Published Jul 10, 2018Sorry to Bother You, the feature-length directorial debut from activist, writer, the Coup bandleader and now hotly tipped director Boots Riley, is a bold, brash air-siren of a film that flips off the status quo and demands more from its viewers.
It's a socio-political marvel, the kind of viewing experience that feels at once surreal and a little too real, provoking serious thought about race, late capitalism and the seeming hopelessness of contemporary mainstream activism. Above all, however, it's funny as hell.
"That's the way I talk. That's the way I tell stories. That's the way I make music," Riley says. "I didn't know that the Coup was known for humour until someone said, 'Yeah, you're good at that funny shit.' I was like, 'I am?' I didn't even know. Because comedy — a lot of it — is focused on irony and contradiction, which are very related to each other as well. And contradiction, and exposing contradiction, is what political analysis is."
In Sorry to Bother You, Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, an aimless young adult longing to achieve significance the way his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) has in the art world. Employed as a telemarketer, he eventually unlocks his "white voice" — an exaggerated and nasal dork cadence dubbed in by David Cross. From there, he leaves his peers behind as he climbs the corporate ladder, eventually uncovering a sinister (and absolutely absurd) plan from a try-hard billionaire (too perfect Armie Hammer). From there, Cassius faces the age-old decision — should he embrace labour solidarity or sell out in favour of corporate solitude?
Riley's comedic sensibilities shine through every jaw-dropping second, from the crackling dialogue and absurd situations to endless sight gags (including a stop-motion film directed by "Michel Dongry"). As a result, despite its heady socio-political themes, the film feels celebratory rather than cynical.
"I think that the whole point is that it has an optimism that comes from having an analysis that says there is a way to change things," Riley says, "The Coup is not like Rage Against the Machine. It's not like, 'We're angry.' You know? And that comes from me actually having been an organizer, and understanding what it takes for people to understand something, relate to something and feel empowered by the possibilities. I never thought that anger was a gift."
With its story of greed and corruption at odds with regular people, Sorry to Bother You is exactly the sort of project that people like to describe as "timely" or "sadly relevant." In reality, Riley finished the screenplay in 2012 and published it in its entirety in the literary journal McSweeney's in 2014. "It is something that was relevant at that time, it was probably relevant 30 or 40 years ago, and will also unfortunately be relevant for a little while to come until we change the way the economic system works," he says. "I long for the day when we make this movie irrelevant."
Of course, recent American politics have made Instagrammable marches, online activism and shareable hashtags more popular than ever, but Sorry to Bother You points to the need for more potent protest. "Definitely, it's not enough," Riley says of contemporary online movements promoted by celebrities. "Do whatever you can at all times. But what this film points out is not just about Hollywood. It's about how the left in general for the last 50 years has avoided class struggle.
"In reality, a lot of these problems that we're talking about can only start to be solved when we engage in that, when we realize where our leverage is — that our leverage is the fact that we are the ones that create the wealth, and when we collectively leverage that fact by withholding labour," he continues. "So the movie deals with the idea of spectacle vs. material struggle. That's what organizing has been turned into, by the organizers. We've mislead people into believing that letting our voices be heard is what it takes to make change, when that hasn't been historically accurate. You've got to let your voice be heard so that the other people you want to work with know where you're at, so you can rally together, but you know, in the '20s and '30s, demonstration was that this 50,000 people we have on the street is not just to tell you we don't like something. The reason we're calling the demonstration is that we are demonstrating these are 50,000 people from an industry that can shut that industry down."
With its staunch pro-union message and truly absurd sense of humour, the film would be an impressive feat from a veteran director. What's more shocking is that this is Riley's first feature. That said, this work has been a long time coming. The Coup got a record deal while he was attending film school at San Francisco State, so his dreams of filmmaking were absorbed into the band's music. "We've got songs that are eight minutes long, because I want to tell a story," he explains. "That was my cheap way of making movies."
A decades-long music career also prepared Riley for the collaborative process of filmmaking. "I might have the best bass player in the world, and then the drummer that thinks he's the best drummer in the world but definitely is not, and then the crazy guitar player — I have to be the one with the vision, and I have to not just get them to fulfill the vision because I'm paying them, because then you don't get any feeling or it doesn't come out," he explains. "What's their special thing that I can get from them for that vision? I also need to know that the guitar player is not being objective when he says he needs a guitar solo.
"But by that same token, I need to know that when the bass player does a lick that's better than what I had, I have to say, 'Wow, that's way better — we need to go with that.' That's not being humble, that's me attaching my ego to the song as opposed to the process getting to that song. All of that is all of the things that are useful in film."
Sorry to Bother You is the sort of audacious and stirring film that one would expect to be divisive. Instead, it's received overwhelmingly positive reviews. "Even if it makes people too uncomfortable sometimes, it's something that is refreshing so that people welcome it," he says of the film. "Because it's not the same old thing we've been getting from like Marvel Universe or whatever. It feels like a new voice…. I think that the themes in it are actually way more universal than what we've been told that people relate to."
Sorry to Bother You is in Canadian theatres starting July 13.