‘Sorry to Bother You’ Need Not Apologize

by Warren Cantrell on July 13, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

A gripping social comedy with just a tinge of sci-fi, Sorry to Bother You doesn’t so much lambast and critique racial attitudes and realities as it does draw and quarter them: displaying the mutilated entrails and appendages to the masses like the medieval executions of old. A story about a man coming to grips with his adulthood and his place within an increasingly ruthless world, writer/director Boots Riley has done something marvelous with his debut film, mixing comedy with impactful social commentary.

When the audience meets Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), he’s bullshitting his way through a telemarketing job interview. The position he’s up for, which represents some of the lousiest and least-respected work in the world, falls into his lap with little trouble, and before he knows it, Cassius is making cold calls. And while the new job pays peanuts, and his uncle/landlord (Terry Crews) is demanding rent long overdue, Cassius seems more or less happy. The guy has a loving, smart, talented girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a new job, and the respect of his peers, after all.

Yet even with the new job, Cassius’ financial situation doesn’t improve all that much. This changes when an older, experienced co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), suggests that Cassius start making calls using his “white voice,” a technique that immediately bears positive results. Boots Riley makes a brilliant decision at this point, dubbing this white voice over Stanfield’s rather than have the actor affect one. Aside from the obvious comedic effect, the process is itself a statement about the African American experience, and the necessity of not just imitating, but assuming another culture’s mannerisms in order to succeed.

Before he knows it, Cassius is on the fast-track to success within his company, which stands in stark contrast to his co-workers, who do not assume a new voice, and are actually fighting management for more workplace rights. Detroit, always a staunch supporter of Cassius, also begins to draw away, as she sees a new, ruthless side of her boyfriend emerging. As Sorry to Bother You moves through its second act, the central conflict of Cassius having to decide between his own compromised success and the state of the community he’s leaving behind comes into focus.

This thematic work feels at home in Sorry to Bother You, which is oozing with purpose and feels deliberate in every crevice of its being. Everything, from the name of the lead, Cassius, which carries the double-edged sword of African American pride (the famed abolitionist) and shame (Muhammad Ali’s discarded moniker), to the basic elements of the narrative, which address notions of African American identity and community, has meaning. The pivot point of Cassius’ story revolves around an African American man tempted with privilege by a white system that doesn’t embrace the individual so much as exploit his talents. Whether the parallel is in sports, politics, or just pop culture in general, Riley is clearly making a statement about the responsibilities of success: both in how one attains it, as well as how one makes use of it.

And while Riley’s film doesn’t hit every one of its notes with the same exacting precision (i.e., Cassius’ viral moment, or the decision to drop Cassius and his calls into the rooms of the recipients for no particular reason), they still fit well into the larger framework vis a vis tone. What’s more, although never explicitly stated, Sorry to Bother You exists in a just-off alternate reality that isn’t quite the future, but isn’t the “now” that we know, either. A lot of movies would have taken the time to establish this, or hand-waive an explanation in through laborious dialogue, yet Riley seems confident enough in his audience to let this just marinate, and the film is better for it.

Riley also seems to have a knack for rounding out the supporting players in his work, with Thompson and Glover nailing the handful of scenes they are in, just as Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler do as Cassius’ socially conscious co-workers. Additionally, Armie Hammer explodes into this film in a cocaine-inspired performance for the ages as business magnate Steve Lift, and is one of the best things about this movie. Going somewhat against type as an uber-macho titan of industry, Hammer manages to be hilarious and terrifying all at once, and for what this film tries (and succeeds) to pull off in its last act, he’s absolutely crucial.

It all starts with Stanfield, though, who is magnificent from start to finish, and is responsible for carrying this film and the twists it takes throughout its well-paced 115-minute runtime. He manages to exude quiet confidence, exasperated despair, confused ambivalence, and exalted bliss as-needed, and never grinds his own gears when moving from one emotional range to the next. Sorry to Bother You takes a number of turns, some of them not at all expected, and Stanfield is a big reason each development sells as well as it does.

Opening this week after a successful run in the festival circuit, including last month’s Seattle International Film Festival, Sorry to Bother You is a timely meditation on class, race, privilege, and the momentum of the masses. Featuring a breakout lead performance by Stanfield, and no less impressive work from the supporting cast, Riley’s film sinks just about every shot that it takes, and a few it might not have even intended. Come for the comedy and stay for the social justice: both servings will leave a person feeling satisfied.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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