Boots Riley’s directorial debut is a great film about class struggle, racism and consciousness.
Cassius “Cash” Green is unemployed and desperate in a semi-fictional version of Oakland, California.
He is taken on at RegalView telemarketing and the story gets going.
Danny Glover’s character Langston encourages Cash to use a “white voice”. It’s a voice projecting a fictional reality unattainable for most people—a life of comfort and ease.
It transforms his sales record and draws the attention of management. He is elevated to the position of “power caller”.
At the same time a union begins organising at RegalView. Cash is pulled in two different directions, setting up the narrative of the film.
At times the choices he makes and the situations he finds himself in are a little unbelievable—but this is accounted for with the film’s “magical realism”.
Part of why the film works is that Cash is no firebrand, unlike his partner Detroit or the union organiser at RegalView, Squeeze.
Cash is an ordinary person—awkward, unsure of himself and pulled in different directions by competing forces.
His promotion to power caller forces him to perform increasingly complex moral gymnastics to justify making sales to arms companies and other, increasingly murky deals.
It also brings him into contact with the boss of Worry Free, the firm making slave labour acceptable again. Armie Hammer portrays its CEO Steve Lift perfectly and delivers some of the film’s best lines.
“We still need the workers to do the work, per se,” after delivering an all-too-familiar lecture about living in a post-capitalist society.
And, when the nefarious plan at the heart of the film is revealed, “It’s all just a big misunderstanding…
“I’m not crazy, it’s all completely rational.”
The film skewers some of the countless hypocrisies that capitalism forces us to endure.
From the boss who tries to be your friend but is still your boss, to the emptiness of supposedly superior middle class culture.
There is lots to identify with and laugh at.
One scene—where Cash is forced to rap by Steve Lift and a crowd of baying middle class whites—is particularly agonising.
In interviews Boots Riley has talked about how he wanted the situations in the film to be “not that far off from how things work right now”.
There are certainly shocking parts of the film that are not far from reality, and pointing this out is one of its many strengths.
No piece of art is perfect, and Sorry to Bother You isn’t an exception.
It feels disjointed in places, particularly towards the end as the pace of events accelerates from laid back comedy observations to frenetic drama.
In places the comedy and the politics rub up awkwardly against each other.
Some have criticised the film for not arguing for a workers revolution with a Bolshevik organisation at its centre. That’s probably asking a bit much.
As it is, it took eight years before Boots Reilly could get the film produced—a testament to its anticapitalist leanings.
Sorry to Bother You is more weird exploration of ideology and consciousness than political roadmap for the overthrow of capitalism.
And its commercial success shows that the message of a collective solution to capitalism’s injustices is a popular one.
Sorry to Bother You is on general release from 7 December