Sorry to Bother You, the brash film debut from musician and activist Boots Riley, is the most of-the-moment movie on the landscape right now—it may end up being the most politically and culturally relevant movie of the year. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s far from perfect: The pacing is herky-jerky, and even a wild work of fantasy-satire like this one doesn’t have to drive every one of its ideas into our heads with such a heavy mallet. But Sorry to Bother You has energy and passion, two qualities in short supply in filmmaking these days. And its star, Lakeith Stanfield, gives us something to watch every minute. It’s hard to give a good performance in a piece of agitprop: Heavy-duty ideas have a way of steamrolling actual human beings. But Stanfield’s face isn’t about ideas. It’s about anxiety and ambition, about wanting to build a better life but also having a conscience. It’s a face that strives to connect.
Stanfield plays Cassius Green, who, as the movie opens, is trying to lie his way into a not-particularly desirable telemarketing job. He’s living in a surreal version of present-day, or near-future, Oakland, in an apartment carved out from his uncle’s garage. He’s behind on the rent, which could mean his uncle would lose the house. His artist girlfriend Detroit (the wonderful Tessa Thompson) loves him, but she’s not making a ton of money either. So Cassius is thrilled when he lands the gig, which entails selling encyclopedias over the phone. Even though it proves to be dismal, he excels at it—but only after he takes the advice of an experienced co-worker (played by Danny Glover), who advises him to use his “white voice.” (The super-uptight nasal tones that flow from Cassius’ mouth when he’s on duty come courtesy of David Cross.)
Cassius is so good at this job that he advances quickly to another division, where he makes a lot more money. He moves out of that garage and into a sleek apartment—but he also begins losing Detroit’s love and respect. The thing he’s so good at selling turns out to be slave labor, part of a scheme hatched by a coked-up, faux-laid-back corporate mastermind, played by Armie Hammer.
And that’s not even the half of it. The plot of Sorry to Bother You—to the point that you could even call it a plot—is a phantasmagoria about racial identity and plain old human dignity. It’s also a pro-union rallying cry, a broadside against capitalism and greed, and a monster movie. If it’s trying to be too many things at once, it’s at least lively enough to keep you guessing where it’s going next, and its fanciful production and costume design don’t hurt either: Thompson’s Detroit has a whole wardrobe of supersized earrings spelling out revolutionary phrases, Bob Dylan lyrics, or even just blurts of frustration—the words MURDER MURDER MURDER might dangle from one ear, while KILL KILL KILL adorn the other.
Sorry to Bother You, which took years for Riley to finance and make, has a DIY shoestring aesthetic reminiscent of Robert Townsend’s 1987 Hollywood Shuffle (the bulk of which Townsend financed with his own credit cards). It also nods to the wild revolutionary spirit of ’60s statement pictures like Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 anti-advertising screed Putney Swope (which also, oddly enough, features a black man speaking with a white man’s voice; the movie’s central character, a man who accidentally rises through the ranks at a big advertising agency, played by Arnold Johnson, was dubbed by Downey himself).
But Sorry to Bother You is really its own weird, wild creature, and if it’s at times a little exhausting, Stanfield—who has had roles in Get Out and Short Term 12, as well as on Atlanta—is always right there to guide us. His Cassius never looks one-hundred-percent certain about anything; if we’re a little bewildered by the world he’s living in, he’s a lot bewildered by it. Cassius is a mirror for the way so many of us live now: We want to do the right thing, but we’re not sure what it is. We don’t want to be insensitive, but being sensitive means lowering our guard—can we afford to do that? In the end, Cassius acts with conviction, and still there are consequences. If you had to boil the unruly inventiveness of Sorry to Bother You down to one sentence, it could be this: Doing the right thing always involves risk. Get ready.