“Sorry to Bother You,” directed by Boots Riley, is a story of a broke guy who lucks into a crappy telemarketing job, which he uses as a springboard to make multimillion-dollar sales and ultimately becomes the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for equisapiens.
Or, as the trailer sells it, about a guy who succeeds at work by using his “white voice.” Except Cassius “Cash” Green’s white voice isn’t actor Lakeith Stanfield doing a caricature like Dave Chappelle impersonating his friend Chip. Cash’s white voice is the voice of real-life white comedian David Cross, dubbed over a lip-syncing Stanfield. Omari Hardwick’s Mr. _______ is Cash’s ideal, and his white voice is provided by Patton Oswalt. Even Cash’s girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, who is outwardly repulsed by this has one of her own, voiced by British actress Lily James.
Considering Riley has been adamant about getting people out to see his film on opening weekend—he tweeted twice directly asking people to see it opening weekend—that probably isn’t how he would like it described.
If you plan to see #SorryToBotherYou for the first time or a repeat viewing- please go this weekend. We have something to prove.
— Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) July 11, 2018
WE NEED YOU TO GO SEE #SORRYTOBOTHERYOU TODAY. IF NOT TODAY- THEN SATURDAY OR SUNDAY.
IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT FOR IT TO KILL THIS WEEKEND.
thank you!!! 🙂
— Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) July 13, 2018
The marketing push leading up to its release has laid the need-to-know points. Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is living in Oakland, lucky to land a job as a telemarketer with the company RegalView. He struggles to keep anyone on the phone at first, until fellow worker Langston (Danny Glover) instructs him to use his white voice (performed by Cross).
The mostly positive reviews have described Riley’s vision as inventive, creative and imaginative, while social media has come to a consensus as well, affectionately labeling it “a trip.”
Watching Cash from the opening scene to his first days on the job being dropped in on people’s personal lives trying to hawk leather-bound encyclopedia sets, all the way through discovering success with his white voice, is indeed inventive storytelling by Riley.
However, that part of the arc is laid out a quarter of the way through the movie, and using that voice to make other people comfortable while at work is decidedly not the “trip” everyone is talking about. That moniker comes as we learn about the dystopian businesses, WorryFree and RegalView.
WorryFree, which we see on billboards and TV commercials and press tour interviews of their CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), is offering lifetime contracts, lodging and food to potential “employees” in their attempt to revolutionize the workforce.
RegalView, of course, is selling encyclopedias to identify elite telemarketers to be promoted to selling off massive amounts of WorryFree workers to international businesses. It’s not as evil as it sounds, as the newspapers have reported that WorryFree was cleared of any charges of slavery.
Cash’s white voice is less consequential to the story of his rise up to superstardom as is the effect of his constant use of it outside of the workplace on his girlfriend. The truth is Cash had a talent for it, whether it is sounding white or making sales. Yet it is his capitalistic rise that puts him in direct conflict with Detroit, his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who is working to unionize the low-level telemarketers.
The battle for the people is the workers against RegalView. While Cash is making a huge salary and has seen his life improve in nearly every way, the battle for his soul is with WorryFree and how far he will go to rationalize what he is selling.
This comes to a head at the Lift company party—which serves as a reminder of who ultimately benefits from this type of ultra capitalism as Cash and fellow power caller (played by Omari Hardwick/white voiced by Patton Oswalt) are the only two minorities in attendance.
Even after they are insisted to drop their white voices and act normal, the idea of normal to this group is insisting that Cash tell a story of busting a cap in someone and performing a freestyle rap for them. Things only get darker and shadier from there.
Despite being marketed heavily on the use of a white voice, racial politics are almost absent from the forefront of “Sorry to Bother You.” The five major players we meet working as telemarketers are all minorities against three white managers, but plenty of their fellow telemarketers in the background are of every color, white included.
The movie is starkly anticapitalist in its message, but it will not be missed on anyone that while a company like RegalView commits atrocities that pale in comparison to what is happening at WorryFree, those big companies are invulnerable to rebellion by the proletariat, and not even a change of heart from Cash with inside knowledge and video evidence can stop the corporation in motion.
Calling it a trip might be hyperbole, but “Sorry to Bother You” certainly jumps a level in its final 20 minutes, escalating in a way that punches it up from an arguably unsubtle dark comedy to a bit of an absurdist fantasy.
There is some incongruity between Riley’s message and taking to social media to plead with people to watch his film opening weekend. He says he has something to prove, but ultimately the box office numbers will only dictate whether or not he is afforded the chance to keep making movies and best-case scenario that other artists will find it easier to be able to tell their stories as a result of his success.
To do that, good reviews likely won’t be enough. I know Detroit had some strong messaging behind her performance at the gallery, but like Cash it was tough to be in the right headspace to hear it. The prospect of throwing bullet casings, cell phones and balloons of sheep’s blood at a live target packed the house. Riley can’t be live at every theater to take that punishment, but he can sell Stanfield (voiced by Cross). Hopefully, for us that’s enough to buy him his next movie.