(Not so) Sorry to Bother You

I’ve already annoyed all of my friends by speaking about how much I love the film Sorry to Bother You; the only outlet I have left by which to communicate my feelings is to strangers on the internet.  Sorry to Bother You is a masterpiece of modern cinema, and I paid to see it three times after its American release in July.  Its UK release is scheduled for December of this year, and I’ve already made plans to see it in theaters once again.  While this approach may seem dumb to some people (read: my dad), Sorry to Bother You is truly a priceless film experience, even after already seeing it three times.

When I saw this movie the first time, forcing my older brother to join me, I was initially dazzled just by the art direction, clever dialogue, and social commentary.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that Sorry’s casting director snagged the most attractive faces in the film industry for the main cast.  Throughout the last half hour, though, I started crying.  It wasn’t even particularly sad or frightening.  Sorry just becomes acutely intense very suddenly, drawing out a visceral reaction from the audience.  My brother and I couldn’t stop talking about it the entire ride home.  When I took one of my friends to see it for my second time, she was silent the entire way back, only speaking when I dropped her off back at her house.  She said, “Next time, you aren’t allowed to pick the movie.”  The third time I saw it, the friend who tagged along picked it apart with me for over two hours afterward, interpreting the symbolism and motifs and seemingly unimportant scenes to form our own conclusions.

It’s worth noting that the summer of 2018 brought with it a few notable Hollywood blockbusters with incredibly diverse casts and storylines; Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8, and BlacKkKlansman all featured crucial representations of non-WASP central characters on the silver screen.  Sorry to Bother You stands out though, even among these exceptions to the standard Hollywood paradigm. By all means, this singularity is primarily a product of Sorry’s marketing practices; the advertising portrays a different narrative from the one that plays out on screen. From the trailers released prior to Sorry to Bother You’s release, it appeared to be a relatively simple satire on race relations and the consequences of late capitalism in the United States. The trailers show a plot which centers around Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield), a broke twenty-something whose life is overridden by a sense of existential ennui until he becomes a successful telemarketer by using his “white voice” instead of speaking in his normal tone and using African American vernacular English.  The evident conflict which drives the narrative is that of identity politics and the sanitization of black culture in America so as to quell white discomfort, often leading to commercial gain.

These basic plot elements are certainly present in the actual film.  Nonetheless, as the story unfolds, something seems off.  Rather than taking place in the Oakland, California that the trailers portray, Sorry to Bother You is set in a progressively more bizarre parallel universe version of Oakland.  There is an entire surrealist science-fiction subplot, one which eventually overtakes the relatively innocuous developments of the main story.  These are hardly spoilers, as one of the first scenes makes it clear that Sorry isn’t set in our universe.

This misleading marketing might put-off some potential viewers, which is understandable.  However, Sorry to Bother You stays true to its main messages, just through a vastly more absurd methodology.  Its title is indicative of this “in-yer-face” style of story-telling.  Yes, “Sorry to bother you” is a classic opening line for telemarketers, one which Cassius uses within the film while speaking to clients.  On the other hand, this titular phrase is directly related to the fact that writer-and-director Boots Riley is telling audiences something they may not want to know.  And he’s telling them in a way that’s extremely disturbing.  This sentiment is especially relevant when considering that many movie-goers intended to see what seemed to be a vaguely leftist film commenting on the current American socio-political environment.  They didn’t sign up to watch an absolutely off-the-rails advocation for direct action or a condemnation of the entire American political system.

If we’re going to assess a film as a piece of art, then Sorry to Bother You certainly performs to that standard.  It’s not easy to watch or to understand, but it is impactful and enjoyable.  There is a certain level of discomfort, yes, specifically if the person watching is notably privileged either economically or socially. And that’s exactly the point. We need more cinema that makes us hyper-aware of the positions of privilege we enjoy and exploits that awareness. Sitting through Sorry to Bother You is truly an exercise in disturbing self-consciousness, as is witnessing any effective piece of art. Now, I’m going to take this opportunity to strongly suggest avoiding the plot summary on Wikipedia or IMDb. Instead, witness this film for yourself, revel in your uneasiness, and ask yourself exactly why you feel that way.