Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the punk rock feature film debut from Boots Riley about unionising, capitalism, and why maybe we should be a bother
Sorry to Bother You – ★★★★☆
Sorry to Bother You is apologetic in name only. Even the film’s poster with its burning yellow background, quirky font, and Lakeith Stanfield staring straight ahead with a headwound is in your face. Someone is about to be bothered, and is anyone really sorry about it?
Stanfield’s Cassius Green needs a job fast to pay the rent. He’s living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), watching adverts for a company called WorryFree. They offer a lifetime’s promise of food and lodgings in exchange for a lifetime of labour. Protests are forming and Detroit, an artist, is determined to stick to her morals, but Cassius keeps his head down and finds an entry level telemarketer job at a place called RegalView.
There he’s exposed to a plethora of injustices. People take him more seriously over the phone if he uses a ‘white voice.’ Plus, there is a growing mood of unrest among his co-workers, aware they do all the work but see little in the way of financial reward, stuck on minimum wage while their bosses reap the benefits.
This is a damning indictment of white privilege, capitalism, and liberal apathy. It’s a hard pill to swallow when a film confronts you with your own prejudices.
It’s tempting to get bogged down in Sorry to Bother You’s socio-political righteousness. Director Boots Riley has made a punk rock film, subversive and shocking, but its humour can’t be stripped from that. It wants to – and should – disrupt the status quo, and its manic energy wants to do it laughing. This is one of the funniest films of the year.
Things take a turn for the surreal heading into the third act. No spoilers here but expect walkouts from those who can handle a questioning of their politics, can tolerate liberal uses of shocking profanity, but can’t quite accept the utterly absurd. Laughter is a guide through the bizarre and Riley is a capable set of hands, balancing the bonkers with scathing criticisms of capitalism.
Having perfected his ‘white voice,’ Cassius excels in his new job, fast-tracked to the role of Power Caller. It means leaving his co-workers behind, a better office, more money. We sympathise with his predicament – he does need to pay the rent – but he leaves a workforce that’s embracing solidarity, ready to protest employers taking them for a ride. People are happy for Cassius, but as he pulls the ladder up behind him, his Power Caller life alienates his family and friends.
All this, and a late-in-the-day connection with WorryFree, makes for a class-conscious film that’s aggressively pro-union. While talk of unions is not foreign to us in Scotland, this is a challenging topic for Americans obsessed with individualism, privatisation, and capitalism. Those up top are shown to be greedy and power hungry, not only aware of the proletariat’s struggles but counting on them for their continued devotion to the company. What begins as a generic ‘disgruntled employees versus sinister employer’ tale becomes a massive struggle intrinsic to society, where exploited workers accept their lot in masochistic TV shows and power-crazy bosses hatch nefarious schemes to push their labourers beyond what’s considered humane.
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Detroit’s art installation, a radical state of the nation address, requires her to have a ‘white voice’ too (voiced by Lily James). She’s stylish and creative, clearly worthy of standing and being listened to, but in the art world, as in the workplace, power is everything. To be heard she adopts the same techniques Cassius uses to be taken seriously over the phone. Riley isn’t just targeting exploitation of labour but systemic imbalances generally that require people to play along with a game they never signed up for. It’s embarrassing, dehumanising, but it gets results and, hey, it says more about the audience than the speaker.
Which might explain the walkouts. This is a damning indictment of white privilege, capitalism, and liberal apathy. It’s a hard pill to swallow when a film confronts you with your own prejudices.
We’re seeing more and more instances of injustice come to the fore with swathes of immediate outrage followed by a backlash as long as the news cycle. The Crimes of Grindelwald never suffered financially from Johnny Depp’s involvement. Metal band As I Lay Dying are experiencing their most successful tour ever despite their singer hiring a hitman to kill his estranged wife. Piers Morgan is still employed.
Sorry to Bother You is a tough pill to swallow because its anger is directed at cynicism we’re all complicit in. Some issues feel too big to tackle, so ingrained in our culture that to try enacting change feels futile. But if it’s shocking that a ‘white voice’ leads to increased sales or increased clout, if it’s maddening how employers treat their workers, if it’s frustrating how power imbalances permeate everything we do, then – sorry to bother you – but it’s time for a change.
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