Black people aren’t allowed to be weird. This isn’t a grandiose statement I’m making to prove anything, but a broader observation of how we put constraints on Black people to not move and do things freely. This is especially true when that weirdness is funneled through creative channels. Here we have Sorry To Bother You, directed by Boots Riley, who dresses like he’s fresh from a Soul Train line. I’m just saying that Riley has a fashion sense that tells me that he makes weird shit. And that he hires weird actors to play his characters (Lakeith Stanfeild, Tessa Thompson, and more). And that, while the film attempts, and succeeds, to make great social observations, it’s still at its core a weird ass film.
When approaching this, you first have to dismantle your gut reaction to view weirdness as something that’s negative. Weird is defined as strange or extraordinary; another definition is something related to the supernatural. Supernatural is a perfect way to describe this film—and that’s all due to Riley’s stylistic choices when directing. Based in a telemarketing office, Cassius Green (Stanfield) discovers this magical ability he has to summon his “white voice”—an otherworldly voice that he can change into to gain the trust of his clients. While calling his customers, the audience sees him being transported to where they are, whether it be the bathroom or the kitchen. Choices like this not only give the film Alice In Wonderland vibes, but it also cuts through to make something as boring as telemarketing seem interesting.
The characters that Riley created are also weird as well. Detroit (Thompson) is Cassius’ artistic significant other who wears statement earnings like a man in an electrocution chair. Omari Hardwick plays [REDACTED], the power caller that Cassius aspires to be as he raises up in the telemarketing ranks. Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is the CEO of Worry Free who sniffed the longest line of coke I’ve ever seen in a film. Yes, there’s half-horse/half-human creatures that everyone keeps talking about because, hey, it’s surprising as hell. Despite all this, these characters are layered and not gimmicky. Their purpose is not to shock-and-awe, they just thrive in this version of Oakland.
And even with these colorful characters, the film still speaks to a great many social insights. The “white voice” is an example of Black code-switching in corporate environments. Worry Free is the continuation of slave labor under the guise of “easy living.” Cassius has to choose between activism and capitalism. And those “mysterious creatures” (major film spoiler so I won’t say what they are) feels like a call back to the many times Black people were experimented on without consent. These insights stem from real racial issues making it not as completely fictional as many critics not of color will probably describe it as. Dramatized? Sure. But Riley does flesh out these insights so that, not only are they connected, they form a linear story. Beyond that, a story that is relatable to Black viewers.
Black people aren’t allowed to be weird because there’s an assumption that weirdness equals fantasy and there’s no reality in fantasy. But director/writer Boots Riley took the rulebook of script writing and bent it to his own will. Reality and real dialogue can be included in fantasy; it’s how you write it. Sorry To Bother You proudly marries reality and fantasy and lets its weird flag fly. And it’s a better film because of it.