Speculative fiction must speculate. It’s in the name, of course. While idyllic utopias have had their place under the sun in science-fiction and fantasy media, it’s dystopias that are having their day, with their central premise imagining that sociopolitical currents today will lead to disaster tomorrow. In an age that sees people shaped by anxiety about annihilation (among other things), the dystopia has become a modern standard, a collective of uneasy musings about the soured nature of human society that employs both dour predictions and biting satire in its doomsaying.
Sorry to Bother You, the debut film from the musician Boots Riley, faces the difficult task of puncturing the ever more absurd heights of real-life oppression and inequality in America. As my colleague David Sims notes, Riley mostly succeeds. “The film perhaps tries to tackle too much in its 105-minute running time,” Sims writes. “But oddly that excess helps it feel all the more suited to the charged landscape of 2018, one where politics courses through so much of daily life.” To say that Sorry to Bother You tries to tackle too much might even be an understatement; it’s a freewheeling critique ranging from Oakland’s creeping hyper-gentrification to the exploitation of labor to a Get Out–meets–Chappelle’s Show riff on race and tokenism. It’s less a surgical satire of something being wrong than a man on the corner, waving wild-eyed and shouting that everything is.
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.
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.”
But Sorry to Bother You is not not about Trump either, and while Riley maintains that his powers of pattern recognition explain its resonance, he acknowledges that it does strike several nerves in relation to what’s going on in America today. “I think that there’s a zeitgeist happening,” Riley said. “There’s things going on all around. There’s teachers shutting shit down. There’s a Black Lives Matter movement that’s happening that is making artists have to think about their world. There’s a reaction by artists of color to the spaces that were opened up by activists putting themselves on the line. I think that’s what happens in art all the time. Movements and revolutions open up the space a little bit and artists can try to open it up a little more.”
Critically, though, when faced with a zeitgeist that keeps George Orwell’s 1984 on best-seller lists and prompts Hollywood to churn out The Purge movies and bleak sci-fi dystopias seemingly every week, Riley’s final turn is also in skewering much of the art that’s fixated on the end. Riley stopped me when I referred to his film itself as a dystopia. “What does dystopia actually mean?” he countered. “When I think of someone creating a dystopian world, it sounds to me as a world that’s cynical and hopeless. So I think that there’s a lot of joy that we find in this world when we’re going through it, and there is optimism in general.”
Indeed, no matter how comically bleak the power imbalance and exploitation in Sorry to Bother You get, the film isn’t really about them. Riley is interested in the human impulses that lead to resistance, rather than those that lead to human catastrophes, even under the worst of circumstances. “Most of these movies that have a dystopian reality, in most of them nobody is fighting back unless you have, like, special powers,” he says.
“They erase rebellion,” Riley continues, “even though rebellions for most of our lifetimes and way beyond have been an ongoing part of reality. Think about how hard that has to be to keep that out of movies for this long … At the very least, writers have been censoring themselves.”
There are, of course, dystopian films—especially in the vein of young-adult works such The Hunger Games and Divergent—that feature healthy doses of rebellion, but even they as a whole seem to focus more heavily on painting portraits of bleakness than on the human spirit. But Sorry to Bother You’s buoyant defiance is the sole constant in a story that otherwise travels a long distance into darkness. The overall effect is a film that—flaws and all—marries acid satire and a trippy futurescape where oppression is the norm to an ethos of genuine hope. The result is not just an interrogation of the power of evil or the mad lengths to which it can go, but also a contemplation of the power of protest to always meet or exceed that evil. It evinces a real optimism about the human juggernaut that can be built when people organize. With despair in the real world on the rise, Riley’s real trick as a first-time filmmaker might’ve been suckering audiences into going home more hopeful about fixing the world’s fucked-up-ness than before.