Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You works on so many levels. It’s one of the more thrilling and audacious film debuts in years, a terrific mashup of comedy, politics, dystopian satire, absurdism, horror, science fiction and pop culture – part Office Space, part Spike Lee, part David Lynch. As a feature debut by an independent Black filmmaker confronting American racism head-on via dark comedy and twists on genre traditions, it deserves its comparisons to Jordan Peele’s instant classic Get Out. Overarching all this, it’s also a brilliant vehicle for Riley to reach a mass audience with his revolutionary socialist politics. How it even got made is a wonder – see it just to support comrade Boots and to luxuriate in his film’s wild, uncompromising vision. It may have some flaws, but it has so much more going on in it and so much more to say than most other films on the big screen this or any other year.
The film stars the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield, who’s been stealing all his scenes in Atlanta for two seasons and starred in the series’ best and weirdest episode, the standalone psychological thriller ‘Teddy Perkins’. Here he comes into his own as a leading actor; his shifting combination of weary nonchalance and paranoid energy is perfect for the absurd scenarios Riley’s screenplay keeps throwing at him.
Stanfield plays Cassius ‘Cash’ Green, a broke Oakland, California resident who takes a job as a telemarketer at a firm called RegalView, where he’s expected to be a corporate drone flogging useless products for commission according to a rigid script whose smarmy greeting is the film’s title. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an artist and activist, fatefully joins the company as well. Cash isn’t on the job long before a co-worker played by Danny Glover (himself notable for his left politics, as his steadfast support for Palestine shows) teaches him how to speak in a ‘white voice’, which quickly brings him success and the approval of his hilariously awkward, ingratiating white management team.
RegalView’s shabby, fluorescent-lit offices and heavy-handed company culture make for rich satire of our working lives, in an Office Space sort of vein – with a special focus on how Black workers navigate the corporate terrain. But things quickly get very weird as Cash discovers RegalView is actually a subsidiary of WorryFree, a corporation that markets modern-day slavery as a lifestyle choice, in a grim sendup of the gig economy and companies like Uber and Amazon.
(By the way, if you think Riley’s vision of such all-encompassing corporate bondage is too improbable to be effective satire, check out this terrifying recent New York Times story that includes a profile of American company WeWork, the rapidly expanding office-space provider and a culprit in the spread of the oppressive ‘rise and grind’ hustle culture that erases boundaries between work and private life. WeWork is rebranding as the We Company and inserting its tentacles into real estate, fitness and private education with subsidiaries WeLive, Rise by We and WeGrow: ‘Rather than just renting desks, the company aims to encompass all aspects of people’s lives, in both physical and digital worlds.’)
Soon Cash is approached on the low by co-worker Squeeze (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), who invites him to join the effort to organise a union at RegalView. But flush with success thanks to the ‘white voice’, Cash is promoted, setting up the film’s central conflict, as he alienates himself from his coworkers/comrades and from Detroit, who moonlights as a member of the militant Left Eye collective, waging a campaign of sabotage against WorryFree.
Cash is a powerful audience surrogate, torn between the struggle and his own very compelling self-interests – his promotion means getting out of poverty.
Sorry’s themes of labour struggle and solidarity are very important to director Riley’s vision of how to fix the world. The film is blatantly, beautifully all about class struggle. It’s about workers discovering their power and their rightful role as a revolutionary force in society – as opposed to waiting for change to come from progressive leadership within the system, a trap that most of us have been stuck in for decades because we’ve been presented with very few other options. As Riley told Democracy Now! last year:
If everybody’s putting their time into the electoral side [of politics], we’re gonna get caught in this loop where you get an elected official in there, and they’re not able to do much, because there’s not the movement to do things. We need to get to the level where we can shut down industry and we can go straight to the puppet masters …
I think that electoral politics is the easy way out. I think it’s part of the sidetracking that we’ve been having – the left has not been willing to engage in class struggle for a long time. And we’ve left it up to liberals – we’ve left union organising up to liberals … We’ve made our movements devoid of the analysis that shows where the power point in capitalism for us is.
Riley has insisted that, however speculative and fanciful it is, Sorry isn’t meant to be set in the future. Despite its fantastical elements, the film is very much a critique of our world. And Riley has rejected the ‘dystopia’ tag, too: ‘Most of these movies that have a dystopian reality, in most of them nobody is fighting back unless you have, like, special powers,’ he told The Atlantic. ‘They erase rebellion.’ Riley wants viewers to make connections between his story’s satirical scenarios and their own lives, and encourage them to act – to rebel – as his characters ultimately do. ‘[Most] writers aren’t involved in movements. It’s all abstract, it’s all theory,’ he said in another recent interview. ‘And for me, I have a feeling of what I want people to be able to apply it to, you know?’ Riley’s optimism – his belief that we can win if we struggle – shines through in all his interviews, and in his screenplay for Sorry.
The attempts to organise a call centre in the film have a wonderful real-life parallel in this recent Overland story about the triumphant successes of union organisers at a call centre in Victoria staffed entirely by young people. There are many lessons to be drawn from this account, but one of the most heartening is the way the organisers got through to prospective members amongst the company’s workforce not by pandering to them, but by remaining principled and openly left-wing. Their proud displays of their solidarity with LGBT people, refugees and Sudanese immigrants combined with their unwavering defence of their fellow employees’ rights and dignity combined to eventually win them over.
By comparison, Sorry can be forgiven for not being terribly realistic on this score – in their very first action, the fictional nascent union’s members raise their fists at their desks and scream ‘Fuck RegalView!’ But this is satire and Riley is intent on making it memorable and uncompromising. Likewise, the scenes depicting a picket line, which becomes a battleground when the company calls in militarised private security forces to break it up, are over the top – though extra-resonant in the wake of the Yellow Vest uprising in France over the past three months.
If you weren’t interested in labour issues or socialism at all, Sorry to Bother You would still be politically powerful for its dissection of American racial oppression. The ‘white voice’ has dominated much of the conversation around the film, for good reason. The fact of having to downplay, subvert or conceal your own identity in order to get by in our society is something every person from a minority background takes for granted, but still it’s truly awful to contemplate, and the comedy Riley mines from it only highlights that. The same goes with his depiction of the stark dividing line between the Black neighbourhoods of Oakland and the gleaming corporate centre. And Sorry is intersectional in its radicalism: Detroit’s outsized earrings (TELL HOMELAND SECURITY WE ARE THE BOMB) and her T-shirts (THE FUTURE IS FEMALE EJACULATION) punctuate the film with brilliant running commentary on a number of issues.
But it’s important to point out that Riley doesn’t see dividing lines between political issues. Crucially, he avoids the twin traps of class-reductionism and racial essentialism. This pernicious dichotomy, in which opponents argue that either class or race should have primacy in analysing oppression, has proven again and again to be a stumbling block to understanding and solidarity between workers. To Riley, it’s apparent that racism and the oppression of workers are intertwined, and solidarity is the key to unravelling those oppressions.
Socialist writer and Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tackles this dynamic definitively in her 2016 book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation:
The oppression of Black workers exposes the foundational lie of the United States as a free and democratic society more than that of any other group, with the exception of the Indigenous population. The political activism and rebellion of Black people bring that lie to the surface for all to see, throwing into question the actual nature of US society. White workers have always followed the lead of Black workers. The militant strike wave [of the 1960s and ’70s] was certainly influenced by the Black freedom struggle that had provided a powerful example of organizing and resistance for white workers in the union movement to follow. For this reason, far from being marginal to the struggles of Black people, socialists have always been at the center of those movements.
Taylor goes on, and it reads like a blueprint for Riley’s approach to Sorry to Bother You:
It is widely accepted that the racial oppression of slaves was rooted in the exploitation of the slave economy, but fewer recognize that under capitalism, wage slavery is the pivot around which all other inequalities and oppressions turn. Capitalism used racism to justify plunder, conquest and slavery, but as Karl Marx pointed out, it would also come to use racism to divide and rule – to pit one section of the working class against another and, in so doing, blunt the class consciousness of all. To claim, then, as Marxists do, that racism is a product of capitalism is not to deny or diminish its centrality to or impact on American society. It is simply to explain its origins and persistence. Nor is this reducing racism to just a function of capitalism; it is locating the dynamic relationship between class exploitation and racial oppression in the functioning of American capitalism.
Again, Detroit’s art in the film provides potent expression of this – at one point she explains that her large-format paintings of Africa are about how the rise of capitalism was fuelled by slavery.
Sorry doesn’t always work. It’s not as masterful a debut as Get Out, and truth be told it’s sometimes a bit of a mess. Some gags go nowhere or don’t hit as hard as you want them to; a subplot involving a romantic triangle is particularly standard, probably the weakest thing about the film.
But it’s a glorious mess. Sorry’s wild style is also what makes it a winner. Riley is trying to do a lot here, both cinematically and politically. No other film in recent memory takes as many chances as Sorry does in 10 minutes of screen time.
For someone of my generation, Sorry’s anarchy (cinematic anarchy) is a throwback to the golden age of American independent cinema in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when filmmakers like Spike Lee, Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater could get away with just about anything. Sorry reminds me a lot of Cox’s Repo Man, that beloved 1984 romp through the underbelly of LA that so memorably mixed punk attitude with pulp-movie weirdness; but 1987’s Walker, Cox’s much darker, much angrier satire of US intervention in Central America, is also worth mentioning. Sorry is very different from Walker, but they share an exhilarating mix of fierce leftism and gonzo experimentalism, and it’s been a while since the big screen was safe for that.
That sense of rupture – that anything could happen at any moment – is also reminiscent of the work of Michel Gondry, especially his more surreal films like Being John Malkovich and 2006’s The Science of Sleep. Riley’s fondness for trippy in-camera effects, such as Cash’s marketing calls depicting him as actually present in the homes of his client-victims, is very Gondryesque; as are the distortions on the soundtrack – the obvious overdubs for the ‘white voices’ and our inability to hear one crucial character’s name when he says it. The screenplay is also bursting with clever references to other films including Norma Rae, the 1979 classic starring Sally Field as a union organiser; and The Last Dragon, the 1984 Motown-produced Black-Kung Fu crossover cult favourite.
The visual richness and energy of the film also, of course, fits into a long tradition of Black cinema, with its influences in jazz and hip hop. Riley is very open about being a fan of Spike Lee as well as an adamant critic (see his incisive, scathing commentary on the muddled, dishonest liberal politics and history in BlacKKKlansman). Sorry certainly has the organised chaos of a Lee joint; and Riley pays specific tribute to Lee’s trademark dolly zoom in one shot.
The everything-but-the-kitchen sink satire also reminds me of Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townshend’s microbudget 1987 comedy about being Black in Hollywood that was instrumental in bringing more visibility to Black filmmakers around the same time Lee was on the rise. Hollywood Shuffle was messy too, but also very scathing and prescient, and it’s been unfairly neglected in the used VHS bins of history.
Sorry is also reminiscent of the small-screen Atlanta, not only because of the obvious factor of Stanfield’s presence, but in its way of inserting its Black characters into absurd situations to illustrate the dynamics of racism – as during the cringeworthy backroom meetings at RegalView, or when a horrified Cash is called on to freestyle rap for his coked-up white corporate colleagues at a debauched party. Donald Glover has said that he wanted Atlanta to be ‘Twin Peaks with rappers’. Sorry is similarly Lynchian in its down-the-rabbit-hole weirdness – it has more than a bit of Mulholland Drive in it.
The above-mentioned party takes place in a mansion owned by an Elon Musk-like corporate overlord named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) who serves as the film’s Bond villain as it were. It turns out the mansion is filled with nightmares; and as the film enters its last and strongest act, Riley’s pulp and horror influences add a vividly graphic element to his themes of worker exploitation. Here, David Cronenberg’s films seem a particularly relevant influence, with their recurrent themes of social control and body transformation. The intensity and freakiness of these final sequences make it obvious how important Riley’s message about workers losing their chains is to him.
It’s clear Riley didn’t make this film only for fellow comrades, but for a mass audience – but that doesn’t make it a compromise. Its entertainment value combined with its vision of worker solidarity – in Riley’s hands, as appealing as it is unmistakable – makes it a brilliant piece of political outreach. Socialists often refer to the sometimes tedious long game of organising and ‘patiently explaining’ as work. ‘You have to do the work,’ goes the saying. Riley has done some brilliant work here, in more ways than one.