In Boots Riley’s breakout indie film, “Sorry To Bother You”, Lakeith Stanfield stars as aspiring (whatever the hell he’s trying to do with his life-er) Cassius “Cash” Green living in an alternate present-day version of Oakland, California with his girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, a starving artist making ends meet as a sign spinner.
Cassius miraculously lands a job in telemarketing thanks to his best friend, Salvador, but initially isn’t making the best sales. An older coworker named Langston, played by the legendary Danny Glover, notices his struggle and advises him to use his “white voice.” And no, not the kind where it’s all nasally, the kind where, as Glover’s character says, you sound like you don’t have a care in the world and you live the kind of life in which “you don’t get fired, just laid off.” Cash takes heed and catches on to using his white voice very quickly, which in turn, makes him more money. There is a lot of talk around the office of becoming a “power caller,” in which the company’s finest telemarketers make it to the top (literally, there’s a golden elevator and everything!) This intrigues Cash, as he is currently four months late on rent (living in his Uncle Sergio’s garage, no less) and could definitely use some money. With his new niche, he scores the opportunity of becoming a power caller and gains new experiences. But, as the saying goes, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Cash soon becomes besides himself with all this new found glory, eventually wondering if becoming a power caller was ever worth it to begin with. Though his life changes almost overnight (with a chic new apartment and a car with LED underlights to boot), he still has many choices to make, particularly when it comes to his relationships with his girlfriend and his friends when he is deemed a “sellout” for choosing monetary gain over doing what’s right.
Boots Riley can now add writer and director under his belt of talents, right beside musical mastermind. The Oakland native initially produced the concept for “Sorry To Bother You” through his brainchild of a screenplay and an album with his hip-hop band, The Coup, of the same name. He has shared that this story was influenced by his beliefs as a person and an activist for social justice (he is a prominent figure in the “Occupy Oakland” movement), as well as his own personal experience in telemarketing. The Coup’s frontman has apparently had this whole concept for “Sorry To Bother You” for a couple of years now, as there is even a whole song on The Coup’s latest album about Cassius Green from his perspective, in which he shares the story of his rise and fall.
The satirical film touches on copious subjects of societal issues, such as capitalism, race, and the intersectionality between the two. In a 2016 interview with the writer-director, Riley explains to 247HH this exact concept, saying, “They [white people] needed to figure out a way that white working class would be able to feel safe… Africa was the answer.” The messages in the movie are quite present, some more blatant than others. They also coincide with Boots Riley’s own beliefs, which are shown through his music with The Coup, which provides the soundtrack for the movie as well, and rightfully so. From a working-class uprising against the telemarketing firm, the sketchy parent business “WorryFree”, and the business’ even sketchier owner, Steve Lift, to the subtle satire on how artists can literally do anything, including allowing people to throw balloons filled with sheep’s blood at them while quoting lines from a 1980s cult-classic film, and be considered “innovative” and “revolutionary”.
In the borderline surreal city of alt-Oakland, California, where the only television channels provided beside the news channel are WorryFree advertisements and their seemingly only source of entertainment, the television show “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!” Boots Riley opens viewers up to a world not too far-fetched from our own, which, in a way, is a bit frightening. Protests and police brutality are also a running subject, with a labor union standing outside of corporate buildings and chanting sayings like “Phones Down!” and “F*** RegalView!” in every other scene. Race relations run deep as well, aside from Black employees learning the power of the “white voice,” the assumption from the white perspective that Black people occupying space are to be used for sheer entertainment, and Black identity (and the erasure of such).
If you’re the kind of person that loves a good genre-blending movie with a very unexpected turn and thematic subplots that display what is essentially a fever dream of a cinematic spectacular, then this is right up your alley. “Sorry To Bother You” meshes outlandish visuals with real-life circumstances, and creatively does so, exuding an all-around larger-than-life experience.