“I’m just out here surviving,” Lakeith Stanfield’s protagonist Cassius Green muses at the start of Boots Riley’s new film “Sorry to Bother You.” “I mean, what I’m doing right now won’t even matter.”
This mantra is carried across the Chicago native’s debut feature, a sci-fi pseudo-satire that all but defies categorization. Set in an alternate version of Oakland, California, the film follows Cassius Green—a down-on-his-luck twenty-something—on his journey from unemployment to grotesque wealth. He is living in his Uncle Sergio’s (a tracksuit-sporting Terry Crews) garage, alongside his girlfriend, the enigmatic Detroit (Tessa Thompson), behind on his rent and searching desperately for a job in a seemingly desolate, poverty-stricken environment. In this reimagined present, the streets are littered with garbage, graffiti, and the estranged members of Cassius’s high school football team, who seem to be in the middle of a neverending practice session. The media is saturated by ads for the Orwellian WorryFree, a company led by the coke-sniffing, hard-partying Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), which offers citizens free food and residency, as well as the promise of a life without taxation at the cost of a lifetime labor contract. In contrast, the city streets are overrun by the radical activist group “Left Eye,” essentially an alternate universe Antifa, who is having a competition over which of their members can deface a WorryFree billboard in the most creative manner. This group includes Cassius’s circle of friends—in particular Detroit—who is trying to display her disdain for the proverbial Man through Afrofuturist modern art.
The world-building and sociopolitical atmosphere that Riley manages to cobble together in the film’s opening half hour represents most of his best ideas. His vision is loud, uncompromising, and undeniably bold; the screen is often saturated with vibrant colors, screwball characters, and a score composed by experimental indie outfit Tune-Yards, which is comprised largely of pulsating electronica and hip-hop. These ideas are helped enormously by the work of cinematographer Doug Emmett, whose camera moves at a pace that mirrors the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nature of the plot, pivoting wildly between faces in conversation, finding creative angles and perspectives from which to shoot scenes. In addition, a special nod is due to costume designer Deirdra Elizabeth Govan for the way she dresses Detroit—a style that screams inscrutable modern art—with hilarious earrings (a pair for every scene, it seems) which broadcast messages such as Murder Murder Murder and Kill Kill Kill.
The film’s plot unfolds at the pace of a runaway train. Shortly after his hiring at RegalView, a telemarketing company, Cassius discovers that the road to success in this business is to “use his white voice,” as taught by Danny Glover’s character Langston. Indeed, the technique breeds immediate success, and he quickly becomes one of the company’s most lucrative employees, a process which is depicted in a Rocky-style montage, complete with windmilling high fives and fistpumping celebrations. At RegalView, success is said to come in the form of a promotion to the position “Power Caller,” which is theorized by many to be a false narrative pushed by the company to encourage hard work. Real or fake, Power Callers are provided their own elevator (!) and an office on the top floor of a high rise office building, both of which fascinate Cassius. However, he is torn between this dream and a plot derived by Detroit and Squeeze, another coworker, to form a RegalView union to protect workers. This conflict is further complicated when Cassius is offered an actual Power Caller position, setting in motion a cycle of absurdity that propels the film into its second and third acts.
It turns out, to the shock of only viewers who have slept through the first hour, that being a Power Caller is, as Detroit puts it, “morally emaciating.” RegalView are in cahoots with the dastardly WorryFree corporation, essentially profiteering off of slave labor. However, the salary is huge, and Cassius uses his new cash on a fresh, working wardrobe and a sweet new apartment in the center of downtown. (The best thing that can be said about this section of the film is that Lakeith Stanfield would prove to be an excellent suit model.) This new life has alienated Cassius’s friends, Detroit, and perhaps his own identity, as he now is forced to use his “white voice” at all times. “I can’t ride with you,” Detroit exclaims as she breaks off their relationship and begins to go instead with Squeeze, a true revolutionary, who does have a better jawline anyway. Does Cassius care? Is he conflicted? The film seems uninterested in these questions, but at least viewers get the pleasure of sitting through Detroit’s art show, during which guests are asked to throw water balloons filled with sheep’s blood at her. He makes one last-ditch effort to save the relationship, showing up to the show to prove his devotion to her, but she is convinced that he is past the point of forgiveness.
Although the film’s first two acts were certainly untidy, nothing can prepare viewers for the pornographic, self-indulgent conclusion that is on the horizon. Cassius is invited to a party hosted by WorryFree’s aforementioned Steve Lift, who is just as cocaine- and sex-obsessed as you can imagine. Fascinated by Cassius, Lift invites him into his study, where cocaine is snorted in a spiral off of a plate with horses drawn on it. He then asks to go to the bathroom, where he makes a shocking discovery—WorryFree is creating equisapiens, half-man, half-horse hybrids that look like shitty John Carpenter props, in order to encourage efficient labor. Lift wants Cassius to become an equisapiens (don’t worry, just for a year, then we’ll turn you back), to which Cassius says, emphatically, no thanks. But think, Lift retorts, you’ll have a huge penis. Conclusion: just because something is absurd does not qualify it as absurdism.
The question, really, is what the point of it all is. Riley takes on every issue he can cram into his 111 minute runtime with fierce and unwavering ferocity, from the greed of big corporations to racial inequity to police brutality. And while his agenda is noble, and his points valid, his commentary is for the most part facile and toothless, which is mostly due to the lackluster nature of his screenwriting. The film is peppered with strange, ill-timed jokes, including (but not limited to) a gag about chlamydia, the tone-deafness of which is painfully obvious. He even manages to fit a horse cock gag into his most important, serious scene. Riley’s dialogue is also far too dependent on strings of profanity; whenever he is unsure how a character should continue, the answer usually seems to be with a toothy grin and a gleeful you motherfucker. And even if viewers can enjoy the pure silliness of watching anarchical equisapiens run rampant around Oakland, surely even the most ignorant viewer cannot mistake it for a substantive point. In fact, by boiling his issues down to their simplest, most rudimentary points of right and wrong, he is actually doing a huge disservice to the very people whose rights he is trying to uphold. He only manages to do exactly what his political opponents do—deny victimized, marginalized groups of people the complex, nuanced platform they deserve to express their opinions.
Luckily, Riley finds in Stanfield a raw, visceral performer, who does his best to lift the material beyond the realm of stupidity. At every turn, his performance is brave and layered. And when Riley does find an interesting point to make, Stanfield’s acting brings out poignance and emotion. In the film’s most powerful scene, Cassius is made to rap before an all-white audience at a socialite party. He tries again and again to make them understand that he doesn’t want to, but they chant rap, rap, rap up at him, their faces gleeful. He is handed a microphone, and pauses before his audience, eyes full of genuine fear. All he can think to do is shout a chorus of N-words down at them. Each time he shouts the slur, it emerges with more ferocity and confidence. When it is done, he is celebrated wildly, as though he has just brought them into his world— a world which they do not want to understand, but long to fetishize.