Boots Riley is no stranger to politically charged art. Frontman for the politically charged hip hop outfit The Coup, Riley has been railing against injustice for decades. With Sorry to Bother You, he turns his pen (and fist) to the silver screen for the first time. A talented writer, he spares nothing in his debut—racism, corporate exploitation, and pop culture are all targets—in a story that paints a grim picture of where we are as a society and the dangers of where we could be heading. But alas, this is is first effort, and it certainly feels like it. While the underlying points are important, Sorry to Bother You is very rough around the edges, and one can’t help but wonder what might have been if someone with more film experience were at the helm.
Meet Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a man so in need to money that he has a fake trophy made to impress a hiring manager…at a sleazy telemarketing company. But even at this lowly job he struggles to shine, until a coworker (Danny Glover) lets him in on a trade secret. He’ll get more sales if he just uses his “white voice.” As telling jab at how much non-overt racism is still a problem in society, it works. His white voice (done by David Cross) is what helps him start to climb the corporate ladder, ascending to the mythical level of “power caller” just as his coworkers start to organize for better working conditions. It’s pretty standard fare doused in extreme contempt for the corporate world. Boots pulls no punches with the script and even when the written line doesn’t quite work, there is still enough bite behind it to get his point across.
As much as the film is trying to say, there are many times when it trips over itself trying to get there. There are plot points that go nowhere, awkward pacing and, for every inventive shot, there’s another that the cinematographer could have put some more thought into. The pacing is probably the biggest culprit here, a hallmark of an inexperienced director. Certain moments needed more time to breathe, either to get that punchline to work or for the proper amount of emotional weight. Which is frustrating given the amount of talent here and that this is obviously a passion project. None of these things turned me to sour overall on the experience, it takes too many chances and has too many good ideas for that to happen completely, but I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been if it was a bit more focused. Sorry to Bother You is kitchen sink filmmaking, going in one or two directions that it didn’t really need to.
I don’t want to spoil anything, because holy crap does this film go places, and even given its issues, it is still a worthwhile experience if you go in with the right mindset. I saw bits and pieces of early Spike Lee, and Mike Judge cult classics Office Space and Idiocracy sprinkled throughout. The later of which, like Sorry, is a bit flawed in execution even though its heart is in the right place. There is a writer/director here in Boots Riley who is clearly passionate about the project and it shows. See it for the ideals, for some of the lunacy, and for the hope that Boots only gets better with his next project. If nothing else, Sorry to Bother You is the rarest of beasts, a summer comedy with something to say.