In recent years there’s a been a lot of talk about “bias” in media criticism, most recently on the part of certain segments of comic book movie fandom. Complaints of bias in a field that is by definition subjective have always struck me as deeply silly. If approaching a work through the lens of your own experiences and preferences qualifies as bias, then every single critic in the world needs to pack up their Smith Coronas right now and recuse themselves from ever writing anything again. So it’s a bit out of character for me to be concerned about my own biases when it comes to Sorry to Bother You, the directorial debut of Oakland musician and social activist Boots Riley. I wasn’t born in Oakland, but I’ve lived here for over a decade, and Sorry to Bother You is positively steeped in Oakland. I love this town, so when I say that this film is my favorite so far this year (it is) I feel an obligation to ensure that isn’t at least in part stemming from the gleeful novelty of seeing my own neighborhood depicted on film.
I feel pretty secure. Sorry to Bother You is a creative and hilarious piece of revolutionary political and social commentary, and an absurdly well done debut film.
Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius “Cash” Green, an unemployed young black man, living in his uncle’s garage. Other than his absurdly cool and stylish girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, his life is pretty crap. Desperate for money, he finally finds work at RegalView, a seemingly low-rent telemarketing company. Imagine Office Space but more run-down and grimy. The official motto of the call center is “STTS: Stick to the Script.” Since his pay is based on commission and he doesn’t seem to have much telemarketing ability, his financial situation doesn’t get much better. Enter Langston.
Langston, played by Danny Glover, is an older black man working at the cubical next to Cash. He explains to Cash that he needs to use his “white voice” on sales calls. The white voice, elaborates Langston, is not simply nasal (although it is generally that), but reflects a general sense of security and comfort. Cash tries it out. His white voice, provided by David Cross, works spectacularly well, and he is quickly the biggest seller on the floor. Money starts flowing in.
This is on its own a perfectly solid premise for a code-switching comedy that intends to comment on race and the way it’s perceived (and received) by society as a whole. And Sorry to Bother You does intend to do that, but Riley is not content to stop there. Instead it branches out into some pretty radical class themes. Of course class and race are incredibly intertwined in this country, but this film is straight up the most anti-capitalist wide-release movie I’ve seen in years. Maybe since Snowpiercer? Although that was so metaphorical and divorced from the specifics of modern life that it’s hard to compare the two.
Cash’s success with code-switching ends up netting him a promotion. He becomes a “Power Caller,” working in a glass-filled and Apple-ish upstairs office where he is required to use his white voice at all times. New clothes. New car. New apartment…
Okay. I just have to gush about that. When the view from Cash’s swanky new apartment was revealed I actually gasped. It’s on the tip of the Cathedral Building in Downtown Oakland, just a few blocks away from where I live! Then the rest of the apartment was revealed. I gasped again. I’ve actually been in Cash’s apartment! I somehow randomly ended up there for a Halloween party a couple of years ago. Sorry for the digression. There won’t be too much Oakland fanboying going on from here on.
Cash’s success, as these things often do, has a cost. Or rather costs. There’s his lack of solidarity with the burgeoning labor movement in the downstairs offices of RegalView, which in turn brings him into conflict with and estrangement from the people he loves. But there’s also the broader moral cost. As Langston explains at one point, the difference between what the downstairs callers sell and what the Power Callers sell isn’t a matter of apples and oranges but “apples and holocausts.” These are the kinds of “compromises” that all of us who live in a capitalist society are continually presented with. Do you want to be poor? Do you want to be in continual fear of your life collapsing due to outside forces? Or do you want what is commonly deemed success? Material wealth. Security. Status.
Most of us don’t have to make compromises quite as stark as Cash, but I relate to it. Perhaps too much. For my day job I build websites, a career I never expected to fall into. For the first website I coded in a professional capacity, I was so overwhelmed, figuring shit out as I went along, that I didn’t realize what the company I was building it for did until pretty late in the process. I was too busy plonking chunks of jargon-filled copy into HTML that I never actually read any of it until a work friend suggested I do so.
Hoo boy. It was a military contractor. A logistics company responsible for making sure munitions get to all the world’s various war zones in a timely and efficient manner. I felt sick to my stomach. What would the Shannon of just a few short years earlier—a generally inept peace activist—think of new “sell-out” Shannon. By building this site was I partially responsible for thousands of deaths overseas? I would say, yes. Yes I was. But I also needed a damn job. So is everyone involved in that industry, down to the person who sells printer paper to Boeing. That person needs a damn job, too. Maybe a better man would have quit then and there, but I didn’t feel I was secure enough to pull that off. I finished the site. I’ve never again been asked to work on a project that bad, but I continue to build marketing sites for big companies, and it’s all but impossible to do that kind of work without getting your hands dirty. Or almost any kind of work.
My example is pretty dramatic, if not quite as dramatic as Cash’s, but I feel it’s pretty representative of the shit we are asked both to peddle and to swallow so we can survive.
As Cash’s rise (or fall?) into the higher echelons of RegalView continues, Sorry to Bother You gets stranger and stranger. Stylized and filled with absurd humor from frame one, the film takes some big stylistic and narrative chances as it builds to its climax, eventually venturing into some Eyes Wide Shut-style weirdness, science fiction, and even body horror. I don’t want to get into any more specifics, but will only say that at certain points I could barely believe what I was seeing.
When I walked out of Get Out last year, I said to myself, “If that’s not on my top 10 list for the end of the year, it’ll have been a great year for movies.” 2017 was a great year for movies, but even then Get Out was still number one. I’m going to say the same thing about Sorry to Bother You. I realize that sounds condescending and Whitford-esque1 to compare the two, both being racially-themed, feature debuts by black filmmakers, but I think the comparison stands. Both are incredibly assured pieces of weirdo genre cinema, funny and disturbing and cynical and filled to the gills with incisive social commentary. In other words, Sorry to Bother You is exactly the kind of movie I’d like to see more of. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t top my list for the year, and I will be heartbroken if Boots Riley doesn’t keep working in cinema.
One of my friends I saw the film with told me he loved it but that it made him want to quit his job. If you can deal with that possibility, see Sorry to Bother You as soon as you can.