This post is a part of our New Voices Section.
Written by Anisa Khalifa.
Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant, dizzying satire which at once feels impossibly out-there and far too close for comfort. It stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cash, unemployed, broke, and living in his uncle’s garage with artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, who is excellent as always). He gets a job at a call center to pay his bills, but his previously undiscovered talents soon embroil him in corporate corruption beyond his wildest imaginings.
The film centers around ordinary people of color struggling to get through their days with terrible jobs and unlikely dreams. Detroit is fiercely unapologetic about pursuing her provoking, thoughtful art, while Cash’s coworker Squeeze (Steven Yeun) resists the capitalist status quo and rallies the call center workers toward a small revolution—but Cash, lacking such conviction, and caught between personal ambition and his desperate circumstances, is tempted by the golden elevator of corporate success that literally sparkles before his eyes every morning.
Boots Riley weaves together a bitingly funny, wonderfully absurd and at times incredibly chilling alternate version of Oakland that has much to say about the ways that racism and economic exploitation are inextricable from each other in American society and always have been. With Stanfield in the starring role, comparisons to Get Out are inevitable, but despite its broadly similar themes, this movie gives us a drastically different kind of dystopian hellscape: one in which we’re complicit in our own destruction.
The movie is so much weirder, funnier and smarter than I was expecting, and although its big reveals have the most immediate impact, the gold is in the details—small moments and clever lines of dialogue that provide sharply incisive commentary about how we think and talk about race, about the structures of power and who gets to wield them, about the invisible scars of historical exploitation that inform every interpersonal interaction in our day. It’s both hilarious and telling that the talent that makes Cash nearly invincible in climbing the ranks is his eerily perfect “white voice”—a performative self-betrayal which makes him simultaneously an insider and an outsider in the decadent, elite world he suddenly finds himself in.
The third act takes the story in a direction so unexpected that I still don’t quite know what to think, but it does fit with the way the film, from its opening scene, continually pushes its elements outside the frames. The story literally cannot be contained by the medium being used to tell it, and Riley takes this a step further by pushing the elements of the plot to an absurd and shocking extreme that manages the difficult balancing act between realism and nightmarish fantasy that’s essential to well-done satire. How well it works is a credit to Riley’s deft, stylish, whimsical directing and the cast’s fully realized, wonderfully charismatic performances. I know I’ll be thinking about this movie for quite a while.