Much of this alternate universe’s humor springs from how it’s a little less subtle than ours. The world is a little exaggerated, but mostly just out in the open, laid bare.
The most popular reality TV show lacks any artifice to explain the sadistic voyeurism of it. It’s just called I Got The S*** Kicked Out Of Me and consists of everyday people getting beat up and humiliated for the viewer’s entertainment. The slave labor discussed in the film, run by a company deceptively called WorryFree, is disturbing but a little too familiar. There’s even a viral internet sensation that begins as a symbol of resistance and morphs into a corporation’s ploy to sell a brand of cola.
Sorry to Bother You also deviates from the usual Hollywood script by featuring black folk who actually have full political lives that don’t exclusively revolve around anti-racism or “blackness.”
Race is still a prominent part of the story, of course. Issues of assimilation are brilliantly tapped for laughs and political insights. It isn’t just the “White Voice” that Cassius Green uses. Detroit, (Tessa Thompson) has her own struggles with code-switching as she dabbles in poverty porn to sell her art to bourgeois, liberal consumers. It’s in the way the Jeff Bezos-esque corporate overlord, Steve Lift (played by Armie Hammer) overtly stereotypes and objectifies black people in general during important moments in the plot.
But racism doesn’t completely define all of the other nuanced realities these characters confront. Cassius and Detroit contemplate existential angst early when they discuss what will “matter” about their lives after everyone they know is dead, the sun explodes and all life on earth is destroyed. It sets the tone for the unusually reflective characters they will be. Throughout the film racial subtexts are often secondary to each character’s developing political and personal consciousness. Cassius Green and Detroit are sensitive, complex, and — especially in Cassius’s case — deeply flawed.
The closest the movie comes to traditional heroes are Cassius’s girlfriend, Detroit, and Squeeze, the salting labor organizer played by Steven Yeun. Yeun’s character provides an attractive charisma and moral clarity that’s usually reserved for the main character in movies like this. With his clear loyalties and firm grasp of the situation, Squeeze plays Virgil to Cassius’s Dante, guiding the lead (and the audience) through the capitalist hell unfolding.
One of the only weaknesses of the film is that all of these brilliant actors and their characters aren’t explored very deeply. Thompson as Detroit, Yuen as Squeeze, Glover as Langston — we don’t really get to know any of these fascinating people. The movie doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel Test, owing to the way Detroit is almost the “Smurfette” of the film (unless you count Kate Berlant’s vacuous character, Diana DeBauchery).
But Sorry to Bother You manages to deliver surprises to the very end. In a Hollywood climate dominated by sequels and adaptations, it’s a thrill to find an original with so little to apologize for.