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Sorry to Bother You
It betrays with a twist
Sorry to Bother You (2018) takes place in the recent past, a simpler time when telemarketers would preface their calls with the title of this movie. The movie is set mostly in Oakland, California, in a version of the world that matches our reality in most ways except three. First, the movie world has lax labor laws that allow a company called WorryFree to sign workers to lifelong contracts where it provides food and shelter in exchange for their labor. In other words, this is a world where slavery is part of the business model and, even worse, a personal choice. People choosing enslavement to survive is incredibly bleak, and thankfully, the movie does not focus on the kind of despair that leads people to self-enslave. Second, the movie world allows participants to be assaulted on game shows. I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me is a popular reality TV show where participants are brutally beaten and covered in excrement. The third is a spoiler that shatters the movie. It’s on this mostly real canvas that writer-director Boots Riley tells the story of a man who becomes a telemarketer and eventually works his way up to challenge a monstrous billionaire.
The man who becomes a telemarketer is Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield). His name makes it immediately clear that what follows is likely to be a story about the evils of capitalism and that there will be intentionally little subtlety in its telling. Cassius gets a job as a telemarketer selling encyclopedias and other equally obsolete goods, and, as expected, it does not go well.
Langston, an older coworker played by Danny Glover who has been around long enough to figure out the job, advises him to use his white voice to make sales. As he demonstrates what he means, his voice is dubbed over by Steve Buscemi. Langston clarifies that a white voice is not “Will Smith white,” which is just proper speech. A white voice, he explains, means “sounding like you don’t have a care. Got your bills paid. You’re happy about your future… You’ve never been fired. Only laid off.” The white voice is not just an impersonation of a white person. Rather, “it’s what they wish they sounded like…what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” Cassius discovers his white voice, provided by David Cross in an eerily perfect casting choice, and uses it to become a master salesman, eventually joining the elite ranks of the highly compensated Power Callers.
The white voice is not unique to this movie or even a new phenomenon. Dave Chappelle used it on Chappelle Show and his standup. Eddie Murphy used it on SNL. Even Richard Pryor used it. The white voice was probably created five minutes after the first time a Black person met a white person and explained to a friend what it was like.
The white voice seems to have evolved over the three generations these comedians represent. At times, Pryor employs the white voice somewhat hesitantly, as if there might even be some danger in using it. Murphy’s white voice is restrained. He does not stray too far from a realistic impersonation of a button-down businessman. Chappelle’s version is not only the most polished, but best matches Langston’s explanation of the white voice as an ideal to which even white people aspire. Chappelle’s white voice is a luxurious comforter filled with downy, unearned privilege you want to wrap yourself in.
When Cassius is promoted to a Power Caller, he stops peddling junk and begins trafficking high-value goods and services of dubious legality. The movie starts to stray further from our reality until suddenly, the floor drops out, and it becomes pure science fiction.
The movie is wonderful to watch in the first three quarters, when grounded in the struggles of realistic characters operating in an exaggerated-yet-plausible world. The director, Boots Riley, helps us settle into his movie world, showing us the progression of Cassius as he transforms from an underperforming telemarketer into a world-class Power Caller. We see him struggle with success and eventually lose his artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson). We see friends drinking in dark, hipster bars while plotting a union takeover. We see an awkward, awful, astoundingly racist moment at the party thrown by the billionaire who runs WorryFree (Armie Hammer). All of these moments ring true.
We are not prepared to follow when the plot suddenly falls down the trapdoor into science fiction. The movie becomes silly, and Cassius and his coworkers’ struggles, which had been propelling the movie, become meaningless in light of the crimes against nature that are suddenly introduced. The movie ceases to be about race and the working class. It is no longer about a black man hustling for a place in a world where he needs a white voice to succeed.
It feels like Riley switched horses midstream, dropping an engaging storyline with sympathetic characters in favor of a cheap M. Night Shyamalan twist. While Riley’s twist is not predictable, it fails to serve the rich characters he created with great care and derails the plot completely. After investing in the characters and their story, you feel betrayed by this twist.
Is Sorry to Bother You worth watching? Absolutely. The movie's premise is unique and wonderfully bizarre; the movie world is skillfully constructed; the characters that inhabit the world are convincing and appealing, and you care about what happens to them. Sorry to Bother You is good, until it simply isn’t.
Sorry to Bother You
Written and directed by Boots Riley