Cult indie rapper Boots Riley’s feature-length debut, Sorry to Bother You, is a satire about the desperation of being down and out in America when you’re a person of color. Which is to say, the film knows what’s real—though “real” isn’t the right word to attribute to this sci-fi comedy whatsit that takes place in an alternate-reality version of Oakland where everywhere you turn is an advertisement touting Worry Free Living, a voluntary forced-labor system.
The film’s greatest gag occurs at a particularly wild and knotty intersection of class and race. Inside the mansion of Worry Free’s smarmy CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is asked to rap for a crowd of white people. Except Cassius can’t rap, and in a moment of desperation—fearing that he might lose his job—he yells out the n-word over and over again, to the almost rabid delight of every single person in the room.
This scene is, on its surface, about the social contracts that make for better societies but which people struggle to uphold or revel in subverting. But its true genius, at once sad and perverse, resides in the way the camera reads the room: not so nonplussed—at least not as much as Cassius is—by a bunch of white people using a dude-bro’s palatial house of horrors as their safe space to thrill over what civilized society tells them is unutterable.
Cassius’s activist-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), also knows what’s real, and as such she comes to resent him for not being sufficiently upset about the systems that exist in society to keep people like them down. After all, paying his overdue rent—he lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage—seems more important to Cassius than pledging allegiance to any cause.
After getting a job at a telemarketing firm, RegalView, Cassius is quickly thrust to the top of the pecking order by adhering to the company’s motto: “Stick to the script.” And part of that script includes using his “white voice” on the phone with customers as he tries to sell them encyclopedias, oblivious that what he’s really hawking is Worry Free’s slave labor. That’s another one of Sorry to Bother You’s great gags: the sight of Cassius and a fellow black telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), opening their mouths and their words coming out in nasally, distinctly white voices (provided by comedians David Cross and Patton Oswalt). (Cassius, though, is very much himself on the outside whenever he—in an inspired visual motif—literally drops into people’s homes whenever he’s on the phone with a potential client.)
This is a flip on the hostage scenario at the heart of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, where Stanfield’s character sees his black body literally held hostage by a community of white liberals. The difference here is that Cassius is his own captor. Riley wants us to recognize—then laugh at—the fundamental absurdity of how code switching has become an innate survival tactic for people of color, for whom not talking white enough, or not having a white enough name, possibly means not being able to compete for the same piece of the pie.
Riley’s belief in laughter paving the way for sanity is energizing, and his film’s wild digressions are poignantly in sync with the fundamental unpredictability—or, rather, insanity—of present-day America. For talking white and boosting RegalView’s commissions, Cassius is rewarded first with an office in the top floor of the building—which can only be reached by inputting what is safe to say is the longest elevator code in the history of the world—and then with a swanky apartment that would seem to put a permanent wedge between him and Detroit. She believes that he’s benefiting from a system of exploitation, while Cassius seems to feel that he’s gotten his due, which is why when his co-workers start picketing against RegalView, his only worry is making sure he gets to the other side of the picket line without spilling any more blood.
But by the time Cassius worms his way back to the top of his ivory tower, the world of Sorry to Bother You already feels as if it’s been transformed into a metaphysical disaster zone from which it’s difficult to imagine anyone on either side of the film’s class and race war emerging in one piece. And it’s around here, as it flings itself into the dominion of sci-fi, that this wild and often funny film—so unmistakably alive to the humiliations of the social systems that keep the lower classes in their place—loses something. Some of Riley’s best jokes are beaten into the ground, and those that aren’t particularly pointed in the first place are fired off with a desperation that only amplifies the sense that Riley is making things up as he goes along.
In one scene, Detroit is inexplicably seen working at RegalView. In another, set at one of her gallery performances, whatever point Riley is trying to make about the relationship between art and protest is lost in the bum’s rush to set the stage for a climax that’s simultaneously too literal and oblique for it to feel sufficiently uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that Cassius has no real arc—and you sense the preternaturally talented Stanfield’s struggle to telegraph something more than his character’s perpetually put-upon status. Cassius may embrace righteousness, but his awakening feels obligatory—certainly not something that seems as if it will become a torch-passing tradition.
For a spell, Riley’s cultural ire is so cool-headed that Sorry to Bother You easily distinguishes itself from Mike Judge’s similarly themed Idiocracy, but along the way it, too, settles for swinging for the fences—so much so that the target of its satire is no longer in its crosshairs. Sorry to Bother You tries to coast on weirdness for its own sake when refraining from it might have allowed the film to transform into something more than a lark—something a little more resolved and necessarily real and permanent at a time when the state of America feels as uncertain as the lives of its characters.