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Sorry, not sorry

Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’ upends audience expectations

Lakeith Stanfield in “Sorry to Bother You”

If “Get Out” was the post-Obama black experience as horror film, then “Sorry to Bother You” is its mind-bending, psychedelic equal. With “Sorry to Bother You,” writer/director Boots Riley lights a molotov cocktail of hot-button social issues and hurls it full force at the audience—and what a delight it is to watch it catch fire.

“Sorry to Bother You” is set in some kind of bizzaro Oakland, California, where citizens participate in a reality show called "I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!” in which they endure ultra-violent beatings for big prizes. An increasingly large faction of the population is coerced into jobs at WorryFree, a cult-like workforce with Spartan living quarters that allows multi-
national corporations to increase productivity without all the fuss and muss of health benefits and time off. Cassius Green (Lakieth Stanfield)—an aimless young black man living in his uncle’s garage—isn’t quite that desperate for money, but he’s damn well close, and finds hope in the form of a telemarketing job at RegalView. There, he quickly learns that if he’s going to succeed, it’ll be by adopting a “white voice.”

Once Cassius finds his literal white voice, hilariously dubbed by comedian David Cross, his confidence soars along with his sales, catching the eye of the big wigs on the 49th floor, where the “power callers” supposedly live like kings. It’s a Bay Area “Wolf of Wall Street” with the rage and elegant flair of a Spike Lee joint.

Once Cassius is promoted to power caller, his world goes from famine to feast at break-neck speed, catching the attention of WorryFree’s billionaire CEO (Armie Hammer) who proudly doles out glorified slave labor to manufacturers as a way of improving their bottom line and market value. Hammer deliciously embodies the worst essence of a modern tech-bro CEO, in all its entitled Martin Shkreli douchiness and sociopathy.

Like a perfectly crafted hip-hop banger, Riley—rapper turned filmmaker—samples from a trove of influences and styles, from Luis Bunuel to “Putney Swope,” Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 irreverent satire on advertising and counter-culture. Riley crafts a sharp-toothed satire on culture, black identity and art that will keep surprising you at every turn of its tightly-coiled plot. And nothing is off-limits under the Riley’s sardonic eye, from the Black Lives Matter movement to white culture’s complicity in perpetuating black stereotypes for entertainment.

As the credits began to roll, the entire row of viewers next to me kept repeating the same refrain: "That was not what I was expecting." And honestly, with a film so jam-packed with something to say like “Sorry to Bother You,” it’s hard to pin down exactly what they were expecting—but, as for this reviewer, I’m buying what Riley is selling.

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