“Sorry to Bother You” is already a whip-smart satire of racial dynamics in the workplace when it’s about a black telemarketer who uses a white voice to improve his business. Then the naked human-horse mutants show up. The directorial debut of hip-hop artist Boots Riley reaches into the stratosphere of creative inspiration with utterly bonkers results that are nonetheless crystal clear in their intentions: “Putney Swope” by way of “Dear White People,” Riley’s wacky odyssey fires a zillion different wacky ideas at once, and more often than not, hits its targets.
Riley published an earlier version of this screenplay in McSweeney’s three years ago, but “Sorry to Bother You” feels like a distinctly contemporary statement. Oakland dreamer Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield, never better) lives in a garage with his activist-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), eking out a living however he can. His cynical, anything-goes attitude matches the world around him, but it takes some time for him to realize the full extent of the system that takes advantage of his place in it.
In an opening scene, he attempts to bullshit his way into the telemarketing gig, gets called on his lies, and lands the job anyway. (The qualifications explained by his nonchalant boss, played by Robert Longstreet: “You have initiative, and you can read.”) It’s obvious that Riley has big filmmaking ambitions from the moment Cassius makes his first calls, and — in a device that would make Michel Gondry smile — finds himself transported to the same room as the indifferent clients on the other end. They’re white, he’s black, and that’s not the only awkward factor in play. The hangups just keep coming, until an older officemate (Danny Glover) explains the idea behind the white-voice approach. “Not Will Smith white,” he says. “It’s how they see themselves.” Cassius decides to give it a shot, and suddenly David Cross’ voice comes out of his mouth. Success!
The dubbing is an intentionally off-putting device, but crucial to the movie’s cartoonish bite (Patton Oswalt provides the white voice for another telemarketer higher on the food chain). As Cassius becomes an overnight “power caller,” one of his black peers describes the white voice as “some puppet-master voodoo shit,” a keen way of labeling the racial biases that assault black identity in the workplace.
He’s far more spot-on than anyone in the movie realizes. With time, Cassius rises to the attention of slick-talking CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, the ideal white-guy villain), who oversees a shady corporate entity ominously named WorryFree. Cassius has some allegiance to his unionized coworkers’ bids for fair pay and his girlfriend’s countercultural street antics, but he finds himself seduced by his overlords, to a point that leads him into ludicrous Uncle Tom territory. A brilliantly outrageous bit finds him forced to perform hip hop for a mostly white crowd at a party dripping with privilege; incapable of freestyling, he resorts to chanting “Nigga shit!” to a wildly receptive crowd.
That’s just one example of the subversive inspiration throughout Riley’s unhinged story. The movie juggles a few too many subplots and not every joke lands, but it’s loaded with capricious details that shimmer with the exuberance of inspired social commentary at hyperspeed — from outrageous snippets of reality television (“I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me”) to Thompson’s ever-changing earrings, which form hilarious activist chants (“Tell Homeland Security/We’re the Bomb”). Thompson, of course, provided the central voice of reason in “Dear White People,” and she’s a similarly outspoken voice of bitter truths here. In constant disguise, she joins an underground group known as Left Eye to tackle the unfair workplace conditions overseen by WorryFree, putting her at odds with her boyfriend’s entrepreneurial interests and fueling the movie’s key conflict.
So what does it take for a young black capitalist to get woke? That’s where the mutated human horses, and their ginormous penises, come into play. To say more would spoil the movie’s commitment to a surreal premise that keeps growing stranger. The clear intentions of the movie, and it’s jaw-dropping twists, go a long way towards smoothing out some of the rough patches in this impressive debut.
Needless to say, landing a year after “Get Out” assaulted race relations on a more intimate scale, “Sorry to Bother You” fits with the zeitgeist. Like that movie, it foregrounds a series of ludicrous developments based around the challenges facing African Americans in a white-dominated consumer society, and leaves you with the impression that even the most ridiculous moments contain some tidbits of truth.
“Sorry to Bother You” premiered in the U.S. Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.