Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” Is a Sharp Social Satire That Morphs Into Something Else Entirely


AUGUST 6, 2018

A number of critics of critics have compared Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out,” a comparison that is not fair to either film.

Yes, both are first-time African American writer/directors, but the concerns of Riley, known as the political lead singer of the Oakland hip-hop group The Coup, are very different than Peele’s goals, with Riley’s target being the plight of African-Americans in the business world.  But I do admit that both films share something in common — a third act that veers into jaw-dropping astonishment.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” FX’s “Atlanta”) stars as Cassius Green (say it fast), an unemployed layabout who lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, who is in absolutely everything and is wonderful as usual).  Sergio wants his rent money, so Cash goes to work in the cubicle of a telemarketing firm for a company, WorryFree, that basically offers indentured servitude for any folks who are so desperate that they would be willing to become slaves.

Cash is not very good at attracting customers, so veteran co-worker Langston (Danny Glover, perfect) tells him that, in order to succeed, he needs to use his “white voice.”  And, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as Cash uses his “white voice,” his sales zoom, and he soars up the corporate ladder, so much that he is named a “Power Caller” and is entitled to use the corporate elevator.  (Cash’s “white voice” is provided by “Arrested Development’s” David Cross, the whitest white voice available except for mine).

At this point, “Sorry To Bother You” has left realistic mode and now is into pure satire, which is a difficult thing to pull off, but Riley manages to do it — it’s like an aggrieved version of “Office Space.”  One of the many perks of WorryFree office life is the chance to meet its founder Steve Lift (a bearded Armie Hammer as the embodiment of sleaze), who eventually reveals the real purpose of WorryFree.

At this point, what begins as social realism, then turns into sharp satire, suddenly becomes science-fiction, and that’s all I’m going to say.

Does it work?  There’s a bit of whiplash moving from one genre and tone to another, and by the time we get to the Act 3 surprise, the moviegoer doesn’t quite know which way is up.  I hate to be coy about telling you the twist, but would you have enjoyed “Get Out” as much if you knew the secret going in?

What I want to praise if Riley’s direction, which is remarkably assured for a first-time director.  His work with actors — particularly Stanfield, who is as good here as he has ever been — is assured, and despite the genre switches, the film never drags.  Did I buy the third-act twist?  It’s a stretch that I don’t think entirely works, but it’s so refreshing to see a new director who is not overly cautious but is willing to throw the long ball.

The best way to enjoy “Sorry to Bother You” is to leave your expectations at the door.  Give yourself over to Riley’s vision, and prepare for some surprises.