Before he received a rousing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival for his bizarrely brilliant social-critique film debut, Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley was ruffling the feathers of corporate America as the frontman of political hip-hop group the Coup.
The Oakland, Calif., collective is infamous for their 2001 album, Party Music, and its prophetic cover art, which depicted Riley and the late Pam the Funkstress standing in front of the twin towers of the World Trade Center as they explode. The cover art was done in June of 2001 and the album was scheduled to drop in mid-September. However, 9/11 happened before the album released and caused a firestorm of controversy for the group. Riley would release two more albums with the Coup before turning his attention to filmmaking.
Although the Coup never reached worldwide acclaim, Riley’s penchant for challenging the system is something that could never be taken from him. Which is why the praise for his gonzo satire Sorry to Bother You may be surprising to some, but not so much for those who are aware of Riley’s propensity for analyzing class and race from the widest of angles.
“Obviously you can see that this is a much different movie than what’s out there,” Riley said during a Q&A after the film’s screening in Park City, Utah. “Filming it I was like, ‘This is a fucking crazy movie. What are we doing?’”
What starts out as a movie about Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a telemarketer who learns that using his “white voice” kicks the door to a lucrative future off the hinges, makes a hard left … and another left … and another left before hightailing it to a bizarre crescendo where slavery, horse penises and a coked-out Armie Hammer coexist and somehow make sense.
Ultimately, it’s a beautiful sci-fi fantasy mess that blends real-world issues with gonzo storytelling that risks losing the average viewer with its utterly ridiculous third act. But that’s part of the film’s charm and the reason Annapurna Pictures (Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, Sausage Party, Detroit) snatched up the distribution rights to Riley’s directorial debut a few days after it premiered.
While Lakeith Stanfield anchors the movie, Sorry to Bother You is stuffed full of talent that includes Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, an almost unrecognizable Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, David Cross and Patton Oswalt. The last two names aren’t seen as much as they are heard. Saying anything else would spoil the film. But even that spoiler wouldn’t tip off where the movie is heading.
“When I read this script, this was a total dream come true,” said Thompson, who portrays the pseudo-revolutionary Detroit, Stanfield’s girlfriend. “I’ve long been a fan of Riley’s sci-fi influences. I never saw myself in any of those films because there was never people of color in those movies. But at the expense of making it too political or about race, this was a unique opportunity to talk about things I understand. I thought it was incredibly funny, gripping and beautiful. This marks the emergence of a new storyteller on the scene.”
A sharp eye can spot the influences in the movie, as there are remnants of Stanley Kubrick, Spike Jonze, Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison scattered about. It also has a spiritual kinship to Reginald Hudlin’s 1994 science fiction anthology film, Cosmic Slop, which was equal parts thought-provoking and bizarre while also having some impressive names attached to it (Robert Guillaume, Paula Jai Parker, George Clinton, Casey Kasem and John Witherspoon).
The ambition and disregard for rules is wholly present as Riley dares the viewer to think outside the building that houses whatever box in which your preconceived notions lie. It’s not only Cassius Green’s outrageous journey up the corporate ladder—kick-started by Danny Glover’s suggestion for Green to “use his white voice”—that will spark conversation; it’s also the concept of whistle-blowing, voluntary forced labor, the influence of art in social criticism and so many other things that are stuffed into the 102 minutes of film.
“Every character in this movie does something wrong,” Riley explained. “It’s not really a personality contest or about evil people being born evil. It’s about there being a system that demands a certain relationship out of you. It’s about an economic system that things grow from.”
While the performances are expectedly solid, given the impressive cast, it’s ultimately about whether or not you are able to stick with a story that feels as if episodes of Twilight Zone have been inadvertently spliced together. Whatever you initially expected can be tossed in the trash 30 minutes into the film. And as long as you have an open mind, you’ll enjoy the undeniable talent that Riley possesses. He has a whole lot to say and may have benefited from pulling back on a few social critiques. But there is no doubt that Riley has a refreshing amount of talent that fits neatly in a country that has Donald Trump as its president.