Until this week, Boots Riley’s cinematic career comprised several student shorts and a co-director credit on a music video (The Coup’s ‘Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night’). Not much to get excited about — or even watch, to be honest. But he hasn’t let a lack of experience get in his way and Sorry To Bother You, his debut feature, is one of the funniest films of 2018.
Set in Oakland, California, the story follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) — a 20-something hipster living in his uncle’s garage. Eventually, he snags a job in telemarketing and for the first time in his life, he’s actually good at something. Now, hold your horses, because this is where the normal ends and everything goes a bit Weird Al Yankovic. After a slightly wacky opening, Sorry To Bother You slips down a psychedelic wormhole and into a drug-addled wonderland populated by violent radical artists, David Cross-dubbed super-executives and angry, naked horsepeople. It’s like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing crossed with Bojack Horseman — all filmed through the lens of a Salvador Dali triptych. In the words of the immortal Super Hans: “It was fucking mental. I was crying and laughing. Didn’t know who was dead and who was alive.”
Joining Stanfield in this phantasmagoric playground are Tessa Thompson, who plays Cassius’s anti-capitalist girlfriend Detroit, and Armie Hammer, excellent as a coked-up tycoon in the vein of Patrick Bateman. Both put in stellar turns, but it’s Riley’s script that really sizzles. Zinger after zinger unload themselves on the audience, while pacey dialogue helps zip the bonkers plot from A to B. This is truly remarkable storytelling, though not all light-hearted fun.
At its core, Sorry To Bother You acts as a deafening wake-up call to white privilege. In his first days on the job, Cassius struggles at the call centre. But as soon as he adopts a “white voice”, his fortunes begin to improve. This isn’t a new idea, but in a world where the literal President refers to African Americans as “the blacks”, it feels even more crucial to call out racism on-screen.
Later, the political message fades into the background as surreal hi-jinks take over. The film becomes less of an ensemble piece and more of one-man show, increasingly constricted around its lead actor’s confused face. If Riley provides the meat and bones of this prize turkey, Lakeith Stanfield is the sweet stuffing inside. His performance as Cassius helps tie the narrative together and is as nuanced as it is effortless. However, one new star still shines brightest. Sorry to bother you, but Boots Riley just shook up Hollywood.