What Get Out is to horror, Sorry To Bother You is to satire. Writer and director Boots Riley has put together a deliriously punk rock and intensely Oakland film with a bark as vicious as its bite: It’s an exhilarating dystopian work of science fiction, a scathing critique of American ideals, and a love song to the Bay Area. Riley is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the face, but that made me love the movie even more.
In a surreal, near-future Oakland, the world is beset by an ever-worsening economic crisis fueled by corporate greed and social and political indifference. The streets teem with tent communities and beat-up cars turned into mobile homes. When his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) threatens to kick him and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of his garage for owing four months in back rent, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job at RegalView, the telemarketing company where his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) works. Cash struggles until a coworker, Langston (Danny Glover), pushes him to use his “white voice.” Flush with new sales, he’s promoted to Power Caller and moved upstairs with the bizarre Mr. _______ (his name is blanked out every time it’s uttered onscreen; Mr. Blank is played by Omari Hardwick). Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and the other telemarketers form a union and strike for better pay as Cash rakes in the, well, cash. They aren’t the only protestors, however—a group known as Left Eye is rebelling against WorryFree, a company basically enslaving workers with the blessing of politicians. When Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of WorryFree, pulls Cash into his inner circle, Cash discovers just how bad a dystopia can get.
Between his turns on Atlanta and Get Out, Stanfield is hands down one of the most interesting actors out there, at the current moment. He plays Cash with equal amounts of frantic intensity and easy-going chill. Thompson is a revelation as Detroit. She’s one of those actors who started off astounding and just keeps getting better with every role. Hammer takes on his most bonkers role thus far as Steve Lift. He dives fully into his performance, turning his stunning good looks and masculine energy into something keenly off-putting and unstable.
Costume designer Deirdra Govan deserves an Oscar for giving Detroit the world’s best closet, and her touch is just as impressive with Cash, Mr. Blank, and Salvador. Coupled with Doug Emmett’s claustrophobic yet expansive cinematography and Jason Kisvarday’s vivid-almost-to-the-point-of-garish production design, Sorry To Bother You is a joy to behold on every level.
With his debut feature film, Riley takes a flamethrower to American-style capitalism. He goes in hard and fast, pausing only to rub salt in the wounds. If you don’t know Boots Riley, you got some catching up to do. As part of the legendary Oakland hip-hop group The Coup, Boots is a ferocious rapper. The Coup’s albums are lush with political activism and anti-capitalism, themes repeated in Sorry To Bother You. I mention this because their sixth album—which shares the title of the movie and acts as an unofficial soundtrack—was actually released six years before the movie. The record is punkier than their older fare, but establishes a fierce foundation for the film.
The plot of the film hinges on the concept of the white voice. No, Riley did not make it up. Many POC really do employ a white voice and code-switch when in predominately white spaces. It’s important to note this reality, because to look at Cash, Langston, Detroit, and Mr. Blank’s use of white voice as simply a disconcerting joke misses the whole damn point. The film’s Black characters only make money when mimicking white voices, and only become upwardly mobile when acting like white folks.
Cash and Mr. Blank put the white man costume on so often that they forget they’re wearing it. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Blank wears clothing that nods at particular kind of whiteness—the bowler hat, waistcoat, and mutton chops hearken back to nineteenth-century capitalists and robber barons, not to mention his dress shirt with a pattern reminiscent of a trademark Carlton Banks sweater. Hell, Mr. Blank is so deeply immersed in his costume/role that the film even denies him a name: no identity, no truth, just an iron mask he can never remove. When Cash initially upgrades his wardrobe, his old-school suit fits awkwardly, and is a kaleidoscope of odd colors and patterns. He’s far less comfortable in his costume than Mr. Blank, even if he doesn’t realize it. But he quickly adapts and switches to tailored suits. He has no qualms about screwing his friends over for money until suddenly he does…but only when he realizes that doing so directly affects him in a negative way.
Or, to put it another way, Cash can pretend he’s as white as he sounds until an actual white man reminds him that he’s still Black. Because that’s the thing about Cash—as he keeps telling the white folks, he isn’t “that” kind of Black man. He can’t rap, has never shot anyone, lives in a middle-class neighborhood with lawns and single-family homes, and wears hand-me-down sweater vests. Cash doesn’t fit white folks’ stereotype of what a Black man is, which makes it all the easier for him to move up in the ranks. When he’s simply a lowly telemarketer, his white supervisor Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) barely looks at him, but once she sees him moving in the same circles as successful white folks she can barely keep her hands off him. No wonder Cash let himself be seduced RegalView: How intoxicating it must be, not only to be suddenly rich, but to find yourself moving in circles that people like him are traditionally excluded from, to feel like you now have power (even if it’s only an illusion). Is it worth sacrificing his soul over? Maybe.
While Cash lets the system play him, Detroit plays the system. She is fully aware of how she’s manipulating whiteness, and why. As a light-skinned Black woman, she already has an in that Cash doesn’t. She chooses to use not just a white voice, but that of a posh English woman. Cash’s white voice allows him to become one of the guys, a broheim ready to kick it with some brewskis. Detroit, however, picks a voice that makes white people admire and respect her, and look to her as an arbiter of taste. She’s wise enough to know that a poor kid from Oakland will never be able to sell Black activist art to snooty white gallery snobs. They expect the best artists to be pretentious and Old World, so that’s the costume she wears. Yet she always remembers that this persona is a mask she uses to get what she wants, without sacrificing who she truly is.
Even her name hints at her double life. The city we now know as Detroit, Michigan started off as a French colony before being taken over by the U.S. It was a key stopping point on the Underground Railroad before becoming a haven for wealthy industrialists and tycoons. Today, it’s a largely Black city thanks to major manufacturers shutting down and white flight. Both Detroits are resistance fighters pushing back against the abuses perpetrated by exploitative white people, and both are activists using the power of creativity to define the world on their own terms. They are hopeful and determined in the face of exploitation and abandonment.
There’s something to be said about Cash’s name as well. Cassius Clay became famous under his slave name. Once he refused to participate in the war machine and gave himself his true name, white folks turned on him. They wanted him to shut up and box. That would’ve been the easy thing to do, certainly, but instead Muhammad Ali risked everything by fighting for the Civil Rights Movement.
If Detroit is like the metropolis after which she was named, Steve Lift (Steve Jobs wink wink nudge nudge) reflects the egos and motivations of the capitalists who moved their factories overseas and ditched an entire city’s worth of employees for personal profit. With his stoner poncho-esque caftan, riding crop, and blazer ensemble, he clearly gives no fucks. He makes money by whatever means possible and envisions himself as a hero. He sees only the sale and resulting profit, not the physical, emotional, psychological, or political havoc his vision causes. Lift is a brutal take on Silicon Valley tech geniuses, but an accurate one.
An imperfectly perfect film, Sorry To Bother You jumps from plot to plot so much that it occasionally forgets to do something meaningful with its scattered cast. Some jokes go on a little too long, while others have a punchline weaker than the setup. Don’t come into the theater looking for straightforward satire and a clear resolution. Riley isn’t interested in holding your hand or revealing all of his secrets.
With its larger-than-life, take-no-prisoners mentality, this is a film that demands to be experienced on the big screen and surrounded by a captive, captivated audience. And what better time to release this movie than July Fourth weekend? Given the targets of its wrath, the greed of its white patriarchy, its meritocracy-minded protagonist, and everything in between, Sorry To Bother You is about as American as it gets.
Sorry to Bother You is currently out in limited release across the U.S., and will be in theaters nationwide on July 13th.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.