Considering our current social and political climate, it’s vital that American art reflects certain conflicts with empathy and rapport. However, it can be difficult to keep this in mind while attempting to make art that is also comedic and entertaining.
Sorry to Bother You is a film that does just this and so much more. It analyzes the exploitation of labor in the U.S. and portrays it in a way that’s both witty and daunting, while implementing surrealism to further its meaning. Starring Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) as Cassius “Cash” Green, the film follows his journey upwards through a telemarketing company, where he discovers that by using a “white voice” he’s able to become successful beyond his wildest dreams. Yet, he soon runs into a number of ethical dilemmas that have him questioning whether his success is worth sacrificing his own relationships and morals.
A number of moments throughout the film address sensitive issues, but are toned down in seriousness through comedic delivery. For example, Cash’s “white voice”, dubbed by David Cross (Arrested Development), is hilariously accurate to how many white men in America genuinely talk, playing on the notion that white men are more at ease and unbothered because of their inherent privilege. It’s used to show how whiteness is often seen as the pinnacle for success, and that other races must learn to compete in a white man’s world. The voice is extremely amusing when coming out of Cash’s mouth, since his character is introduced as black man struggling to make ends meet. Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon, The Color Purple), who plays Cash’s coworker Langston, encourages Cash to not to just sound “Will Smith white”, but to actually embody the sound of a white man without a care in the world.
While humorous, this film is also a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to stay true to one’s self while trying to climb the social ladder. Not only that, but the movie emphasizes how modern-day slavery still exists among working-class people, who often have no choice but to sell their lives away just to survive. In this dystopian (but representational) version of reality, Cash steps over his own friends and significant other in order to have the life he’s always dreamed of. Even when they begin to participate in a protest for better wages, Cash chooses to take a promotion offered to him by his supervisors while telling his friends that he’ll be “cheering from the sidelines.” Surrealism also comes into play as the film unfolds and Cash discovers that success isn’t exactly what it’s chocked up to be.
In fact, the use of surrealism in this film is what makes it so poignant and moving above all the comedy. For example, characters in the movie often flip between the same three channels on television that emphasize the events going on around them. One channel promotes WorryFree — a company that profits off of slave labor and is run by a white billionaire. Another channel shows the workers protest that Cash’s friends are involved in. The last channel plays the same show over and over again called “I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me”, showing how audiences enjoy watching others suffer to distract from problems in their own lives.
The added fact that this film was written, directed, and performed by a (mainly) black ensemble adds to the significance of what the film is trying to say. Director and screenwriter Boots Riley has been known mainly as a musician and the lead singer of groups like The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. Although he made his directorial debut with Sorry to Bother You, responses from film critics and audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s no secret that the film is particular to black experiences in America, but is still relatable for anyone that’s ever had to live paycheck to paycheck or worked at a job they hate. Not to mention that the cast includes an assemblage of talented actors including Terry Crews (Brooklyn 99, The Expendables), Tessa Thompson (Creed, Thor: Ragnarok), Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), Omari Hardwick (Power), Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, Mystery Science Theater 3000), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts) and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger).
This film is certainly meant to be enjoyed by all, while being riddled with hidden messages and quirky commentary on life. For that reason, it’s deserving of 5 out of 5 stars.