Special guest contributor (and casual Midwest BSFA program participant) Geoffrey Dobbins gives us his take on Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You!
“If you press your ear to the turf that is stolen/
You can hear the sound of limitations exploding” — “The Guillotine” by The Coup
At the beginning of Sorry to Bother You, the protagonist, Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield), receives important instructions from the boss who just hired him as a telemarketer — “Stick To The Script.” The filmmakers obviously decided to do the opposite when they crafted this movie. Almost everything about what unfolds from there deviates from just about any “script” audiences expect.
At first glance, one might be tempted to call Sorry to Bother You a “workplace comedy.” It does have more than its fair share of laughs, but between the biting political satire, the magical realism and absurdist imagery, the science fiction flourishes, and the plot twists one has to see to believe — the whole defies easy categorization. The story is both dystopian and hopeful. Like so many stories lately, it emphasizes “freedom fighters,” but it places faith in mass action from those at the bottom rather than elite saviors. In our current media environment, audiences might find this approach just as alien as spaceships or superheroes.
Not every movie needs traditional “science fiction” tropes to be “speculative.” Isn’t any meaningful social movement about “speculative” storytelling? After all, it takes a lot of imagination to envision a better world than the one we know. This movie imagines in a fiercely believable way — the more absurd it becomes, the more realistic if feels. But the biggest surprise is how entertaining it is. Despite all of the “deep ideas,” this is a popcorn comedy first. A viewer doesn’t have to agree with the politics to have a really good time.
No one familiar with the pedigree of writer and director Boots Riley should be terribly surprised. Among hip hop fans, Riley’s claim to fame has long been as MC of The Coup, along with his collaborations with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello as part of Street Sweeper Social Club. Riley has never been shy about his politics, often describing himself as a “radical communist.” (Quick aside: Riley is well to the left of the political mainstream — he’s the kind of guy the makes the hosts on Democracy Now! seem moderate. But he isn’t a Stalinist the way some might assume from that “communist” label.)
Riley’s roots in the activist scene in Oakland run deep and he was one of the unofficial leaders of Oakland’s #Occupy movement in 2011. It was in the creative aftermath that followed #Occupy that Riley first published an early version of the script of Sorry to Bother You in 2012 and his band also produced an acclaimed album of the same name.
Like the film, The Coup’s music has always excelled at combining political intensity with an infectious sense of fun. Over the last 20 years, they’ve written songs well-suited for both the dance floor and picket line. Somehow Riley has always managed to preach and entertain at the same time.
In the movie, the comedy isn’t the proverbial “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” Here, the medicine IS the sugar. The laughs ring true. As Terry Crews said in one recent interview, “This is the movie we didn’t know we needed.”
The dialogue feels natural and clever and it’s carried by acting that’s strong enough to let you forget these are actors. The all-star cast features: Lakeith Stanfield of Get Out and Atlanta fame, Tessa Thompson from Dear White People, Thor: Ragnarok and Westworld, Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead, Armie Hammer from The Social Network, Terry Crews from Idiocracy and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon and The Color Purple. Not to mention some hilarious “White Voices” provided by David Cross and Patton Oswalt. Comedian Jermaine Fowler is rougher around the edges as an actor, but he still delivers some great punch lines.