Boots Riley co-founded Oakland, Calif., hip-hop group the Coup back in 1991 and has spent the majority of his career making music with a message. It’s no surprise, then, that his first film, “Sorry to Bother You,” which shares a name with a 2012 album from the Coup, would be a razor-sharp satire dealing with capitalism, racism, class, police militarization and even our cultural addiction to social media.
I had initially presumed that the film was set in the not-so-distant future, but the official film synopsis describes the location as an alternate present-day version of Oakland. That’s where we meet Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, “Atlanta”), a down-on-his-luck man living in his uncle’s garage and on the hunt for a new job. He’s so broke that when he goes to the gas station and asks for “40 on number 2,” he’s actually throwing down 40 cents to the cashier, not $40.
Cassius gets hired for an entry-level gig as a telemarketer at a company called RegalView. After a few very unsuccessful first calls, a co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) explains to him that if he’s looking to be successful, he needs to learn how to use a “white voice” on the phone. At first, he’s taken aback and perhaps almost thinks it’s a joke. But then, voila, he adapts his own “white voice” (dubbed in by David Cross), and sales start going through the roof.
His activist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), also starts working at the call center to supplement spotty sales of her original artwork, but nobody else comes close to having the same kind of success as Cassius. It doesn’t take long for him to be named a “power caller,” moving up the corporate ladder (or in this case, elevator) to an entirely different world of sales. That doesn’t sit well with his partner or his former co-workers, who decide to go on strike until their pay is increased.
There are violent clashes at the picket line, and Cassius gets caught up between fighting for what he knows is right and the frustrating feeling that he’s finally getting paid for something he’s good at, but to do it he has to be a scab. Before long, he earns the attention of the immoral, cocaine-snorting CEO of RegalView’s biggest client (Armie Hammer), who makes an offer Cassius literally can’t refuse.
For having a relatively low budget, the film’s style and overall art direction are immensely impressive. Backed by an energetic score from indie rock duo Tune-Yards, this is an audacious filmmaking debut that is packed with laughs but also has some genuinely jaw-dropping moments that might find you asking, “What in the hell did I just see?”
‘SORRY TO BOTHER YOU’
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Steven Yeun, David Cross
Rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor