‘Sorry to Bother You’: A darkly comedic condemnation of capitalism
Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson in Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You."

Sorry to Bother You is a surrealist dark comedy that, whether deliberately or not, could be the epitome of the feelings of a generation. That generation? Millennials who are over capitalism. The film, directed and written by rapper, producer, and screenwriter Boots Riley, bends reality in order to show the very real pitfalls of a system based on greed and the bottom line. The movie clearly aims to mess with your perception to make you question what you perceive as success in a society that often puts profits before people. It’s unapologetic, messy, hilarious at times, disturbing in other moments, and overall ambitious. It will leave a mark with moviegoers, and if nothing else, let young people know they’re not alone in wondering if there will ever be an end to the vicious rat race called life and work.

Set in Oakland, California, the film follows a young Black man, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who is hired as a telemarketer. Cassius is a twenty-something living in his uncle’s garage, wondering if he’ll have anything to show for his life when he dies of old age. Cassius decides to adopt a “white” accent in order to climb the ranks at work and make more money. In the midst of trying to excel via this “white” persona, he finds himself in the middle of a labor organizing campaign at his job. There are greedy corporate dealings afoot that seek to enslave working people—literally.

Cassius is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters that balance out his world. His performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), and union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) make up his close-knit friend group. Danny Glover plays a veteran telemarketer who first explains to Cassius that his “white” voice will get him more sales. Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. Blank (we never learn the character’s real last name), and Armie Hammer is the maniacal Steve Lift, Cash’s boss.

Ultimately Cassius, as he gains more money while becoming a star telemarketer, is torn between “selling out” in order to succeed as an individual and sticking with his friends to fight for better working conditions and livelihoods for all. In the midst of this plot, there are a ton of different themes explored. Riley puts a lot into this film for the audience to take in and think about. Many of the themes and messages land well, while others get lost in the plot.

One of the highlights of the film is the work atmosphere Riley creates for the characters. They live in a world that on the surface seems absurd and far-fetched, but a closer look reveals that many of the situations are just extreme forms of what we deal with in the real world.

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.”

For example, Hammer’s character, Steve Lift, is an extreme version of the capitalist boss. He’s outright greedy and absurd, and somehow always manages to come out on top from his corrupt dealings (and often richer). He’s rewarded for his extreme greed. He’s touted in the movie’s mainstream media as a leader, visionary, and ground breaker. He’s got a best-selling book on how to win. He wants to enslave working people, again, as I said, literally.

To be honest, Steve Lift is not a fictional character who only exists in this film. There are Steve Lifts in our own reality, and his presence, although funny at times, is also a disturbing reminder that we aren’t too far off from the world of Sorry to Bother You. This message lands all too well in the movie.

A less disturbing, and more uplifting theme in the film, however, is labor solidarity. The telemarketers are fed up with unstable working conditions and low pay. The union organizing campaign, and constant picket line, in the film serves as a backdrop for a road forward in what can feel like a hopeless situation of scraping by to survive.

Riley gives focus and attention to the importance of organized labor and working people actively changing the system. He has his characters, like Squeeze, discuss it with others in a real and sobering way. In one scene, Squeeze explains that people are often outraged by injustice, but when they don’t know how to battle it, they resign themselves to normalizing it.

He goes on to explain to Cassius that working people have to know that their labor is what creates the wealth, and their voice can change the tide. He concludes that if working people know they have the power, they can use that power to create change. It’s in these kinds of moments that the movie doesn’t just serve as a satirical mirror to society, pleased with itself in pointing out the system’s problems, but actively uses messaging to explore solutions.

Race and racism are more interwoven in the narrative as opposed to being an outright main catalyst for the drama and plot. The plot device of Cassius using his “white” voice is explained as not necessarily his white voice being a white person, because white people can be exploited as well, but rather the idea of whiteness. That idea being more about affluence, wealth, carefree living, and confidence. Cassius isn’t pretending to be a literal white person, but rather the dream of whiteness and privilege pushed as a goal in capitalist society. This serves as a way of showing that racism isn’t separate and apart from the system of exploitation but an (important) tool of it.

Some other themes, although still intriguing, aren’t completely fleshed out. One is Detroit’s role as a performance artist and what that means for her activism. She clearly aims to affect people with the social justice message in her work, but she also has to sell it to wealthy white people in order to make a living. This contradiction is touched upon briefly in the movie, and the opening of her gala makes for a very weird scene, but we never dive fully into what it all means for her character.

She’s an activist who understands the greed of society, but she also has to eat. Therein lies her conflict, but we’re never really given a solution. Maybe that’s the message in and of itself, that there is no easy solution. Although, at times, it seems Detroit serves more as a moral compass for Cassius, or a symbol of resistance for others, than a fully realized human with a plot of her own. Yet, Tessa Thompson embodies the role with finesse, giving Detroit subtle layers, whereas her character could have been diminished to a one-dimensional figure.

At a recent advance screening of the film, held at the University of Southern California, Boots Riley spoke to the audience after and explained some of his thoughts behind the themes. Speaking of the Detroit character, Riley explained, “[There can be] an uneasiness with being an artist. Is an artist saying the truth enough?” he asked the audience. “What is the effectiveness of art if you don’t attach it to a material movement? How do we best engage with the world? Is art alone enough?” he said, speaking to the dilemma he envisioned the Detroit character having.

Regarding the labor organizing and picket lines shown in the film, he said, “We have to be able to show people what their leverage point is in this system. Withholding labor is the most effective [strategy].” When asked about the style of surrealism in the film, Riley explained, “I decided to bend reality to make you [the viewer] think more about your own reality.”

Overall, Sorry to Bother You is a great ambitious feature. It doesn’t hit all its targets fully, but in aiming for the stars, it lands on some resonating and important clouds, so to speak. Polls and studies over the last two years have demonstrated that the millennial generation (those now aged 18-35) don’t accept the basic principles and rules of the dog-eat-dog and money-driven way of life.

A survey conducted by Harvard University polled young adults between ages 18 and 29 and found that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the millennial generation is sited to be the first generation that is worse off than their predecessors.

This is a frustrating predicament to find yourself in, and Sorry to Bother You speaks to a generation with those thoughts. It also speaks to the possible solutions, thus doing what Riley spoke on, in making it so art is more that just performance, but connected to real struggles.

Sorry to Bother You releases in theaters on July 6. The trailer can be seen here.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.