Sorry to Bother You Is Fizzy, Flawed, and Fascinating
If the film has a single guiding insight it’s probably best encapsulated in a common street slogan that became a meme of sorts during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” Shit is certainly fucked up in this movie universe, and Occupy’s broad and often nonspecific critiques of American politics and culture have a firm grip on the story. “When Occupy came around, there was a movement with a class analysis that we hadn’t heard in mainstream culture for a long time that popped up in every city in the United States and in little towns,” Riley told me recently by phone.
The basic structure of his story is probably well-known by now. Lakeith Stanfield, of Atlanta fame, plays Cassius Green, or “Cash,” a telemarketer whose supernatural mastery of a stylized “white voice” not only takes him to financial security, but also places him at the feet of power. From there unfurls the classic narrative of the big-time picket-line-crossing sellout, struggling with his own role as a collaborator with evil rich guys as his old comrades soldier on.
The trailers portray Cash’s mastery of the “white voice,” rendered as a hilariously dweebish whine by Arrested Development’s David Cross, as the chief indicator that Sorry to Bother You’s Oakland is not quite like our own. But in the movie, that act is merely a gateway drug to the full-on loopiness that follows. Riley’s story is Kafka-esque, exposing both Cash and the audience to more and more absurd moments. At one point, almost offhand, the contract workers of the film’s Big Bad company, Worry Free Living, are revealed to kinda-sorta-maybe be enslaved. At another, Cash is instructed to kinda-sorta-maybe sell those contract workers. Reality television is capably sent up with some believable, if thin, parodies of current programming—until you look up from your popcorn and someone is covered in poop as part of a game show. And then there’s the big twist. Oh, boy.
Sorry to Bother You Has an Eerily Familiar Villain
There’s magic in that gradual Dalían disintegration of reality. It’s how Riley dips his characters and audience into an alternate reality that’s clearly absurd, but within which people respond the way they often respond to blatant incursions of inequity today: by carrying on. “I think that’s how it is in the real world, and the movie addresses this,” Riley said. “For instance, right now people have found out that kids are being taken away from their families and being held in detention centers. Children! But you gotta get up and go to work.”
In that narrative structure, it becomes clear that Riley’s story—which was completed long before Trump was even a serious candidate—is angling for bigger fish than just the president. “Our economic system hasn’t changed, so that same critique that the movie puts out there could’ve applied at any point during my lifetime at least,” Riley said. “In fact, I had to take things out of the script because once Trump came in office, he made my movie a little too on the nose.” In one of those rewrites, Riley says he had to modify a line from Omari Hardwick’s character, Mr. Blank, a professional guide of Cash’s with similar mastery of the “white voice,” who at one point in the original script said that “Worry Free is making America great again.”