun in Oakland, prevents the film from any sense of gloominess, only fiery anger and fiery hope. I’ve talked more about what telling dark stories in sunlight can do, in Brick (2005, Dir. Rian Johnson), and Riley’s situating of most of the action in the bright sunlight makes everything feel more exposed, the darkness uglier because there’s no shadows to hide it.
The film’s chaos and order is channelled through the performances aswell. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius seems to surf through the world and it’s inhabitants, waves overlapping and washing over him. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is fierce, and her radicalised agenda grates against Cassius’s apathy, but that soon becomes complicated too. Squeeze (Steven Yeun), is less cool but more politically organised, a potential path for Cassius to walk. Langston (Danny Glover) is an elder, a compromised father/elder figure who’s help is double-edged. And Mr Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), does his best to convince you that you’ve got it all wrong. After all, power is rarely won virtuously.
Sorry To Bother You is a lot, I said that earlier. Because it is so conscious, so hyper aware of the interconnectedness and links between an individual and the society they live in, it can be thrown about for hours, for Riley has a lot to say, and even more for you to think about. But in a film where everything is compromised, by insecurity which ranges from personal to moral to worldwide, an aware acknowledgement and genuine wrestling with those insecurities is incredible to watch in a film, especially one that’s got a kerosene kick of style to boot. It’s a radically political film, it’s unashamed of its political leanings in a world which is not politically neutral, it’s a film which will leave you with mixed feelings, a film which pushes you as a viewer. It will not sit easily with everyone, and that’s good.
It’s at once a warning cry, a rallying cry, and a bitter and despondent cry. But most of all its courageous. To make a film like this, takes courage. And to watch a film like this, you get some of the fruits of that courage. So be brave. Track it down.
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