Sorry to Bother You


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Please note: this article contains spoilers

Boots Riley has never been afraid to be political. As the founder and frontman of hip hop collective The Coup, Riley has been masquerading Marxist anthems under soulful beats for over two decades. “The enemy the brothers of a dark complexion/The governments of the world is shark infested/They heavy on weaponry like Charlton Heston,” Riley fires in My Favourite Mutiny. Wrestling with issues as diverse as police brutality to the patriarchy, The Coup’s music is a rallying cry from an artist desperate for change. His audacious directorial debut Sorry to Bother You is only a natural progression, a mere extension of his politically cognizant tracks.

Sorry to Bother You may appear to be a retaliation against the Trump administration, but it has been a long-gestating project since the Obama era.[1] “Unfortunately, the world hasn’t changed enough to make the movie irrelevant,” Riley said at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.[2] First written in 2012 and published in McSweeney’s in 2014, it speaks to the stasis, or regression even, of our political climate, that Sorry to Bother You still feels as timely now as it did 6 years ago.[3]

Sorry to Bother You is a trojan horse of a film (in more ways than one). Like Michel Gondry meets Spike Lee in a Black Mirror episode, the film is a magical sci-fi set in the world of telemarketing.[4] In an alternate present-day Oakland, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet with his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and three months late on rent, he resigns himself to a job at the shady telemarketing firm RegalView. He finds little success - his calls usually are met swiftly with the dial tone - but when an older colleague (Danny Glover) advises him to use his ‘white voice’ (provided by David Cross), he quickly moves up the ranks to become a ‘Power Caller’. It’s in his new coveted position where he learns that the company’s biggest client is WorryFree, headed by coke-snorting CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), a sinister corporation marketing slave labour.

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For African Americans, the white voice comes naturally. As a part of code-switching - adjusting how you communicate for the audience - black people are constantly forced to change themselves for the appeasement of white people, whether they are a conscious of it or not. The reality of the white voice extends beyond its presentation as an innocent linguistic act - it’s a form of assimilation that perpetuates racial hierarchies.[5] In this performance of whiteness, aligning with one’s own oppressors becomes a survival tactic.[6] We see this in the film, as Cassius not only pretends to be white, but behind the telephone, he can hide his blackness. However, despite how much they change their syntax, black people are still under constant danger. Unarmed black men are killed by police at 3.49 times the rate of white men.[7] Code-switching is a linguistic form of protection, but the sight of blackness is still perceived as a threat. The sales pitch of Sorry to Bother You revolves around the comedic deployment of the white voice, but capitalism is also critical to the film. In this economic structure, black people are rewarded for playing to stereotypes or erasing their racial identity completely.[8] Through employing his white voice, Cassius also reaps the privileges of whiteness, corrupting everything he and Detroit stand for. Wallowing in his newfound success, he alienates his co-workers who are protesting against WorryFree. Sorry to Bother You exposes those who turn a blind eye to injustice when it benefits them. Capitalism puts the shutters over our eyes, distracting us with flashing lights and images to hide the gross disparities that exist among us. Sorry to Bother You - not one for subtle metaphors - makes this abundantly clear, nowhere more so than in the film’s fictional game show I Got the S--- Kicked Out of Me. Working for RegalView, Cassius becomes entranced by a system that is actively working against him, but the finger is pointed at us too.

The film owes much of its style to the surrealist works of Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. (Look out for an homage to one “Michel Dongry” - a result of the French director’s refusal to give permission for the use of his real name.)[9] When Cassius makes his sales calls, Riley visualises the intrusive nature of such calls by having the desk literally drop into the home of the recipient. Later, as Cassius moves up the corporate ladder, his makeshift garage home transforms into a penthouse suite by way of some innovative practical effects. Its style also translates to its inventive costume design - Detroit’s activism manifests in her Afrofuturist wardrobe from her earrings (“Murder Murder Murder” on one ear, “Kill Kill Kill” on the other) to her t-shirts (“The Future is Female Ejaculation”).[10]

The title denotes the phrase Cassius opens his sales calls with, but Riley isn’t really sorry. The film unapologetically screams in your face and it’s all the better for it. Sorry to Bother You’s weighty messages are funneled through a creative, singular vision you’re unlikely to see replicated. Riley hopes the film becomes a rallying tool for a new generation of activists. Let's make it happen.

Iana Murray 
December 2018



[1] Alissa Wilkinson, ‘Why Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley thinks artists should be activists’, Vox, 6 July 2018, https://www.vox.com/summer-movies/2018/7/6/17501500/boots-riley-interview-sorry-to-bother-you-coup-michel-gondry-activism

[2] Bridgette Bates, ‘Honoring the Irrepressible Boots Riley’, Sundance Institute, 15 June 2018, https://www.sundance.org/blogs/honoring-the-irrepressible-boots-riley-sorry-to-bother-you

[3] ibid.

[4] Sade Spence, ‘Why ‘Sorry to Bother You’ Director Boots Riley Thinks His Satirical Comedy Is ‘Realistic’, Variety, 21 June 2018, https://variety.com/2018/scene/news/sorry-to-bother-you-premiere-tessa-thompson-lakeith-stanfield-boots-riley-1202853442/

[5] AT McWilliams, ‘Sorry to Bother You, black Americans and the power and peril of code-switching’, The Guardian, 25 July 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jul/25/sorry-to-bother-you-white-voice-code-switching

[6] Hunter Harris, ‘How Sorry to Bother You Found (and Used) Its White Voice’, Vulture, 18 July 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/07/boots-riley-sorry-to-bother-you-found-and-used-its-white-voice.html

[7] McWilliams

[8] ibid.

[9] Wilkinson

[10] Hunter Harris, ‘The Story Behind Sorry to Bother You’s Technicolor Costumes’, Vulture, 3 July 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/07/sorry-to-bother-you-costumes-costume-designer.html


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