Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) goes by Cash. “Is Cash Green?” he jokes to his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in an “Is the Pope Catholic” kind of way. “Yes it is,” she replies, and they kiss. Money and its inflection through race—Cash himself is not green—is at the center of Sorry To Bother You, a madly inventive dystopian comedy from the musician Boots Riley. Green starts the movie totally broke, living in the garage of an uncle who is himself facing foreclosure. He is diffident, hunched over. But when he gets a job at a telemarketing company called RegalView, his prospects start to change.
In the first of many magical events, Green discovers a preternatural ability to speak in a “white” voice (David Cross). All his cold calls turn into business wins. His floor manager is a white man with an anarchy symbol tattooed on his neck—a former radical now indoctrinated and interested in indoctrinating others. The manager dangles the carrot of “upstairs” in front of Green. Up there, the manager explains, are the “power callers.” Those employees use a special elevator. They make the big deals.
As Green’s white voice propels him up the ranks at RegalView, he bounces into other scenarios that are eerily like real life, just a little off. The power caller floor is laid out like a typical coworking space; open plan, lots of concrete and wood. But when the team gets together on a multi-level seating area—like a cross between stoop steps and bleacher benches—it becomes apparent that the levels are off. Some of the employees are standing in mid-air, basically. The surreal wrongheadedness of this company is built into the furniture.
Green’s guide through the upper echelons of RegalView is an unnamed, eyepatched man played by the brilliant Omari Hardwick. “Mr._____,” as he’s credited, speaks only in his white voice, and encourages Green to do the same.
To the growing concern of Detroit and Green’s best friends, who now include a union organizer called Squeeze (Steven Yeun), Green cannot resist the power caller paycheck even though he is selling deeply unethical products. RegalView is connected to a hideous corporation called WorryFree, a “lifestyle” company that in fact invites the poor to work under a lifetime contract, for no wages, living in barracks. But Green needs to help out his uncle. How can he join a unionizing effort that aims to improve pay and conditions for the telemarketers, when his own family is in trouble?
That knot of problems tightens around Green, pulling him away from the lovely Detroit and into the nastiest bowels of business. As the movie progresses it grows more bizarre. Meanwhile, Detroit wears a series of earrings and slogan tees that signal the movie’s ethics. One pair of earrings reads “Bury the rag deep in your face,” a line from Bob Dylan’s song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” That song is about a black woman who was murdered by her rich white employer William Zanzinger. It’s a song about injustice, about how whites believe that “the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,” even though the ladder never works in favor of a certain kind of worker.
Boots Riley describes himself as a communist, and the movie is about the evil of lifestyle corporations, the spiritual perils of betraying your peers, and the power of withholding one’s labor. But Sorry to Bother You is an excellent movie—never didactic more than it is charismatic—because it presents labor predicaments through black experience. Workers all have identities, of course. But through charm and magic and, crucially, an extraordinarily naturalistic performance from Stanfield, Riley makes the case that labor conditions and race determine the experience of workers coextensively, one perfectly overlapping the other.
Several critics have drawn the comparison between Sorry to Bother You and Get Out, which Stanfield was also in for a brief but astonishing moment. As Alissa Wilkinson put it at Vox, “the movie’s genius lies not so much in how it reflects reality but in how it interprets it.” Both Riley and Get Out’s Jordan Peele have recreated our world but cracked through with a surreal seam that makes its hidden evils unmissable.
Still, they are deeply different movies. While Get Out was set in the white world of the Armitage family, Sorry to Bother You is about a black protagonist living in a world whose movie magic is black. Detroit, for example, makes performance art about The Last Dragon (1985), the cult classic martial arts movie produced by Motown kingpin Berry Gordy. Omari Hardwick’s costuming recalls Shaft (1971) and Coffy (1973), a kind of literal pun on blaxploitation movie history and black exploitation in the workplace.
The top boss at WorryFree (Armie Hammer) is the man who turns race into a weapon. A spoiler would ruin the film, but, in the only moment that feels specifically connected to Get Out, he takes Green down to a creepy basement and reveals his masterplan for subduing his workers. He wants a man on the inside, he explains. A Martin Luther King whom “we create; we control.”
WorryFree wants to turn its workers into dehumanized wretches once and for all. Out of this insane concept comes an extraordinary series of animated scenes that lift Sorry to Bother You’s magical stakes to new levels of multi-media filmmaking. As Green watches a riot scene play out through a slot in a police van, the people appear as if they’re in a comic strip. The camera then switches places to show us his eyes peering out through the slot in wonder. What will happen next? What other new worlds will Green’s eyes see, what new consciousnesses will he come to? Having built its own universe, Sorry to Bother You could easily extend into a sequel, maybe more. It seems like Boots Riley has a lot left to say.