If you’re a film buff then you’ve heard of Ryan Coogler. If you have a diverse musical palette then you’ve heard of G-Eazy. If you watch the NFL then you may know of Marshawn Lynch. If you’ve been following the festival circuit this year then you should know about Blindspotting. What do all of these things have to do with director Boots Riley? Oakland, California.
Boots Riley is the director of Sorry to Bother You, the latest adventure in creativity straight from The Bay (Northern California Bay Area). The film follows telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into unchartered territory.
Although the film has satirical elements to it I wouldn’t say it’s 100% a satire. A good example of this is when I saw the film at the Atlanta Film Festival. I heard a woman with her group of friends say, “That’s hilarious that they could create something called a white voice!” to her friends’ approval. That my friends… is not satire. Black people are often criticized for the way they speak, down to their verbiage and elocution. A lot of people (especially people of color) speak one way at work (deemed “properly”) and another outside of work. Most people know this as “code switching” but “white voice” is even funnier.
So Cassius, referred to as simply Cash, is like most Americans that are trying to do better for himself and get his life together. Currently living in his uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage, he’s more fortunate than most to not only have a car but an understanding girlfriend too. The walking definition of struggle (in one scene he puts 40 cents worth of gas in his car), his artsy, radical-minded girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) supports him while he searches for employment. She herself twirls signs on a street corner during the day while pursuing artistic endeavors at night.
Though the film is set in Oakland, this is Oakland in an alternate universe (enter satirical elements). You’ll immediately notice the crazy commercials on TV (think Interdimensional Cable from Rick & Morty) from shows to product advertisements. But the craziest of all involves a company called Worry Free Living, which is a dressed-up, modernized version of modern day slavery. They take the ‘worry’ out of living by affording you room & board, recess, and food, all while guaranteeing work. The catch, of course, is that the wage is so low that you wouldn’t be able to live without them. Now does something this far-fetched sound like it could happen in reality? Absolutely. With record housing prices in the Bay Area, copious taxes, and the “low-income” title being raised to a whopping $115,300, those who are desperate would most definitely look into something like this.
Boots Riley definitely gives social norms, capitalism, and corporate culture the biggest of middle fingers in the film. Anyone familiar with him should not be surprised, having come from an activist background and being the lead vocalist in a rap group called “The Coup.” They go way back into my youth (this is my favorite song from them back in the day) and were tasked with making the film’s soundtrack. Naturally, the soundtrack is awesome.
There are plenty of scenes where you might find yourself as passionate and/or emotional as the characters since most people have experience in customer service. Dealing with customers, coworkers, and managers you either can’t stand or they suck at what they do, seems to be a part of the everyday struggle. But the direction that Boots takes from here is one that so many of us are familiar with but with a few twists. That’s one of the reasons why this film is so great. Aside from the constant juxtaposition of reality and surreality, there are twists and turns whenever you think you know what’s about to happen.
I had the opportunity to speak with Boots when he was in Atlanta and asked about one particular plot twist that’s so extreme you won’t be able to miss it: “I needed him to see who he was. I wrote it so there’s a performance that happens. There’s a performance piece that Cassius does (later in the film). As I was writing I was thinking ‘Maybe this is the thing that puts it in perspective for him?’ But then I was like ‘Well he’s already been doing all this other crazy stuff so why would that happen?’ So I needed there to be another level, something that showed him who he was in the world. So I went there with him.”
When Cash starts his telemarketing gig he hits a brick wall. Every time he gets someone to answer the phone they hang up almost immediately. Cue in Langston (Danny Glover), a coworker who gives Cash some sound advice in order to climb the ranks and make more money. “Sound like what they think they should sound like,” he explains. Other stars on this hilarious cast include Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, David Cross, Forest Whitaker, Jermaine Fowler, Mistah F.A.B., Thessaly Lerner, and more.
I give Sorry to Bother You a 9 out of 10. A trend has started in the Oakland Bay Area and America needs to take note. This is not the last you’ll hear from Boots Riley. There is definitely more greatness to come.
*Our full interview with Boots will be updated shortly.