Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You roasts everyone in this surreal parody of the working class clashing with the upper class.
In Mike Judge’s comedic masterpiece on the woes of corporate servitude Office Space, the protagonist Peter Gibbons has his epiphany to “do nothing” at work. A trance he voluntarily slips into via an occupational hypnotherapist (“Dude . . . an occupational hypnotherapist?”) leaves him without a worry in the world, thanks to the therapist’s heart attack mid-session before snapping Peter back to reality. Peter returns to work with this new attitude, shocking his superiors in such a way they don’t know how to respond (and the perhaps the most satisfying montage in movie history thanks to Geto Boys.) In a way that perfectly satires certain workplace tropes, Peter climbs his way up the corporate ladder simply because he doesn’t give a shit. He appears confident, aware of his responsibilities, and doesn’t interrupt any workplace flow: he must be doing something right! But that was 1999 – a generation ago. The oldest millennials were still teenagers and the youngest ones weren’t murdering expensive industries in cold blood yet. We had an economic surplus and historians were even predicting the end of history because so much was going right. So yeah, back then, you could be white, fuck around, not give a shit at work, and get away with it. Office Space was indeed Gen X’s comedic indictment of a corporate America that fitted its time. But 2018 is a different beast with sharper teeth with workplaces that are constantly being tinkered with for more efficiency and also exposed for borderline inhumane practices. And one that beast’s sharpest teeth is Sorry To Bother You.
Sorry to Bother You is the first film from long-time musician Boots Riley and it’s a doozy. Using a parodied version of present day Oakland as its backdrop, Boots gives us a surreal – we’re talking surreal – take on what it’s like to climb the corporate ladder while trying to remain true to yourself and your community. Boots does a great job of balancing the colorful, symbolic evils of capitalism while still making it feel familiar and funny. It’s rare that you can be cackling out loud one minute and dead silent the next from sheer tension. There’s a lot to unpack so let’s just dive in.
Cassius “Cash” Green, Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield, is depressed. When we first meet him in the beginning, he’s laying in bed wide awake with his partner Detroit, Thor: Ragnarok‘s Tessa Thompson, and asks her if she’s ever thought about dying. She responds nonchalantly, “Yeah, I’m alive.” Such is life living hand to mouth in America. Cash wants to move up at his telemarketing company Regal View, where the people on the ground floor, or in this case underground, are promised they can be promoted to Power Caller if they keep their heads down and work really, really hard. Cash finds himself almost hypnotized by the golden elevator that takes Power Callers to the upper floors. Cash represents a large number of millennials, who were born to somewhat radical parents (pay attention to the photo of what we assume is his dad that he brings everywhere with him) and haven’t really found their way in corporate America. He is poor and quickly approaching his mid thirties. I am Cassius – Cassius is me. We are introduced to the company WorryFree and its CEO Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer, which is essentially Amazon and Jeff Bezos, presenting an idyllic utopia while questionable methods take place below the surface.
We see Cash in his first couple of days of work struggling to make his telemarketing sales. He meets Langston, Danny Glover, an older black man that’s been with Regal View for years. He tells Cassius the secret to making sales is to talk in his “white voice.” It’s an over-the-top version of “code switching”, the act of black people switching up their natural diction/vernacular at the work place to be more appeasing to white people. Only in Boots Riley’s wonderfully absurd world, Langston and Cash’s voices are literally replaced altogether with white voices. David Cross (Arrested Development‘s Tobias) provides the extra-mayo-hold-the-seasoning voiceover for Cash’s heightened code switching. It’s a theme we see throughout the movie that in order to move up at Regal View, Cash has to sacrifice some of his blackness, among other things, with each step.
Throughout the movie the workers on the bottom rung of Regal View initiate a strike for livable wages, which is spearheaded by Squeeze, The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun. At first Cash is down for the cause, but in a calculated move, upper management promotes him to Power Caller to drive a divide in the movement. Cash, living in his uncle’s garage and several months behind in rent, becomes reluctant to strike with his friends and Detroit who now works for Regal View. He now has an opportunity to pull himself out of poverty, but at the price of being riddled with upward mobility guilt. Cash is put in a real crux of moving up into a different economic class while his friends are still fighting to make ends meet. Because of how engrained he feels in his economically disenfranchised community, he feels at fault for thinking so individualistically. Cash knows Squeeze and those in the movement are right but he still wants to be financially independent, not stressing from paycheck to paycheck. He wants to experience the life of a baller to see if it gives him some sort of self–worth or fulfillment. Capitalism promises plenty so Cash just wants to see if it can follow through.
The movie has drawn a lot of comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out for how creatively it depicts those cringe-worthy, micro-aggressive moments unique to black culture. Peter Gibbons didn’t feel the weight of a poverty-stricken community on his shoulders – he just wanted to do nothing, alone and undisturbed. Cash doesn’t have that luxury. Boots and Lakeith do a great job showing the duality of Cash as he is and Cash as corporate America sees him, and when the two have to be present as one, often contradicting each another. This comes to a head in a scene where Cash’s boss Steve, at a swanky superrich party, asks Cash in front of room of white people to tell them about tales of the mean streets of Oakland, expecting him to either be a gangbanger or a rapper. Cash is neither but no one accepts this when he tells them.
Sorry to Bother You doesn’t just take shots at one side of the political/socioeconomic spectrum. One of the best gags in the movie is when a protester becomes viral, her actions become a commercial, and she becomes a celebrity with her own TV show. It’s all a fickle, ugly machine pumping out promises of money, fame, and changing the world. Boots shows how we all unknowingly becomes cogs. Even Detroit is portrayed as a sort of upper elite class of the super “woke” left: an artist who never worries about where her money is coming from. Boots’s world is busy and no one is spared his biting parody.
Once you think you have this movie figured out, Boots throws more shit in the pot to stir. There are enough twists, sight gags, and straight up bizarre encounters that you truly don’t see coming. Once you accept that you’re just an unsuspecting visitor in Boots’s mad world, it’s one weird, fun ride. Sorry To Bother You is the far flung, stylistically distant cousin of Office Space but each are cut from the same cloth. They offer piercing criticisms of corporate culture and how an individual could survive it, but never fully overcome it. Perhaps that’s the best joke of both movies – David never truly beats Goliath, but rather sidesteps him and hops right along. Only Boots pulls less punches than Judge and does so with more than fifteen pieces of flair.