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Until very recently, mainstream American film has been less than robust—to put it gently—in its attempts to capture the national zeitgeist with regard to race and class. Films like Crash, The Blind Side and The Help won their fair share of acclaim (and box office revenue), but in retrospect seem like well-meaning sops at best, risibly condescending at worst. The underlying message of such films was aspirational—that if we could all just sit down and break bread with each other, black and white, conservative and liberal, management and labor, everything just might be OK in the end. A noble sentiment, to be sure, but one that rang slightly hollow from a crew of almost always white writer-directors, more likely to be in the back of said limousines than driving them.
The past few years have seen a notable change. Films like Ava DuVernay’s elevated-yet-human history lesson Selma, Ryan Coogler’s social-realist Creed and Jordan Peele’s assimilation horror story Get Out have shown proof of what seems, in retrospect, obvious: that those best equipped to tell stories about black life, social class and their uniquely American intersections might be … actual black directors.
Into that landscape steps Boots Riley, the 47-year-old first-time writer-director of Sorry to Bother You, headed to wide release at the end of this month.
Riley has taken full advantage of a film industry far more amenable than it would have been even five years ago to artists of color looking to swing for the conceptual fences. Over a messy-but-unforgettable 105 minutes, Sorry to Bother You cartwheels through genre, mood, theme and even visual style with a verve that recalls Riley’s day job as leader of the leftist Oakland rap group the Coup.
With the inimitable glee and provocation of an authentic outsider, Rileytackles some of the most pressing topics in America—racial and labor relations, the endless creep of technology, media burnout—through a sci-fi shaggy dog tale of a telemarketer who finds himself at the center of a nightmarish conspiracy.
Call it “social surrealism.”
The political themes of Sorry to Bother You should be eerily resonant to even the most unplugged viewer, even as they’re couched in its loopy satire. And perhaps most impressively, that resonance runs deep despite the fact that the screenplay, which dates back to 2011, never explicitly addresses the dubious racial legacy of the 239-pound presidential elephant in the room—as ringing an endorsement as any of Riley’s sharp political insight.
Sorry to Bother You opens with its star, Lakeith Stanfield (of Get Out and the acclaimed cable series Atlanta), shifting uncomfortably in his seat during a job interview, turning his trademark hangdog stare on a gone-to-seed call center manager. His character, Cassius Green (say it out loud), is a shiftless Oaklandite desperate for a job that will allow him to pay the back rent he owes to his uncle (played by Terry Crews, lately at the center of the political debate inspired by the #MeToo movement).
Green lands the job and begins work as a 9-to-5er at RegalView, a telemarketing company that sells leather-bound encyclopedias to those unwary enough to pick up the phone. The milieu Riley conjures at the RegalView call center is eerily familiar to anyone who’s stepped inside one—low-slung, fluorescent-lit ceilings, a scrolling bank of cubicles, the banner reminding employees (or “Customer Service Representatives,” if you please) of their omnipresent mantra: STICK TO THE SCRIPT. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 3 million CSRs working in the country today; Riley’s decision to root this story in an industry that provides an increasingly large chunk of the jobs accessible to noncollege graduates but is nigh-invisible culturally is a knowing touch.
That setting is more important, however, as the impetus of the film’s key element. The lifer in the next cubicle, played by a wizened Danny Glover, soon takes Green under his wing, imploring him to boost his sales numbers by using his “white voice.” This leads to one of the film’s central gags, in which the actor Stanfield’s mouth opens and the voice of the caustic stand-up comic David Cross comes out, helping Green schmooze his way to success. This extremely literal representation of code-switchingis both one of the film’s funniest elements and one of its most disquieting, as Green slips in and out of the “white voice” with an increasing alacrity, often entirely forgetting to shed it.
Before even broaching the magical realism and outright class warfare at the film’s core, Riley makes perhaps his most slyly salient political statement with its easygoing first act. The film’s first 40 minutes depict Green and his fellow downwardly mobile friends just hanging out in a hardscrabble, ungentrified Oakland, lingering in dive bars and pushing their overheated hoopties down the street. One of the funniest of its many visual gags comes when Stanfield-as-Green approaches a gas station counter, requests “40 on two,” and the camera pans down to his method of payment—a quarter, a dime, and a nickel. Riley gets that the “working class” isn’t just the familiar caricature of an Archie Bunker type in a hard hat, and he implicitly rebukes the dominant media depiction of millennial culture as an endless jog around the brunch circuit.
Of course, in his dual life as both an Oakland activist and the Coup’s frontman, Riley has a long track record as a gadfly on class issues. The group’s song titles include sprightly phrases like “Kill My Landlord,” “Pimps (Free Stylin’ at the Fortune 500 Club)” and “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.,” the latter from 2001’s “Party Music,” most widely known for its aborted-at-the-last-minute cover art depicting Riley and band mate Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center. The critical acclaim that nevertheless surrounded the record made Riley a brief enemy-of-the-moment on the right, including as the target of a jeremiad from Michelle Malkin that condemned him to a “capitalism-free cave in Tora Bora.”
Riley, for his part, was unrepentant. “There’s been a whitewash in the media over the past couple days over what the U.S.’s role in the world is,” he told Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger just over a week after the attacks, “and the fact that they kill hundreds of thousands of people per year to protect profit.” It was the kind of insistence you’d expect from an avowed communist and child of radical, circa-1968 Chicago organizers. And in comparison, it makes all the more impressive how smoothly Sorry to Bother You’s radical message goes down.
That message makes itself more apparent as Green uses his “white voice” to climb the call center ranks, attaining “power caller” status—a promotion to the shadowy upper echelons of his company, where the goods sold by phone aren’t doorstop encyclopedias but heavy arms and human slave labor. Green acquires by this process two things that he previously had in short supply: self-esteem and, well, money.
But at what cost? The mixture of pride and anxiety Green feels at his socioeconomic climbing is palpable. Stanfield, one of the most expressive actors working today, can convey with a look what in lesser hands would require outright exposition. And to the film’s great credit, it doesn’t damn Green outright for his signing on to such a morally objectionable project; Riley clearly understands the powerful appeal of the individualist-capitalist ethos when it’s working in one’s favor.
But, as with all good Faustian morality tales, Green’s conscience catches up with him. Dystopic touches pepper the film’s background, in a manner reminiscent of the Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven—a popular game show titled “I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me” that depicts exactly what its title describes, a riot-themed cola commercial reminiscent of Kendall Jenner’s notorious Pepsi ad, a black bloc-style radical group called “Left Eye” wreaking havoc—but most pointed is the omniscient presence of a corporation called “WorryFree.”
WorryFree supplies the labor Green sells over the phone; its employees sign lifetime employment contracts in exchange for a fully subsidized existence, including a bleak twist on the real-life “co-living” experiment. WorryFree is Riley’s stand-in for the creeping unaccountability of our modern-day tech behemoths, and the class division in the film recalls the tripartite state of affairs in stratified tech hubs like Seattle: the poor and the dwindling working class (Green at the beginning of the film); the privileged managerial class, terrified of backsliding (Green as power caller); and the unimaginably wealthy few who subsidize that class’ existence.
That last group is represented in the film by WorryFree CEO Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer as the mindlessly decadent, coked-out apotheosis of the “sinister WASP” screen persona he’s perfected in films like The Social Network and Nocturnal Animals. To skirt the film’s key twist, Lift pitches Green on a whacked-out slavery plot, at which point Green’s conscience overwhelms him and he rejects the company, rejoining his now-striking fellow serfs at the call center.
The final act of the film is its most head-spinning, flitting from body horror to nihilistic media satire to WTO-protest-style street clashes. It ends on a defiant note, with an explicit affirmation of collective action that’s jarring as a reminder of how organically Riley expresses those themes for the majority of the film—not didactically, as is unfortunately common in leftist storytelling, but naturally, through Green’s relatable story arc (and Stanfield’s empathic performance). The music of the Coup functions in much the same way, and it’s a minor miracle that Riley has ported his preferred storytelling method to another medium so effortlessly.
The concept of “intersectionality,” the manner in which different power structures interact and affect the lives of the less-powerful downstream from them, has rocketed into the national consciousness over the past decade, and Sorry to Bother You is one of its most complete proofs in recent memory. The labor struggle that serves as the backbone of its plot is entwined with razor-sharp insights into race relations, not just with the concept of the “white voice” and its attendant privilege but elements like an office attendant’s creepy, fetishizing “white gaze” toward Green and a deeply unsettling scene where he’s forced to perform a demeaning “rap” for an all-white audience.
Riley’s film shares little, if anything, in common stylistically with those by other black directors noted at the beginning of this essay (aside from a clever symmetry with Get Out in its use of oak paneling and taxidermy to signify an ossified, sinister whiteness). That’s a testament to the sea change afoot in Hollywood, where once anything outside the mono-cultural penumbra of whiteness was pigeonholed by its race, tagged with lower budgets and narrow marketing campaigns.
Directors of color are now finally getting a chance to follow their muse in a way that white directors have always seen as simple birthright, and the expansive weirdness of Sorry to Bother You is a perfect example. Riley’s kaleidoscopic, sui generis vision of racial hierarchy, social engineering, and corporate malfeasance could have come from no one else. The fact that it made its way to the screen and that it hits home in the way it does without explicitly engaging the day-to-day mire of outrage that dominates national politics, is a testament to both Riley’s combination of savviness, persistence and artistry, and the equally unique cultural moment on which he’s shining a light.
This article originally appeared on Politico.