This film had distribution issues in Europe sadly. Managed to catch it in the Lighthouse, which seems to be the only cinema in Dublin (possibly Ireland?) showing it.
Black American cinema is thriving; last year Spike Lee released BlacKkKlansman, his best film in years, 2017’s Get Out flew the flag for horror, and now we have the powerful, shocking and hilarious Sorry To Bother You.
Director and writer Boots Reilly brings us into a parallel universe in his first feature, where a corporation called WorryFree owns volunteer slave workers from cradle to grave and the most popular show in America is called I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me! It’s a bleak, bleak world, but you’re often too busy laughing to notice.
Our hero is Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives in his uncle’s garage with his fiancée Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a sign-twirler and visual artist, whose inventive range of homemade earrings become one of the film’s running jokes. Owing back rent to Uncle Sergio (the great Terry Crews), Cash lands a telemarketer job with a company called RegalView, selling an unspecified range of useless products. The pay is minimal, and commission based. The promise of “power caller” status and promotion upstairs is frequently dangled in front of RegalView’s underpaid employees by slimy middle managers in their shabby offices. Cash struggles to make any sales at all, until he’s advised by old-timer Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice”.
These early scenes at the call centre set up us for the trippy surrealism ahead. When Cash hits the call button we see him physically dropped into customers’ worlds; whether they’re eating dinner or having sex, Cash is right there with them. Likewise, his “white voice” is not Lakeith Stanfield affecting a different accent; it’s comedian and actor David Cross at his most chirpy and obsequious. The effect is startling and never stops being so, not even when other black characters get overdubbed to similar effect.
Meanwhile, the other employees at RegalView are unhappy with their position, and with the encouragement of Squeeze (Steven Yuen), they’re soon on strike.
With David Cross helming his vocal chords, Cash soon becomes a power caller, and ascends upstairs. Of course, what they’re selling upstairs is something very different.
There’s probably a fine dissertation to be written about the themes of capitalism, self-censorship and race within Sorry To Bother You, but I’ll leave that to the future Film Studies grads. Suffice to say, the film expertly skewers 21st century corporatism, where people are gratefully sacrificing their rights and entitlements for the chance to work ridiculous hours for prestigious companies. Whether it’s RegalView’s middle manager Diana DeBauchery (an excellent Kate Berlant) insisting that the company’s cosy sloganeering is more important than actual wages, or WorryFree’s ultra-bro CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) pushing literal slavery, the new dishonest face of capitalism is mercilessly satirised.
That’s not to say that Sorry To Bother You is a utopian paean to jacking in the day job and following your dream either. While Detroit is clear about her aims as an artist, she too humiliates herself and negates her blackness to succeed. No one is safe in this world, and doing the right thing doesn’t mean anyone’s going to care.
The bizarre imagery and dark comedy of Sorry To Bother You will linger with the viewer and indeed some of the funniest scenes are also the most shocking. Stanfield delivers the kind of bravura performance needed for his “only sane man” role. The Guardian called Sorry To Bother You part of the new wave of Afro-surrealism; to which I can only say, yes please, bring it on.