lakeith stanfield tessa thompson

Review: Sorry to Bother You is the Perfect Surrealist Satire for An Increasingly Uncanny America

5/5 Detroit's Earrings | Boots Riley's debut feature has its finger on the pulse of everything that is wrong with our culture.

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There are many different ways a film can impact its audience. There are films, expensive and bombastic, that evaporate from your brain while you’re still in the theater parking lot. There are films that move you, make you weep, and touch on universal emotions we all feel. There are movies that terrify you, keep you up in the dark hours double-checking for monsters under your bed. Then, there are the rare movies that worm their way inside your mind and break it wide open, reminding you of the awesome power of art that holds up a funhouse mirror to society to reveal existential truths.

Sorry to Bother You is just such a film. I just saw it yesterday and I’m still processing the densely packed tome from artist and activist Boots Riley. STBY taps into a glorious cinematic history, joining the ranks of films like Dr. Strangelove, Network, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich as satirical touchstones that define an era of American history.

The film centers on Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) an Oakland man struggling to make ends meet. Cash lives in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (a luminous Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and activist. When Cash takes a job at telemarketing company RegalView, he quickly discovers that he can boost his sales by adopting a “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) with customers. As Cassius ascends the ranks of RegalView, his financial success is increasingly at odds with his core values and beliefs.

STBY give us an America where everything is off-kilter. Like Black Mirror, it shows us a world that is scarily similar to our own, warped ever so slightly. In Riley’s world, large bottles of whiskey open up to reveal smaller ones. A company called WorryFree, led by charismatic billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer doing his best Elon Musk impression), offers citizens free food and lodging by housing them in their factories, which resemble brightly colored prisons. The most popular show on television is a reality series called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!” where people are beaten to a pulp on national television in front of a cheering audience.

To say any more about the plot would ruin its inventive third act, which Boots Riley has actively discouraged reviewers from doing (and with good reason). As the film takes a wildly subversive left turn, it takes on racism, late-stage capitalism, code-switching, consumerism, and cultural appropriation, weaving everything together for an explosive and unexpected finale. As surreal as the finale is, the groundwork is beautifully laid throughout the film. STBY questions how to succeed in America without losing your soul.

We live in an increasingly scary and absurd world. Our president is openly colluding with foreign powers. The House and the Senate are actively ignoring it. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos are reaping countless revenues while their employees work up to 80 hours a week and can’t pay their rent. Real-life headlines have become indistinguishable from The Onion. And worst of all, the more pervasive these assaults are, the more inured we become to it. Our apathy is killing us by a thousand little cuts.

Sorry to Bother You‘s hypnagogic qualities are made all the more haunting by their resemblance to the America we are currently living in. When we look back on the Trump era, this will be a defining parable. By finding the reality in the surreal, Boots Riley has made a film audiences will be unpacking for years to come. Go see it, and get ready to have your mind blown.

(image: Annapurna Pictures)

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Author
Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.