Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry To Bother You’ Is Biting and Original Satire
“Indie” is an increasingly meaningless term, generally applied to any feature film shot with less money and a more challenging schedule. Most independents remake the same genres over and over while structured with the same Save The Cat paradigms as any project costing many times as much. Marketing still rules the game.
Then something truly independent and experimental comes along like Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” and you’re left wondering how this movie even got made. Entertainment Voice had the opportunity to discuss these very issues with director Boots Riley and actors Lakeith Stanfield, Terry Crews and Patton Oswalt, who performed one of the “white voices.”
“This is the movie we didn’t know we needed,” declared Terry Crews who plays Sergio, the landlord/ uncle to the main character Cassius Green. “By the time I got to the end of (reading) the script, I would have paid Boots to be in this film.”
Developed by first time director Riley during a Sundance Writers Lab and Directors Lab, “Sorry To Bother You” is the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a un-ambitious young man who lives in his uncle’s garage. Four months behind in his rent, Cassius turns to telemarketing. Cassius isn’t any good. That is until a co-worker played by Danny Glover tells him to use his “White Voice”. “Not your Will Smith white voice. Your white voice.” And from there on in, Cassius becomes an unstoppable salesman.
As described by director Riley, (Sorry To Bother You) is an “absurdist dark comedy with magic realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing” which doesn’t tell the whole story. “Sorry To Bother You” is a biting satire on capitalism, race, social media, corporate research, popular culture and the mixed lines between revolution and corporate power. It brings memories of Robert Downey’s (Downey Jr.’s father) late sixties satire “Up Putney Swope.”
When his fellow telemarketers go on strike, Cassius and his “white voice” are promoted to “Power Marketer” where his skills now sell arms and slave labor. Making more money than he thought possible, Cassius turns his back on his co-workers and his girlfriend Dakota (Tessa Thompson). Dakota is a struggling artist. She joins the striking workers and warns Cassius not to cross the picket line. He does. They separate.
Thompson is a powerhouse in her role as the strong-willed Dakota. Passionate and strong, she was one of Riley’s first considerations for the role.
“We do a chemistry read where we see if they will work together. Lakeith was in L.A. and I was in Oakland and Tessa was in New York. They did this chemistry read on Skype and it was fire on the screen.”
Cassius continues his “white voice” success. He buys a luxury car and a hip apartment. He draws the attention of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), owner of Worry Free, a global corporation that promises its workers free housing, food and clothes, and a job for life in a situation that can be described as slave labor. Until Cassius’ success rescues his uncle from bankruptcy, Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) seriously considers hiring on at Worry Free.
As actor Crews remembers from his youth in Flint, Michigan, “(Sergio) reminds me so much of men I knew who traded in all their dreams for the security of the factory. They say, “We will take care of you for the rest of your life. And then when that ended, it was the shock of a lifetime.”
Cassius is invited to an all white exclusive party for Worry Free. CEO Lift has a proposal to offer. Before that, Lift encourages Cassius to regale them with tales of the inner city. Cassius is not gangsta and has little to say. When Lift encourages him to rap, Cassius refuses. He can’t rap, he says. But the request turns into a threat and Cassius is forced to comply in one of the most harshly brutal and yet painfully funny scenes in the film.
At the later meeting, Lift’s proposal to Cassius is equally dehumanizing, but this time on another layer. It will make Cassius a very rich man, but this time, he will have to wrestle with his soul.
In a world where America’s favorite TV show is “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me,” Cassius’ attempts to expose Worry Free’s evil to the world backfires. The anti-corporate forces don’t come off any better.
When Dakota finally gets her one woman show, she performs a demoralizing presentation, speaking to her upper middleclass patrons with her own upper-class British “white voice.”
When an anti-Worry Free blogger hits Cassius in the head with a soda can, she is rewarded with huge YouTube viewership and a sponsorship from the soda’s manufacturer.
Shot in 28 days on 61 locations, “Sorry To Bother You” can show signs of its restrained budget. It is a fearless and often disturbing satire. The challenge with any satire is the satire overcoming the humor or the humanity. “Sorry To Bother You” has its moments in that regard, moments when the narrative can slow way down and the message takes center stage.
Overall, the film succeeds in balancing the satirical with the humanity. Director Riley shared what he considered the elements that led to the film’s aesthetic success, elements like the film’s Oakland location.
“I lived all my life in Oakland and I had things in mind that I wanted to shoot. The more specific you get and the more personal you get, the more universal it is.”
“At Sundance, it was a very controversial script. You have these masters of their craft, brilliant people all arguing over your script, each giving different advice and one day I realized that no one knows what the fuck they are doing. The game is open. There are things that work, and maybe after awhile they stop working. Maybe there are other things that work. We don’t know yet, and that was very liberating.”
“And with everyone searching for how to do something, I realized that if someone was going to fuck up this movie, it should be me.”
And with that, Boots Riley took responsibility for an hilarious, original and biting movie that brings the independent back to “Indie.”
“Sorry To Bother You” opened July 6 in select theaters and July 13 everywhere.