“What will I have done that matters?” wonders Cassius Green, the primary protagonist of Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry to Bother You. [Some thematic spoilers for the film follow, so read Tori’s review first and then come back to this space]
He thinks about dying, about the sun exploding, about how his days have a troubling rhythm of “work, eat, fuck sleep.” He’s living a life in Oakland that feels persistently circular, and only intermittently successful: 40 cents secures him enough gas to get to work at RegalView Telemarketing, but he’s still four months behind on rent; he works a full day, but doesn’t have enough money for coffee from the ancient machine in what passes for RegalView’s crappy breakroom. Capitalism’s dehumanizing grind has him in its clutches, and the uneasiness inspired by submitting to that system was exactly what writer and director Boots Riley wanted to explore. (Yeah, I think Petr would like it.)
“What the film critiques is the idea that you can escape [capitalism] without confronting it,” said Riley, creator of the hip-hop collective The Coup who has been working on the idea for Sorry to Bother You since 2001, during a recent interview in Washington, D.C. “It’s kind of like a punk aesthetic — ‘We can make our own thing!’ — and it’s not true. You’re not making your own thing, you’re making a different part of capitalism.”
The struggle of how to engage with these economics and politics while also actively opposing them is at the heart of Sorry to Bother You, one of this year’s most unforgettable films. Riley combines pointed humor, nuanced social critiques, and fantastical surrealism to craft a tale that acknowledges both capitalism and dissent as essential to the American experience. Riley very obviously supports the latter but the film doesn’t automatically assume that audiences will, and the intentional and persuasive ways the film lays out why you should are great strengths.
Sorry to Bother You presents the flaws with our current system and the steps people need to take to make it better, from identifying labor issues and organizing allies to enacting a strike and bartering for better worker benefits — not necessarily as a how-to manual, Riley says, but because human struggle, withheld labor, and widespread rebellion in our own world as it is now aren’t covered that often on the big screen. “It’s in the future, and everyone is part cyborg, and it’s like the Hunger Games,” Riley says of dystopian themes that are discussed in other works and that seem very far away from our own issues. “A Republican could watch that and not change their mind about the world. Radicals often hide in sci-fi because I feel like you’re not risking anything.”
In contrast, then, is how Sorry to Bother You makes a case for disrupting the status quo. Riley crafts an alternate world that doesn’t seem that outlandish, one in which disenfranchised workers choose to become members of a new slave class because it guarantees them food and shelter; reality television has reached rock bottom with a show in which people volunteer to get beaten up for a chance to be on TV; and successful salespeople are treated like new gods, given access to elite spaces and lavished with wealth to appease their inferiority to the next level of power, the CEOs who monetize other people’s work instead of doing their own. All of these things could happen in an alternate world because to some degree they are already happening in ours.
Riley pulled from his own varied work history — time spent both as a labor organizer and a telemarketer — to craft Cassius and the film’s other primary protagonists who are figuring out how to live in this world, including artist and Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson; his best friend and coworker Sal, played by Jermaine Fowler; and coworker and union organizer Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun. Of that group, the characters who react most immediately to these casually nightmarish circumstances are Detroit and Squeeze, who we see disrupting the accepted order of the world in various ways throughout the film.
“It’s important to me that all the characters have a humanity that doesn’t come from just looking at someone and respecting them,” Riley says. “I wrote every single character as myself, and really what’s represented … is a lot of different sides of me that are always arguing with each other: the organizer, the artist, the funny guy, and the guy looking to make his life mean something, to engage with the world. They’re sometimes at odds with each other, and sometimes they work together.”
“My parents wanted to give me an American name,” Detroit says when she’s introduced to Squeeze, and of all the characters in Sorry to Bother You, she’s the most contradictory — carrying a name synonymous with American industry but pursuing actions that work to undermine that very system. She’s the woman in the “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt and the glittery platform boots, the one soothing Cassius’s fears about dying before putting on earrings that say “MURDER MURDER MURDER” and “KILL KILL KILL.” Detroit speaks openly about her fear of selling out and objects almost immediately to how quickly Cassius starts using his “white voice” to successfully make sales, but when we see her later in the film at a gallery show, how she presents herself as an artist is a totally different personality from what we’ve seen before — simultaneously more pretentious and more earnest.
She’s performing different versions of herself, and she’s also constantly questioning: questioning RegalView’s tactics to keep their workers powerless, questioning Cassius’s promotion to being a “power caller” and the new products he’s selling, questioning whether people interpret her work in the ways she intended, questioning whether her art is making a difference (mimicking Cassius’s own concerns). Yet her doubt always leads to forward action, which was a way Riley wanted to inject empathy into the film.
“The big thing she’s going through is whether or not her art does something. I wanted to talk about the idea that she is very much about aesthetic as a revolutionary tool,” Riley says. “She has this joyous view of life that doesn’t mean it’s hiding from anything. She is, with every inch of her body, going to make a statement, whether it’s with the earrings or on any wall she can find. She’s really trying to say something and trying to be part of change through saying things, and that means she sees something in Squeeze, who maybe has the same goal but a different method.”
While Detroit navigates how to use her art to enact the greatest impact, Squeeze sticks to methods he has championed in other cities and in other industries: bring workers together, identify clear goals, gain everyone’s investment, and unite together against the bosses. Squeeze is matter of fact in his approach, throwing pamphlets on a bar table as he baldly states “We need a union,” but that straightforwardness is based in confidence, on the knowledge that this can work. His demand for “human decency” from RegalView and other corporations like it gives a voice to those who have played by the rules, some for years, with nothing to show for it. He helps RegalView workers and others regain power over their bodies by denying access to their work, by proving that withdrawing from the capitalist economy can help change it. “We make the profits and they don’t share,” he says, and his principled steadiness throughout Sorry to Bother You makes standing up to those in power seem damn achievable.
(And yes, this brings to mind Yeun’s environmental activist character in last year’s Okja, which shares some themes with Sorry to Bother You. But Riley still needs to catch up with Bong Joon-ho’s film: “I have to admit it, I told Steven this, I haven’t finished it. It came in the middle of other stuff!” Riley says, which I suppose is an acceptable excuse when you’ve been working for more than a decade on your cinematic passion project.)
None of this is to say that Detroit and Squeeze are better characters than Cassius; all three of them are instrumental to Riley’s vision of America as a place defined by a system that is fundamentally unequal and populated by people who have the ability, if they are willing, to make things uncomfortable and uncivil and possibly better. But together, they represent a spectrum of “life shaped by exploitation,” as Detroit says, of people attempting to survive in any way they can.
“The only way you’re going to escape capitalism is to get rid of it. You can’t come out unscathed, but the happy ending is that the fight is continuing, and that is hope,” Riley says, and how he has his characters realize that over the course of Sorry to Bother You makes it simultaneously dire but optimistic, bleak but encouraging. It is one of the best of the year.