Sorry to Bother You

Before many of you were born, I worked on a movie called American Job (1996), directed by Chris Smith, which I think is still worth seeing, even though it's harder to find than The Sweet Ride (1968). I played a low wage worker passing through a series of “dead end” jobs, the last of which, representing the pinnacle of hopelessness, is telemarketing. The very last scene shows my character buying a lottery ticket, representing, for me, a kind of final surrender, not a happy ending. We intended to make a follow-up called The Winner, in which the character had won the big lotto, imagining what his life would then become (even less happy). Sorry to Bother You (2018) starts with the main character, Cassius Green, interviewing for and landing a telemarketing job, finding his way to success at it, and then essentially becoming the most successful sales-person on Earth. This is a fairly inaccurate one-line description of a really great and insane movie that throws everything at you and needs to be re-watched just to begin to peel back the layers. But I felt especially close to it in that this is a movie I wish I would have made (or could have made... or could have even imagined making). Describing too much of either the story or the details will definitely detract from the surreal experience you will have at first viewing. I seriously wish I could just say “see this movie” and people would listen to me, but I'm lucky if anyone is even reading this, so I'll go on a little bit without too many specifics.

As a compulsive list maker, I have either a mental or real list of what I call “job movies” (which also includes some book/movie adaptations, such as Bukowski's Factotum). This includes documentaries like the Maysles' Salesman (1969), Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1976), and many fictional narratives in which working is an integral part. Sorry to Bother You now tops that list (and is going to inspire me to make a more comprehensive list and publish it). It was made by Boots Riley, a musician and producer I'd never heard of. This is his first feature, though he's not particularly young, and it does have that feel of the exuberance and joy of a first feature—together with the intelligence and life experience details of an older person—that you're just not going to see come along very often. Feature filmmakers often have the experience that making a movie is like building a bridge all by yourself (I mean effort-wise), and despite the highly collaborative nature of filmmaking (in itself, somewhat of a trial), it is easy to get burnt out by the sheer effort necessary. So I see this movie as a kind of gift, and it's at the theater now, and again, I just want to say go see it. But I'll go on.

The first major turning point in the story (I'm already giving away too much) is when Cassius, played by black actor Lakeith Stanfield, is instructed by a co-worker (Danny Glover) to use, when making sales calls, his “white voice.” This reminded me of a couple of things from my life. One was when I was working at a collection agency, filing, but in the room with all of the collectors, so I listened to them all day make their calls, and the way they'd chameleon their voices to who they were talking to. The other, weirder thing (I've told this story a lot, so sorry if you've heard it) is when I used to correspond with other zine makers via the mail, and there was one woman I'd written to for years, who when we finally met, we both uncomfortably admitted to each other that we each thought the other was black. I have no idea how that idea was born in the first place, but it made me realize something, maybe about my own dishonesty, a particular manifestation of racial prejudice, but also something that was probably very common and all too human. Anyway, back to the movie—here the story takes one of many amazing surreal leaps by having these particular telemarketers use exaggerated white voices (executed in the movie by using white actors) which is both hilarious and really gets the point across.

To say that there is much, much more is the understatement of the summer season, but I'm going to limit myself to summing this review up. I have to add, though, that one of my favorite parts of the movie is the depiction of the upper tier sales office that Cassius soon finds himself in—a great satirical (but barely, if at all, exaggerated) version of the ad agency and tech company environments we've all either read about, visited, or found ourselves cultishly inducted into. The center of the movie, too, is a labor struggle that Cassius finds himself in the middle of, due to timing and circumstances, and while this conflict is so extreme it's comical, it's still a very real conflict that is the heart of a very real story. And just as significant is the other heart of the movie (this movie has countless hearts, really)—the story of the relationship of Cassius and his girlfriend, Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, a politically motivated performance artist whose work and friendship with Cassius is not secondary, but integral to the movie. (I have another movie list called “A Star is Born stories” which this movie would also fit very well into.) If this all sounds like it could use a season of television shows to contain it, that's right, but I like that it's all compacted into an under two-hour movie. Once it's available to stream, your version of binging might be to—as soon as you get to the end—immediately start the movie over—and see another whole movie in what you missed the first time.

Randy Russell 8.3.18