I didn’t know what to expect from a film that’s officially described as “a science fiction comedy,” but knowing as little as I did about the actual premise, Sorry to Bother You turned out to be a trip down a surreal rabbit hole of art, activism, racial identity, and corporate evils in America. Director Boots Riley picks up the pace with a whole mess of ideas, and that’s what makes his first film resonate in a unique way. A not-so-obvious blend of the telemarketing trade with a wacked-out sci-fi twist worthy of a scene or two from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil effectively speaks to a kind of outrage in our culture right now.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) springs from a mostly African-American neighbourhood in Oakland, California, and you see it all through his affectionately nerdy eyes. Clubs, hanging on the corner are part of his scene, but he’s still focused on a legit job to get away from his Uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage and make a name for himself with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), his artist girlfriend, by his side. Riley’s soundtrack fusion of funk, soul, and rock with a punk vibe is also a large part of telling Cassius’ awakening story. His loneliness, a black man on the verge of success in a white man’s world, even adopting a “white” voice, becomes layered and nightmarish but electric at the same time.
Sorry to Bother You tries to ask the question, if the tables were reversed, and the low are suddenly given a chance to be on high, would they handle the power any better than their predecessors? What does it mean to be a success, anyway? Does it have to be at the expense of a social conscience? The disguised voices of Rosario Dawson, David Cross, and Patton Oswalt are also key in describing what happens to Cassius as he rises up that ladder of elite access. He’s a rising star but disconnected from his girlfriend, co-workers, and friends overnight. Danny Glover’s straight-up, down-to-earth black elder on the picket line traded in for Armie Hammer’s insane hedonistic white boss illustrates the two extremes of work life and community that someone like Cassius Green would have to come to terms with.
With all that energy onscreen, at a certain point, I thought it wouldn’t be completely far-fetched if every character broke out into song, but luckily Sorry to Bother You doesn’t veer off track. It sharply observes the consequences of big-money corruption against the need of each individual to stand up and choose what has value to them beyond soulless materialism and endless consumption. It’s all done in a satirical and fun-loving way, flipping assumptions upside down to spotlight a host of voices that seldom get heard but are more relevant than ever.
Sorry to Bother You is now playing at the Cineplex Forum.