You probably should not read this review. Instead, you should buy a ticket to Sorry to Bother You and see it for yourself. The less you know about the film, the better. I can tell you it is a dark satire about race, late-stage capitalism, and American life. It is hilarious, borderline unhinged, and one of the year’s best films. When you buy a ticket, you’ll want to bring a friend, since this is the sort of film you will need to talk about afterward. I wish I could leave it at that, but I’m obligated to write a review, and here we are.
This is the part of the review where I include some basic plot summary. Just in case you’re still reading, I’ll keep it to a minimum. Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) needs a job, so he becomes a telemarketer. No one wants what he is selling because, well, he sounds black. An older, black coworker (Danny Glover) suggests Cash use his “white voice.” His white voice belongs to David Cross – one of the whitest men alive – and soon Cash becomes a successful salesman. He is so successful, in fact, that he attracts the attention of billionaire tech bro Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Hammer is one of the delights in the film, the kind of supe-rich asshole who goes through the motions of progressive ideals, with deeply held racist beliefs under that surface. It is also a broad, physical performance, which is a nice compliment to Stanfield’s more inward acting style.
The writer and director of Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley, has a lot on his mind. His film has all the hallmarks of an ambitious debut: the film is bursting with energy and ideas, as if Riley is worried he will never get a chance to articulate them. His point of view is resoundingly moral: we watch Cash compromise his values, his body slunk in defeat for the opening act, only to improve his posture with economic success. His fiancee Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a good sounding board, although she is way more than just a love interest. She is an artist with work that is deliberately challenging and subversive. By the time we see her one woman show, complete with animal’s blood, we are basically ready for anything.
The look of Sorry to Bother You is unique. It has the sort of DIY feel of Michel Gondry, who is name-checked in an animated sequence, except this is aesthetic is hardly twee. Instead, the off-kilter production values, with everything looking drab or borrowed, suggest a place where “normal” is impossible, and there is no middle class. Steve Yuen plays Squeeze, Cash’s co-worker who leads an effort to organize the workers into a union. The poverty on display is a bad joke, and so is the wealth. By the time Cash goes “upstairs” – literally and figuratively – his white voice is influencing his identity.
You may think you know where Sorry to Bother You is going. You may have seen the previews, or read the well-deserved praise the film received at its Sundance premiere. Even if you have, I promise this film will surprise you. It’s not so much that it zigs when you expect it to zag. Instead, when you expect it to zag, it invents a new type of dancing altogether. It announces Boots Riley, who is already the leader of the hip hop collective The Coup, as a major new filmmaking talent. If there is any justice in this world – and this is a film that actively suggests there is not – Sorry to Bother You will cement Stanfield as a star like Get Out did for Daniel Kaluuya.
This is a film that is many things, but above all it is angry. The source of that anger is not going away anytime soon, so while this film arrives at just the right moment, it might be timeless.