Sorry To Bother You: this dystopian comedy is off the hook.
by Patch O'Furr
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RING RING. Did you ever get a scam caller who needs money immediately? One time I answered one of those and played along with a “dumb voice” (it was method acting) while I pretended to walk to Wal-Mart to send them a wire transfer. My friend played store noises in the background, and announced “Sir, you can’t be here without pants!” The caller persisted until I pretended to get lost and fall in a duck pond and couldn’t stop laughing at the quacking noises. Of course the dumb prank only tied up time (and maybe reduced scams), but now let me tell you about movies that are very worth the time. They’re wake-up calls that deliver truths about society while being artful and entertaining too.
I just saw the movie "Sorry To Bother You".— Deo (@DeoTasDevil) July 29, 2018
I can't remember the last time a film had me this gutted. I'm wrecked.
"Sorry To Bother You" is powerful and you should see it. Don't look it up, no spoilers, just go experience it.
Hey @BootsRiley! Just wanted to give you a thank you for making probably one of the most overlooked films that needed to be seen. It does 'bother' me that it wasn't nominated for any Oscars, but you did a very good job impressing me nonetheless.
Hope your next film is great. 🙂
— Scarfy🧣 (@ScarfyConly) January 22, 2019
VIDEO Q&A with director Boots Riley below. SPOILER WARNING – watch the movie before reading!
Sorry To Bother You (2018) is the debut movie by Boots Riley, a satire set in a worker strike among telemarketers. The story device that gets it going is code switching with different voices. The main character is a black guy (Cassius Green) who uses an absurdly ethereal “white voice” – when the actor Lakeith Stanfield opens his mouth, the voice of David Cross comes out. The trick makes him super successful at telemarketing. It gets him out of poverty that sucks down everyone around him, but sets him up to pay a horrible cost.
At first you think it’s a story about underpaid workers fighting for respect. Then it aims higher at capitalist dehumanization. Then it goes over the top with a hallucinatory sci-fi reveal that transforms the characters. The screenwriting is eccentrically formula-defying. Hollywood likes to play safe with big budgets and crank out polished turds, but this movie takes chances with a modest budget for a gloriously gutsy indie production with a message.
It looks like an odd choice to cover on a furry site, so why’s it here? The answer is in the reveal we’ll get to.
I saw Sorry To Bother You with Fruitvale Station (2013) at a small library screening for this program– RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE, & ANTICIPATION: a fresh look at the Black Arts Movement in Oakland. It was more than an ordinary show, it was a special community happening, so let’s look at how the movies connect. (It’s also the second Dogpatch Press story from the same neighborhood after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.)
Fruitvale Station covered the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the victim of a wrongful police shooting in 2009 at a BART train station not far from the library. The death led to a conviction for his killer, a shakeup in transit management, and intense protests. The story could be a downer, but it brings to life the struggle and joy in the conditions of class and race. Film making with handheld camera style and a talented cast with remarkable family and crowd scenes make a powerfully humanistic movie. The 2013 release roughly coincided with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest oppression of African Americans, and if you’re unengaged with what that’s about, watch this movie to know. It was the debut by director Ryan Coogler and its success on a small budget took him to directing the blockbuster Black Panther (2018).
Between the movies, the audience shared connections to the stories. A nurse who worked at the hospital where Oscar Grant died spoke up about policies for relatives to view homicide victims. A woman who was at the BART station on the night of the shooting spoke about police forces being descended from 1800’s slave-catchers. Young people brought in bikes they rode in movie scenes. And Boots Riley lived near the library and came to the screening for a Q&A. It wasn’t really advertised, but I caught word of mouth about it. It was an incredible opportunity to talk to him and get the videos below.
Sorry To Bother You avoids generic city locations (that could be shot anywhere) to highlight memorable Oakland scenes: the BART train, tent cities and gritty streets, kids on scraper bikes, and purple-lit nightclubs. However instead of being a portrait of reality, it has larger than life storytelling with exaggerated ironic humor, and fantasy/magical realism. It’s an absurd capitalist hell for people struggling to make a living, who are tempted by the snaky advertising of soft lifetime contractual-slavery for “Worryfree”, a megacorporation led by a sleazy Silicon Valley tech CEO (Steve Lift). They don’t know that they’re fated to serve his weird Island of Dr. Moreau-like experiment to build his billions higher.
In the 40 minutes of Q&A with Boots Riley, he discussed the seed for the story with his experience in telemarketing. He started the screenplay on his own and took it to the Sundance screenwriting workshop. It didn’t follow the rules of formula Hollywood stories and was controversial there, so when masters of the craft were arguing about a right way to do it, he realized they weren’t perfect either and he could do it his way. It could have been a typical story about a workplace struggle – using a Rocky formula with a rhythm of conflicts and defeats, until the audience would be satisfied with the same old story they knew except adding any new idea he could share. He wanted to avoid “preaching” that way, and that’s how it went over the top.
The main character (Cassius Green) was changed by the struggle he was in – morally and relationship-wise, but it had to go farther. That meant physical change for the most oppressed people. Boots talks about genetic modification, and if you could do an operation that lets you stay up for 3 days and not die, people would do it. There’s animals that we think of as being for work (think: work horse, strong as a horse, hung like a horse) – so the movie’s workers transform into superhuman horse-people, the “equisapiens”. (Starting at 8:00).
Sorry To Bother You can make an interesting comparison to movies by Mike Judge, like Idiocracy, where the world population degenerates into idiots by lowest-common-denominator complacency (with a whiff of problematic eugenics). “Welcome to Costco, I love You.” But this movie (with a similar “Ow My Balls!”-like game show) has Worryfree manipulating them into new creatures. Office Space ends with a workplace burned down and now-happy workers relaxing with a happier lifestyle; but this movie ends with them charged up for revolution.
All that and horse dick jokes makes a wild movie that deserves a devoted cult. It has a message to irk, bug, badger and bother everyone, like the dehumanizing capitalism it satirizes. With a climate crisis looming over the world in real life, a vision of burning workplaces doesn’t seem like a sci-fi movie story at all.
More about the crazy twist with the equisapiens:
- Thrillist: Director Boots Riley Breaks Down The Craziest Part of ‘Sorry To Bother You’
- Vulture: Boots Riley Tells Us the Story Behind Sorry to Bother You’s Horse People
- Mic: What’s up with that wild twist in ‘Sorry to Bother You’? Well, it’s part of a long movie tradition.
- Mashable: ‘Sorry to Bother You’ creator explains the meaning behind its batsh*t ending
- Hollywood Reporter: Dissecting ‘Sorry to Bother You’ and Its Surprise
- Indiewire: ‘Sorry to Bother You’: Lakeith Stanfield Talks That ‘Insane’ Ending and Its Visual Effects Secrets
Met Boots Riley, trying for an interview. Such an inspiring and talented guy. pic.twitter.com/SCc8tVBF7p
— Dogpatch Press (@DogpatchPress) March 17, 2019