Lakeith Stanfield breaks out in this highly original, funny, and thought-provoking film that’s a product of today’s modern racial economic tensions and divides. The final third is so bonkers you’re are going to tell yourself you’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Many good to great films have been set in Oakland, California this past decade. Lee Daniel’s The Butler took a look at racial inequality with an albeit revisionist history of race relations approach. Fruitvale Station shined a light on police brutality and the lack of adequate training, but barely scratched the surface on racial economic disparity. Blindspotting took a necessary step this year while not just addressing police misconduct but the issue of gentrification taking over primarily African-American neighbourhoods. These films were born from Oakland’s deep roots in race relations, going back to the birth of the Black Panther Party in the early 1960’s. The Black Panther Party for self-defence was originally created to help patrol streets in primarily African-American neighbourhoods, protecting against police brutality and later addressing issues of economic oppression of that group’s working class. Sorry to Bother You looks at the latter half with a major step in addressing the combination of race relations and economic disparity.
The film takes place in present day but in an alternate universe where a company called WorryFree is being protested as legalized slavery. They offer a life of free food, shelter and even zero bills to pay. Cassius Green (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield) is living in his uncle’s garage and is out of work. He eventually finds a lower level job as a telemarketer where he finds his “white” voice so he can gain the trust of his potential “white” callers (dubbed by Arrested Development’s David Cross). While Cassius begins to impress his bosses, his girlfriend Detroit (Thor: Rognorak’s Tessa Thompson) and co-worker Squeeze (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeoh) organize a strike demanding fair wages and benefits for the employees, the majority of whom are of various minority classes. Soon Cassius moves up the food chain and finds himself on the side of “white” capitalism that has oppressed him and his friends.
Sorry to Bother You was written and directed by Boots Riley, lead singer/rapper of The Coup fame. He brilliantly weaves high concept comedy with racial economic disparity that is remarkably current. This past summer, after the film came out in theatres, the Oakland’s Equity Indicators Report was released. It addresses not only eye-opening numbers on police use of force (minorities are 23.68% more likely to have force used against them by the police than whites) but it addresses economic factors with financial health and business development as well. Business ownership, awarding competing bids, poverty rates, median minority household income, are some of the lowest in the country. He has his finger on a pulse of an issue Hollywood is not addressing, and is telling the story by using “white” voices to the audience. By the time you reach the final third of the film, the curtain is pulled back on any of the film’s sceptics who question where Riley is taking them.
The cast is very good here, but the film is carried on the back of terrific character actor Lakeith Stanfield. You may not know him, but you probably have watched him and couldn’t place him. Whether it’s playing a closeted dying gay man of faith in Come Sunday, a troubled resident in Short Term 12, a frightening vision of African-American oppression in Get Out, civil rights activist in Selma, or Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton, he has the unique ability to disappear into any role he takes on. Stanfield’s talent is undeniable; a method actor at heart, and now should become a household name.
Sorry to Bother You is a highly original, funny, thought-provoking film that gets better after multiple viewings (I saw it last June and I don’t think I appreciated it enough then) and takes time to let its high concept themes fester. It’s a nightmarish racially infused fairy tale before a company like Disney could get its greedy capitalist hands on it; a product of today’s current racial economic tensions and divides with a bonkers final act. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.