By Kim Bennett
The Seattle Medium
Sorry to Bother You is a fantastical adventure set in Oakland, California. The film takes viewers through the ups and downs of protagonist, Cassius Green’s (played by Lakeith Stanfield), foray into the surprisingly complex world of telemarketing.
Boots Riley, known as the frontman of activist hip hop group The Coup, is the visionary writer and director of this very funny and thought-provoking movie. I recently had the chance to sit down and discuss Sorry to Bother You with him and gained insight into several sections of this multi-layered movie at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).
In interviews, Riley often sums up the film as “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.” Who knew that telemarketing could be so magical? But Riley is able to find the fantastical in the seemingly mundane, using contradiction and humor as devices to help audiences arrive at a deeper meaning.
Exploring race, identity, the underbelly of capitalism, social activism, work strikes, unionization, and more, Sorry to Bother You definitely cannot be encapsulated in one message.
“I want folks to feel empowered,” said Riley, when asked about what viewers should take away from the film. “I want folks to feel that there is a way to change things. I’m hoping that what I created is joyous and it’s hopeful.”
With a background in social activism through music and community involvement, Riley is perfectly suited and poised to create a movie that blends creativity with community engagement in a way that is interesting and compelling.
“I think what I have always done with my work is tell stories and look for ways to talk about the world through a certain lens, and that lens is very much about looking at contradiction. That’s what class analysis is, it’s talking about a very giant contradiction,” says Riley.
“Contradiction is very similar to irony when you put it out very boldly in plain words. It’s very similar to irony and that’s very much connected to humor,” added Riley.
With a strong supporting cast, including Danny Glover, Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, Jermaine Fowler, ArmieHammer, Omari Hardwick, and David Yuen, the film has no shortage of talent to strike the right comedic balance between the realistic and the outrageous.
The satirical leanings of Sorry to Bother You are immediately evident when Cassius is given sage advice from seasoned co-worker Langston, played by Danny Glover, to use his “White voice” in order to make more sales and eventually achieve the enviable status of “Power Caller.”
It’s the clearly ringing treatment of the “White voice” as a dub over performed by David Cross (from Arrested Development) that is intriguing and effective as a humorous way to analyze race and identity.
“All of what we define as race that isn’t just what we look like, is performed. It’s a performance and some of it is a more organic performance than others, but we’ve been taught that performance,” Riley says.
“There’s been a lot of talk about what Blackness is, what real Blackness is, and when you do that, it ends up, sometimes by accident, making Whiteness feel like the norm and that Blackness is just performed. This [dubbed over ‘white voice’] is saying that Whiteness is also performed,” Riley continues.
Sorry to Bother You has many messages and lots of ideas within its fun and strange moments that cannot be explained, just experienced. The soundtrack by The Coup delivers on this notion as the viewer experiences the music along with the characters.
“The songs that happen are diegetic, they’re happening in that world. If they’re in a bar, if they’re in a car, it’s what those characters can actually hear,” Riley explains.
Something especially compelling about the movie is that sense of hope in the face of the ridiculous. In many ways it’s a call to action. As a young teenager, Riley himself was called to action when a youth organizer came to his house with a van full of 14-year old girls on the way to the beach, but first with the plan to go support the Watsonville cannery workers strike.
“There were all these kids my age who knew so much about the world, who were thinking about how the world was working and how it could be changed,” recalled Riley. “For me that was eye opening, that there is something you can do about things and then you start wanting to know what’s going on.”
Sorry to Bother You is a funny and strange satirical examination of the world that takes viewers through dramatic and sometimes surprising twists and turns. However with all of that, beneath the surface there is something that encourages thought and engagement.
“I’m with hopefully a growing tradition of films that inspire people to engage in the world. I have ways that I hope people will engage, but I want it to at least start off with people being like ‘I want to be involved with the world around me,’” says Riley. “My opinion is the best way to be involved in the world around you is to join organizations or form organizations.”
“I don’t know how that engagement will interpret in each person’s life, but I want it [the movie] to give them that extra desire, that motivation. The same way when you leave Purple Rain, you wish that you could be a rock star. I want people to leave this wanting to ignite the world,” concluded Riley.