“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”
This film has been featured on an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!
Sorry to Bother You is a hell of a movie. Before watching it, I’d heard it described as Office Space for Millennials, but that’s only partly true. Much like Office Space, it goes beyond office humor and very succinctly details all of the generation’s frustrations with the workforce, and it’s very funny to watch; however, Sorry to Bother You goes beyond the office and also comments on race, politics, and capitalism. Office Space was an anthem for Generation X people who were entering the workforce (like myself), but Sorry to Bother You is one of the smartest and most daring satires I’ve ever seen on any topic. Written and directed by Boots Riley and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, this is sharp, funny, at times shocking, and perhaps above all else, thought-provoking, and that’s a tall order for any movie, let alone one that’s as entertaining as this one.
The plot follows Cassius Greene (pronounced “cash is green”) as he lands a job at a call center, which he hopes will give him the money he needs to pay back rent and hopefully move out from his uncle’s house and find a place for him and his girlfriend Detroit. He struggles to land sales—until an older black coworker gives him the tip to use his “white voice” when selling things on the phone. This little change makes Cassius into a superstar caller selling more than anyone else on the floor. His friends who work in the call center are appalled with the working conditions and pay and organize a strike, which Cassius reluctantly participates in—until he’s promoted to be a “power caller,” who sells things that are more morally questionable. With his wealthy employer pulling him one direction and his friends pulling him in the other, Cassius finds himself asking how much of his humanity he’s willing to give up for financial gain. As he finds out, there are some crazy things that can happen when you’re willing to trade your humanity for cash.
Let me give you a tip. You wanna make some money here? Use your white voice.
True satire doesn’t just make jokes about something—that’s parody. True satire uses humor to make deep and insightful comments on serious issues. The hit TV show The Office is a parody, and a very successful one at that. What sets Sorry to Bother You apart are the serious issues lurking behind the humor: the meaning inherent in our career choices, the racism inherent in America and how abandoning your culture can lead to financial gain, the seeming futility of activism, and how buying into corporate greed can rob us of our humanity. These are all things Millennials are struggling with as they rise to success in the business world, and they’re much deeper issues than society tends to Millennials credit for. Watching this as a Gen X in the workforce, I’ll admit, the humor was a little biting, just like watching Office Space was to my Baby Boomer parents, but these concepts are an absolutely essential part of the discussion, and Millennials are leading this conversation. The workforce is changing as younger people grow older and gain influence. Looking back on Office Space now, it was downright prophetic in laying out how businesses would have to change to adapt to the changing workforce, and I believe this film will be viewed the same way as the years roll on.
This is the debut film by Boots Riley, who was more known for his musicianship as the lead vocalist in the bands The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. He was also known as an activist, forming an organization called The Young Comrades that took on some racist public policies in Oakland. But even outside of The Young Comrades, his music has always been political, so it’s no surprise that his debut film would also be political. The film showcases ideas that had undoubtedly been floating around in his head for years. In fact, his band The Coup released an album called Sorry to Bother You in 2012, which he then went on to use in the film, meaning the soundtrack to this film was made six years before the film itself. This long period of rumination probably helped shape the brilliance of this film, but that’s not to detract from the brilliance of Boots Riley as a creative genius and thought leader.
I’m making this sound like a boring documentary, but this is actually a very entertaining film. For a debut director, Riley’s comedic sense and timing are impeccable, and there are some funny scenes that are executed flawlessly. The social issues, while important, don’t just take over the movie so that it’s impossible to be entertained. Don’t get me wrong—the social issues are a cornerstone piece of the film, but there were a lot of scenes that kept me laughing. As someone who works in tech, I’m very familiar with the young CEO stereotypes, and the character Steve Lift personifies all of these in a way that’s both humorous and all too true. The film takes some of the racism that black people have to deal with in America and manages to make some effective jokes out of that too, as in the scene where Cassius is goaded into rapping for his coworkers despite not knowing how. This film is the epitome of smart comedy.
Before watching this film, I was told to go into it with as little knowledge about it as possible. I did, and that was really great advice—some crazy things happen in this film, and not having them spoiled for you makes it more impactful. So, while I talked quite a bit about this film, I intentionally steered clear of many of the specifics, especially those from later in the film. Whether you’re a black Millennial trying to make sense of the business world or anyone else, Sorry to Bother You is a smart comedy that doesn’t shy away from political and social commentary. It makes a statement, and it’s also hilarious. If you want to know some of the most pressing social issues that employers need to be looking at right now, this film lays them out clearly. I loved it, although I’ll admit that some may be turned off by the political statements. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that this film and the conversation behind it are vital in today’s culture.
Director: Boots Riley
Genres: comedy, indie