On the way back from Sorry to Bother You (directed and written by The Coup’s Boots Riley) a couple of my friends were discussing what made the film work. We all agreed that it was a movie we’d never seen before and unlike Black Panther (a terrific movie in its own right) it wasn’t just a different movie to the norm of superheroes but Sorry to Bother you defies all of the norm of films that are going on right now more generally. And in ways that really matter for our time.
The movie is proudly political and in an era where people think it’s a sign of their intellect that they don’t consume entertainment that’s “politicized” the movie bathes itself in politics of varying sizes. Similar to Dear White People, Sorry to Bother You shows the reality where people of color who are “woke” aren’t unified in their motivations or tactics.
Some of them fall in love with the establishment to the degree that, before they know it, they are the establishment. Sorry to Bother You highlights this in a brilliant aesthetic of a “white voice” that black people give themselves so they can better sell and relate to white people who otherwise might not listen to them.
It’d be easy to see this as a bare-bones commentary on assimilation but it’s more than that. It’s also about the impact of race in society, the way that race intersects with class and how much selling yourself out isn’t just giving your social security number to the elite but your spirit and brain too. What makes you an autonomous individual.
Tessa Thompson (as Detroit) is a young radical with kickass earrings that scream commodification and glamour while also subversively displaying whatever Detroit wants. Whether it’s sexually explicit, violent or showing the history of America’s own violence, her earrings are oddly a highlight in a film full of highlights.
The basics are that Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) wants to make it big in the world, he wants to make a difference in the world before the sun goes out. It’s a relatable feeling for a main character, someone wants to make a difference and allows themselves to compromise so they can get there at a faster pace. But the fast lane has its costs.
In the first half of the film there’s a lot of brief commentary on how corporations don’t need (and probably aren’t looking for) anyone in particular for them to hire. Employees just need to have some sort of ambition, initiative and be desperate enough to sell themselves out to whoever asks with the most money.
There’s great commentary on the power (but also limits) of unions and surprisingly even a few shrugs of the shoulder towards relying on the system to fix itself. In fact, the movie doesn’t try to hide the fact that there are many societal tensions in the world that will never be solved in the span of a movie’s runtime.
These tensions don’t spring out of thin air, they are named as the products of slave labor, regular corporate work that is underpaid, underappreciated and overly controlled. There are ways we are all monitored and controlled and implored to try to get as high up the corporate ladder as we can. But the ladder has blood on every rung.
And for every rung you get up the blood drenches you until you can’t see your right from your left. And your hands get better at better at sloshing through bars, moving you up easier and easier, leaving others behind. And it doesn’t really matter where the bars came from, whether it was made from slav-I mean prison labor.
Sorry to Bother You makes it clear that for however “woke” you might be and ready for the social revolution you think you are, it’s always going to be worse than you think. There’s power in a union, that’s for sure, but the movie wisely asks whether there’s enough to take on an entire system collectively against our betterment.
There are metaphors aplenty in the film from blood, to pictures and the ways surrealism and science fiction often collide in interesting and original ways. The soundtrack, as you’d expect is a great mix of funky rap music done by The Coup and I enjoyed any second it was playing in clubs that had VIP clubs but probably shouldn’t as characters quip.
The menial aspects of modern corporate labor is touched on but it’s not a big part of the film. The film takes it as a given that people have seen Office Space enough times to realize that working as a telemarketer is horribly job that requires you to turn tragedy into a possible profit situation. Still, it’s expressed in realistic and refreshing ways.
What’s amazing is that even as far up as New Hampshire got the film. I suspected that the film would be stuck in Boston and perhaps never get into NH. But looking into seeing the movie a few days ago I was pleasantly surprised that it was in two theaters in NH, which was two more than I expected.
Given Sorry to Bother You is such an indie film made by an explicitly communist director it’s not a big surprise to me that the theater was mostly empty on a Tuesday evening. But there were still a good amount of reactions from the relatively low turnout, or at least relative to how many seats are in the given theater we were at.
The best part about Riley’s film is that it was well-received in a time when it is so desperately needed. Much like Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You capitalizes on the cultural zeitgeist of the moment and makes it its own. But instead of the political struggle and conflict being a convenient background for an interesting villain it’s the centerpiece of the film.
Riley has created a terrific film that comments on love, radicalism, work, “selling out” and what it means to be human and deserve the respect of your peers. I doubt it’s going to be winning any awards by a bunch of old white folks (though I’d love to be proven wrong) but if it does, I hope Riley makes the news again with a bombastic speech.
Sorry to Bother You gives a feel-good but ultimately ambiguous ending.
Let’s hope we can all give ourselves that and better before the sun explodes.
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