Boots Riley Makes Stellar Debut With "Sorry To Bother You"

As longtime lead vocalist of revolution-minded hip-hop group The Coup, Boots Riley’s pivot to filmmaking comes as both a sure thing and a wild card. He penned surrealist sociopolitical comedy “Sorry To Bother You” years before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy for president, a useful reminder that racism has never not bubbled beneath the crust of these United States. It may not have been as loud as it is now, but it’s always been there, making the racial realities and surrealities of Riley’s film timely under any president, dog-whistling dogmatist or not.

Comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out” have been inevitable – both movies feature ascending star Lakeith Stanfield – conceivably a hindrance to its commercial prospects. But “Sorry To Bother You” is the better film: funnier, freakier, and with Riley in total command of tone. Unlike Peele’s film, it never comes off like it’s gear shifting between seriousness and silliness. In Riley’s world, they’re the same thing; everything is an absurd clusterfuck of unchecked capitalism, Adam Smith’s invisible hand choking the life out of marginalized communities.

Stanfield delivers the best performance of his young career as Cassius Green, an Oakland telemarketer. The company is named RegalView, and Cassius begins to rise through its ranks on a tide of code switching (the character’s “white voice” comes courtesy of comedian David Cross) and selling out his unionizing friends. Among them is his free-spirited artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a lighthouse blinking fruitlessly as Cassius drifts further and further away into an abyss of inhumanity.

Cassius flies so high at RegalView that the cokehead CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) of utopia-peddling partner WorryFree singles out our protagonist for expedited advancement. Naturally it turns out that Lift’s outfit is a front for something sinister, but for what? The answer is by turns disturbing and uproarious, cementing the film as a real original – a horse of a different color.

As dynamic as Riley’s screenplay is, his direction is even more impressive. Devices like Cassius’s telemarketing calls physically invading people’s homes pop out of the screen, dovetailing beautifully with the third act’s body horror elements. And the cast delivers at least a dozen incredible reaction shots, undoubtedly a result of Riley’s innate directorial muscle. These are all telltale signs of a born filmmaker, no matter that he’s making his debut in his mid 40s.

The pic’s weirder revelations are best left to the screen. Just know that its 111 minutes purr along, equal parts accessible and eccentric, bolstered by a cast in tune with the material and one another. You’ve seen parts of “Sorry To Bother You” before, like in Donald Glover’s admittedly Lynchian FX show “Atlanta” (also starring Stanfield), but never assembled like this. The whole is a gleaming signpost of an attention-worthy filmmaker that we didn’t know we had. Now we know.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: July 6, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director: Boots Riley
Screenwriter: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover, David Cross, Patton Oswalt
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use)