Sorry to Bother You left me at a loss for words and, from the looks of Audience Scores on Rotten Tomatoes, so has it left its audiences. This film interrupts the common movie going experience both figuratively and literally. It’s almost as if the film is sorry to bother the steady stream of digestible content to communicate to the world that there are realistic problems the filmmaker would like to address.
In the film we find young Cass Greene, played by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta), as he desperately interviews for a telemarketing position. After he is hired, he struggles to make progress until a fellow telemarketer advises him to use his “white voice” in order to influence his customers into making sales. As soon as Cass discovers the power of the “white voice”, he rises in the ranks of the company and taps into incredible financial success, but at what cost? Juggling the substantial and loving relationship with his artistic fiancé, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), along with the evident decline of workers rights and moral justice, Cass is forced to face his identity and decide who he will be in a society that is constantly trying to pull him apart. Vibrant, crude, and, in a very big sense, science fictional, Sorry to Bother You is a nationwide success and a very significant film of our time.
This film is Boots Riley’s directorial debut, and he sure made an entrance into the world of filmmaking with this feature. The film has been criticized for having a lot of momentum, and because of that some parts of the narrative unfortunately fell off along the way. There is attention given to a romance that doesn’t contribute to the larger picture and some characters are given too much attention but not developed enough. But, hey, this is his debut, his first car, and his first baby. Some screws are going to be loose.
Where Riley succeeds is by taking on bigger themes in our present day socio-political climate by creating an oversaturated and anxiety-educed ambience. The exaggerated reality in the film mirrors our everyday reality, where we are overwhelmed with media at all times and forced to choose a side and take action, or to continue to live life in ignorance.
What is most significant about Sorry to Bother You is that the film is engaging in a conversation that has been going on for over hundreds of years in the colored community. In 1903, W.E.B. Dubois explores in his publication, “The Souls of Black Folk,” the concept of Double Consciousness. In his essay he describes Double Consciousness as, “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In the film, Cass faces this dilemma. The use of the “white voice” in the film is symbolic of how the oppressed aim to assimilate themselves to American ideals in order to find financial success and social stability. The uprising of civil rights protests occurring throughout the film, which is fueled by Cass’ fiancé and friends, symbolizes the true nature of the souls of the oppressed. By nature the culture of the oppressed is colorful, creative, and full of love, passion, and the freedom of expression but in American society, its too expressive for the whites and it must be toned down.
Cass’s character isn’t the only one who is influenced by Double Consciousness. At her art show Cass’ fiancé, Detroit, uses a South African accent to get white art buyers to buy her work. Both characters have to adopt a “favorable” persona to trick white people into favoring them, which is ultimately not fair. People should not have to take on two personas to be taken seriously. This film is making it clear to its audiences that Double Consciousness is still very relevant, after hundreds of years of discussion, and is social behavior that needs to be broken down. Furthermore, it’s a behavior that we, the oppressed, have to recognize and unlearn if we want to defeat The Man.
The film continues on to criticize racism, white privilege, ignorance, capitalism, and the lazy nature of todays society where majority of people do not give a flying fuck about some seriously fucked up things going on in the world. Yet, I imagine if you have made it this far in the review, you might think this film is drama or a “serious” indie flick because of the themes it engages with but let me tell you, it is not. Its crude sense of humor has missed a lot of viewers but it is hilarious, wildly inventive, and visually pressing. This film is unique in every way, to the use of symbolism in the jewelry that Detroit proudly wears to the surprising climax that takes the film from a satirical comedy to a science fictional nightmare. The heavy social commentary paired with the humorous and crass dialogue along with everything beautifully pictured on the screen and the standout performances of the entire cast, all come together to deliver a film that, whether they understand it or not, audiences will have a hard time forgetting. An ode to the significance of inclusive original storytelling in the entertainment business, Sorry to Bother You is a film that you should not watch if you are expecting a lighthearted cinematic escape. No, this is a film that you need to watch to understand the reality of the absurd hell that we are living in today.
By Stephanie Hinojosa