Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” Reminding you of the definition of art is probably the most pretentious way I could have started this review but it’s applicable and helpful when talking about writer/director Boots Riley’s debut, Sorry to Bother You. It’s easy to forget that film is a visual art, with most of the films that get attention seemingly lacking any form of artistic expression. A lot of big budget movies lack the risk and heart that a true piece of art brings with it. They mostly feel like the same movie just set in a different place. Less art in films isn’t ideal but it is understandable. Art is an expression of the artist’s beliefs, opinions or ideals. It takes chances and aims to be different. This makes art divisive and can make people uncomfortable. Art demands that you think and that can be a tough ask for audiences that are looking for an escape.
Boots Riley is truly an artist and his film, Sorry to Bother You, is a true piece of art in every sense of the word. Riley takes chances both cinematically and thematically. He showed a visual style that is different than anything else and a brilliant ability to tell stories. His debut film ignores any traditional storytelling conventions and focuses more on relaying important messages through metaphors, images, and satire. What appears to be a story about a down on his luck guy trying to come up in the world, proves to be much deeper than that by taking a serious (and somewhat fantastical) look at capitalism and its effect on the lower class. That would be more than enough for the audience to chew on but Riley wasn’t satisfied with just that. He also fit in messages about race, ambition, love and civil disobedience. Even though it is packed with themes, it doesn’t feel overstuffed at all because each message is expressed in a way that feels natural to the overall story.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a guy that wants the most out of his life. He longs for significance and doing something that will matter in the world. That desire is juxtaposed with the reality of life. He’s living in his uncle’s garage and he’s broke. This character is incredibly relatable and you notice it within minutes. Riley creates and Stanfield portrays this character in a way that we can all see a bit of ourselves in him. The idea of wanting to be and do something significant is something that most people wrestle with at some point in time. He also is a great reflection of those that are struggling to thrive in America. His desires are weighed down by his realities and that is something that everyone can relate to. We have all had jobs that are just that, a job. They’re not done for the love of it but out of necessity. The desperation in his voice during his sales calls shows the importance of each sale but in turn this is why he isn’t successful. Stanfield’s performance is nothing short of wonderful. He is able to be relatable and interesting, all while being the perfect lens to see the world. There is a full journey with his character that brings out several different emotions in the viewer, which helps to further communicate the themes of the film. Stanfield very subtly gives one of the best leading performances of the year.
Small budget independent films with first time directors aren’t usually known for the casts that they are able to piece together. This is another way that Sorry to Bother You is special. The cast in this film is, surprisingly, loaded. The aforementioned Lakeith Stanfield is proving that he is a star. It’s the supporting cast that really catches the eye. The star power Boots Riley was able to pull together is crazy. It includes Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Omari Hardwick (Mr. _______), Terry Crews (Sergio), Steven Yeun (Squeeze), Armie Hammer (Steve Lift) and Danny Glover (Langston). This supporting cast, unsurprisingly, brings a lot of depth to the film. Armie Hammer really stood out amongst this cast. He is casted perfectly as a coked out CEO of a company (WorryFree). He carries the sinister charm and arrogance that is familiar for that character archetype. He embodies the power hungry, capitalist heel that is needed to drive the anti-capitalist message. All around this is a very well acted film and the acting does proper justice to the incredible script.
Sorry to Bother You is the type of art that is sure to get people talking, if not for no other reason than the themes that are embedded all throughout. The anti-capitalist, pro-union message is the prevailing theme but it is far from the only one. There is a poignant and efficient commentary on race that underlies a lot of what is going on. It’s first noticed in the office when a struggling Cassius Green is given some advice from veteran salesman Langston, who says, “Let me give you a tip. You wanna make some money here? Use your white voice.” Having a “white voice” is a real thing that a lot of minorities can relate to. The idea being that having a less threatening, more accommodating voice will allow you to be accepted amongst white people. It’s not something I have seen portrayed too many times in films, if I do see it, it’s usually as a joke. While that is true here to an extent, it is also addressed in a very real and serious way. The humor lies in its truth and for me, in its relatability. Cassius’s “white voice” leads him to success that he has never experienced before and it propels him up the company lines.
His acceleration in the company allows for more racial themes to present themselves. When he is invited to Steve Lift’s party we see another beautiful depiction of what it’s like to be a black guy in a room full of white people. He’s asked if he’s shot someone or if he can rap. This is another situation (while a bit exaggerated) that is all too familiar for minorities. These two examples demonstrate the real brilliance within Sorry to Bother You. Riley is able to portray very real scenarios with incredible precision and honesty. He makes them funny which allows them to be easily digested and can start a conversation. Having a white voice dubbed in while a black actor is speaking is brilliant. As is the exaggerated conversation between Lift and Cassius about his ability to rap. Because these things are so ridiculous, they can be laughed at and that humor breaks the tension and allows for conversations to happen.
Any way you cut it, Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant film. It’s well acted, directed, written, all while being fun and poignant. It has a lot to say but it takes the time to disarm you before saying it. You never feel preached at because the messages develop over time in a way that invites intrigue. Boots Riley doesn’t come off as a first time director, there is ambition and passion in the way he shoots this movie. It is full of color and elaborate camerawork to match the themes it’s presenting. While it does go a bit off the rails in the third act, there is plenty of set up going into it. If you go along for the ride it is a journey worth taking. There is so much to digest in this film that one viewing isn’t enough. I spoke about a couple of the themes in the film and I didn’t even scratch the surface of all that this film has to say.
There is no doubt that this film is different and unlike anything you will experience this year. It’s also not a flawless experience. Riley throws a lot of things at the wall and not all of them stick, but it all comes together in the end because Riley’s ambition is admirable. Art is meant to be thought provoking and divisive, not everyone will like this film or what it has to say. Not everyone will enjoy the weird ride that Riley takes them on. That’s okay because art is about ambition and creative expression. There needs to be more films like Sorry to Bother You and it is more than worth your time.
4 1/2 out of 5 Stars
Director: Boots Riley Writer: Boots Riley Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick & Armie Hammer Release Date: July 13, 2018 Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 45 minutes Image Credit: Annapurna Pictures via Imdb