Sorry to Bother You. A weirdly gutless, somewhat humiliating and feeble utterance spoken countless times daily by the scores of telemarketers choking insufficient cubicles in offices throughout the country. In Boots Riley’s delightful, draining, inventive, crucially important directorial debut, this apologetic refrain is a totemic system of mysterious power, amplifying our human communicative agency, and especially that of Black men in the business sector.
Outside of the screening at the ZACH theater across the water from Downtown Austin, another weirdly mystical, synergistically symbolic entity hovered: a petting zoo. Unrelated to the SXSW debut of Sorry to Bother You, this quaint, small, fenced in pen presented a comparative visual that I couldn’t quite get out of my mind: a sequestered area for harmless, conditioned beasts, these adorable animals deemed safe to touch. Lakeith Stanfield’s character’s edges are similarly smoothed out by the telemarketing company he joins in the film, finding success after discovering his ability to channel his “white voice,” the primary portion of his skillset which enables him to rise to the level of a “power caller.”
Boots Riley has always expressed a thoughtful engagement with language and, as the frontman and creative lead of experimental political hip hop band The Coup, he’s explored the power of words, the agency they can potentially grant the disenfranchised. It’s a complex, risk-heavy relationship, and Sorry to Bother You becomes a strangely cumulative thesis informed by Riley’s catalog and pursuits, his unique approach to the needs of the working class, to the Black creative encumbered by bourgeois expectations, among numerous other considerations.
There have been some rumblings comparing the film to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and while both films leverage the Black experience and, specifically, the Black navigation of white constructs (Peele’s film arguably focuses more on the personal sphere, while Riley’s takes on the professional), Riley’s film has an anarchic energy which feels fresh and daring. I’m tempted to call it irreverent, because so much of it bum-rushes respectability and long-fortified standards, but that feels unfair to its detailed dedication to producing allegorical meaning. It’s heady on a first watch, which makes me excited to experience it again with a more patient, prepared reading.
Tessa Thompson should be singled out in particular for her contributions, and her iconoclastic character Detroit is destined to be remembered as one of the year’s great performances and most-fully-realized women characters. Although Stanfield plays the lead, Detroit pursues her own self-actualization throughout the story, with a career as a budding conceptual and visual artist (both at gallery shows and pretty much everywhere she goes in life) scraping against, but never kowtowing to, a devoted love for him.
I was curious as to how Riley first pursued Thompson and Stanfield, and whether their music careers related to the collaborative interest: “I didn’t cast them because of the music,” he said. “But, like, we’re all creative, so we take on all flames at once. I do know that Lakeith and Tessa were making up songs about stuff that was going on, just to have fun.”
“Actually, Omari [Hardwick] is on the soundtrack,” Riley added. “You know he’s got an album coming out himself, produced by Raphael Saadiq.”
Sorry to Bother You seems informed by a piquant melange of Riley’s interests and background, but especially communicates the evolving philosophies informed by his working class upbringing. That being said, a key point in the film relates to the internet’s viral, awareness-spreading capacity. Does he think the internet would have greatly changed how he originally experienced employment in his early life?
“No. I don’t think greatly. I don’t think it really changes. Folks that are working and doing these things, they just have a greater view of other things that are happening, but it’s not different in their mind. Their mind and their attitude are what affects their jobs. Those conditions are the same, the material conditions that make you have to hustle for money are pretty much the same, if not more drastic, now.”
The hustle persists, even in the throws of creativity, and Riley’s own specific professional history leaves traceable marks in Sorry to Bother You’s subject matter: “One of the times that I did a telemarketing job was in between my 2nd and 3rd album. I quit to make an organization known as The Young Comrades.
“I knew that I was good enough to make a sale one day every 2 or 3 weeks, so that’s what I did.”
Considering that Sorry to Bother You is his first feature-length film, I think he’s nailed a mighty sale here.
Sorry to Bother You is distributed by Annapurna pictures, with a theatrical release set for July 6th.