Club Tropicana

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

18 December 18 words: Hilary Whiteside

We checked out Boots Riley's directorial debut, and found it a little surreal to say the least...

Director: Boots Riley

Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun

Running time: 112 mins

Sorry to Bother You expounds a number of messages, but primarily director Boots Riley uses the film as a vehicle to promote his views on Marxism, and how he sees the relevance of these theories applied to the society in which we live. Riley is committed to his communist beliefs and in recent promotional interviews (of which there have been a multitude since the film’s release) he is proud to acknowledge this stance. He has been a strident political organiser (as well as a rapper) for much of his life and it therefore logically follows that he has used the film as a platform to explore, expose and debate the current state of American politics. Although he denies any reference to the Trump administration, comparisons will inevitably be drawn. Unbelievably, this film is Riley’s first venture into film direction, but any lack of self-confidence is not evident. 

The film opens with a shot of down and out Cas (Stanfield) and his girlfriend bedded down in his uncle’s garage, the obvious message being that Cas has no money, neither do his girlfriend or uncle. These guys simply exist in their black working class community placed firmly on the fringes of American society. Cas, however, manages to wangle himself a job working for 'Worry Free', a telesales company. Although Cas’s application is founded on deceit, and he is indeed rumbled, the company applaud this mendacious approach, recognising it as an attribute.

The cinematography can be surreal and frankly absurd

Initially, Cas is driven by prospects of money and status. He is encouraged to adopt a ‘white voice’ putting him on level terms with his clientele. Significantly, this does yield financial results for Cas (graphically shown on screen as the quality of his suits improves), but at the expense of him denying his colour and turning his back on his community and culture. His girlfriend finds his ‘voice’ particularly strange; she wants no part in this subterfuge, being a keen advocate of freedom and the rights of working people. Initially Cas, albeit reluctantly, joins his colleagues in protesting about working conditions and the gripe that the workers make money for the company but do not have an equal share in the profits which is taken by the few. As Cas’s telesales success continues, he has no compunction in deserting his friends, his community and the protest movement. Ironically, he finds himself selling slavery to the workers. Worry Free supposedly offers a lifetime free of paying bills, free food and lodgings, but at the cost of a lifetime work contract (and the obligation to wear a vile uniform!). However, Cas’s moral realisation and sudden awakening kick in and the film ends interestingly and yes, does involve hybrid humans! No spoilers here.

The cinematography can be surreal and frankly absurd, but this is the style of the film and it suits. The approach is so very different. Placards conveying messages (mainly political) pop up frequently, the CEO’s house is a centre of strangeness; his staff’s intoxication and drug fuelled hallucinations are translated onto the screen as Riley explores the vulgarity money and excess can bring. It also becomes acceptable to find a transmogrified human in a toilet cubicle.  

The film has been described as "a radical class analysis of capitalism," and its content and clear message certainly substantiate this. However, Riley’s ventures into cinematic surrealism is radical and it works. Sorry to Bother You is an excellent, but very strange, film.

Did you know? At one point, Detroit wears a pair of earrings with the phrases 'Bury the Rag' and 'Deep in your face'. These are lyrics from The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll by Bob Dylan, a protest song about a poor African-American woman murdered by a wealthy white man.

Sorry to Bother You is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 20 December

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