Sorry Not Sorry

Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You, 2018, color, sound, 105 minutes. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield).

THE TIME TO DO THE RIGHT THING is now or never. The urgency coursing through Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You makes it a perfect movie for the blazing summer of resistance. When Riley’s debut feature played at Sundance in January, it seemed like African American lysergic futurism. Six months later, even its most surreal moments are less prophetic than terrifyingly close to ordinary life in 2018—maybe with the exception of the human/horse gene-editing thing.

What Riley brings to his first feature film is twenty-seven years of making music as the leader of the Oakland political hip-hop collective the Coup and an even longer stint as a labor organizer. At fifteen, he joined the Progressive Labor Party, then focused on Central California farm workers—hardly the coolest or most glamourous place for a black teenage leftist to define his political identity. With the Coup and now in Sorry to Bother You, Riley homes in on the struggle of workers against unchecked predatory capitalism. The movie is a hilariously unhinged satire, without—and this is the extraordinary part—even a hint of didacticism. Riley doesn’t lecture; he pulls you in by entertaining you—persuasively. Jordan Peele’s revelatory Get Out (2017) framed an African American’s distrust of his own subjectivity—are they going to destroy me, body and soul, or is that just paranoia?—within the conventions of the gaslight horror film. Riley does something more daring by mixing and matching genres, sometimes ignoring their constraints altogether. Unlike many of my fellow critics, I don’t think the film goes off the rails toward the end, although I think the very last shot is mistimed. You need a few more seconds after the shock of the image (the movie’s punchline) to keep looking at it head-on. But that’s such a minor flaw that I probably shouldn’t have brought it up. Because what’s great about Riley’s filmmaking is that he channels the process and aesthetic of a rap-poet into a medium that is resistant, by virtue of its technology, to improvisation and the associative immediacy of the poetic imagination. And Riley’s trippy visual and verbal stream of consciousness is always grounded in the politics of speaking truth to power. Here the message is organize, unionize, walk the picket line, and strike, strike, strike. Shut It Down!

Our everyman is Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a little bit hapless and vaguely guilt-ridden. He lives in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and a member of Left Eye, a secret revolutionary cell. She also has a part-time gig as a sign-twirler for local businesses. This is Oakland and it’s gentrifying pretty fast. Cassius does nothing much until the threat of the bank foreclosing on his uncle’s house makes him take the only job he can get—cold-calling, on commission, at Regal View Telemarketing. His initial “Sorry to bother you” forays into strangers’ living rooms are failures. (Riley literalizes the process by flying Cassius and his desk into the middle of the homes he’s invaded by phone.) But when he takes the advice of the distinguished elder in the neighboring cubicle (Danny Glover) to channel his inner white voice, his luck turns 180 degrees. Provided by an unseen David Cross, Cassius’s white voice sounds like Elmer Fudd, adding a specifically cartoon element to a mise-en-scène that’s already intentionally flat and riotously colored.

Just as Cassius half-heartedly agrees to join his fellow workers in a walk-out, led by a union organizer (Steven Yeun) who has eyes for Detroit, his white-voice talent comes to the attention of management and he’s promoted to “power-caller,” with a luxurious office and a paycheck that’s more than enough to pay off his uncle’s debts and to rent an apartment for himself in a glass high-rise, which leaves Detroit unimpressed. Because while Left Eye is attempting to expose the slave-labor practice of “Worry Free” (the corporate force of darkness that’s been churning in the background of the movie), Cassius is telemarketing Worry Free’s indentured servitude franchises around the world. And if you think that could never happen in America, well, the state of Wisconsin, at the expense of its taxpayers, has just handed the Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group (you couldn’t make up a name like that)––on whose practices Worry Free is based––$4.8 billion to build a manufacturing complex. And the Supremes, in a five-to-four decision, have just done a number on public-service unions.

The rest of the plot is best left as a surprise. Sorry to Bother You is smart, outrageously funny, deadly serious, and buoyantly acted, and it moves to a hip-hop score by the Coup, Riley, and Tune-Yards. In less dire times, I would have dubbed Riley’s vision phantasmagoric, but that would ignore the world we wake to every day. See the movie, buy the album, laugh, cry, yell at the screen, but, above all, get out and organize.

Sorry to Bother You is now playing in select theaters.