It’s a grey, tepid afternoon in October. I’ve been attending industry screenings at the London Film Festival for two weeks. I’m sat in the BFI Southbank’s Atrium 1, here to attend a talk with Boots Riley, the maestro behind Sorry to Bother You.
Boots emerges from the right flank of the stage, dressed to the nines: he wears a tux with a wide open white collar, his lapel adorned with a Marxist-red flower reminiscent of Tony Montana with a Corbynite finish. It’s only upon seeing the deep red of the flower on his lapel, upon hearing him articulate his vision of America’s segregated reality, do I fully understand Boots’ film – an absurd satire envisioning an alternate, dystopian Oakland; a hilariously scathing examination of racial politics, economic disenfranchisement, and corporate greed, the three intrinsically connected, and together leading back to the most harrowed sin of America’s past: slavery.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) aspires towards a standard vision of the American dream – he wants to pay off his Uncle Sergio’s mortgage debts, move into a place of his own with his artist girlfriend, Detroit, and own a car that isn’t falling apart. He finds a job as a telemarketer for a company called RegalView. Cash’s ambition is piqued by the notion of becoming a ‘power-caller’: an elusive and mysterious role, hidden at the peak of a golden elevator – one which greets the occupier with the hope that he has “not masturbated today”, lest any testosterone be lost from a sales drive, a great satire of motivational audiobooks – in the RegalView foyer, where the deals are worth eight-figures, and not eight dollars.
At first, Cash wallows in a pit of no sales. It’s on the advice of an older, black mentor that Cash begins to use his ‘white voice’ on the phone: the welcoming chimes of David Cross, intentionally dubbed crudely to highlight the absurd hilarity of such a conceit. His white voice brings Cash colossal success, colossal sales, and a colossal career, quickly rising to the rank of power-caller.
But not all is great with financial prosperity: Cash becomes isolated from his friends at RegalView, lower-rank unionists who fight for a more equitable income at the company and is ultimately left by Detroit. At a cocaine-fuelled, exclusive penthouse party hosted by Steve Lift – a thinly veiled Zuckerberg avatar performed hilariously by Armie Hammer – Cash is forced to rap to a sea of white faces. At first, he stumbles through off-beat half-rhymes, clearly not an MC of any talent; eventually, he yields to repeating the N-word on beat, to the elation of his audience.
It’s from here that Boots, perhaps too high on the on-point hilarity of his satire, takes it a little too far: Cash discovers that Lift, the CEO of WorryFree – an institution which allows people to sign away their lives and rights to live in industrious communes, a cloaked analogy for America’s prison-industrial complex – wants to turn the signees into centaurs.
Lift’s goal to turn people into literal workhorses is a clear analogy for slavery; the metaphor hits, but not without losing tract from some of Boots’ more grounded satire. Not to suggest that the final act falls entirely flat – the satire and message still coalesce – but you can’t help but feel that the picture ends on an unbalanced note.