One of the most memorable things about last year’s blockbuster film “Get Out” was the idea of the sunken place; that is, the image that described how racist interactions can bury a person’s self worth. In Sorry To Bother You, a new film by Boots Riley, that image is taken one step farther, as the route to the sunken place is mapped for us in real time in a scene that acts like one of those literal-lyric videos.
It happens when the film’s protagonist, Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield) is attending a party held by Steven Lyft, the evil CEO of a company that supplies slave labor, and Lyft asks him to rap.
Cassius demurs. “I can’t rap,” he says, “but I’m pretty good at listening to it.” Unfortunately, egged on by Lyft, the other party-goers insist, chanting ‘Rap! Rap! Rap!’ until Cassius is forced to try. At first, he fails miserably, but eventually he just starts chanting the phrase “N — N — N — shit!” over a beat, while Lyftand his crew chime in, cheerily shrieking “N — -shit!” along with him.
And in the balcony of the Castro Theater, where I was attending a pre-screening of the film at the San Francisco Film Festival, I thought: “Damn!” Because that scene perfectly captured what I’ve always secretly thought was so many white people’s appreciation of rap: i.e. that they think it gives them permission to give in to their stupid Ids and merrily chant “N — — shit!” over a beat.
The scene is emblematic of the half-funny/half-horrified tone of Sorry To Bother You, as it excoriates many of the immoral, unethical, and just plain mean aspects of modern living that are currently plaguing our planet. Another good example is how, throughout the film, there is a reality game show in the background called “Get the Shit Kicked Out of You!” in which contestants are beaten up and humiliated for laughs. It resonates in the same way that the rap scene does, for what are reality TV contests if not platforms for public punishment? “You’re Fired.” “The Tribe Has Spoken.” “Ladies, There Is Only One More Rose Left!” Those shows (and phrases) are ones that symbolically deprive people of food and shelter and employment and even love, yet it’s all done as a competitive sport. “Sorry To Bother You” merely suggests that these televisions shows just cut to the chase and kick people in the balls instead.
In short, Sorry To Bother You spoofs a lot of important targets, like telemarketing call centers, viral videos, and reality TV, but it also takes on some less naturally humorous things, like over privileged white men, creepy sales managers, and America’s prison industrial complex. It’s a noble movie and a funny one too, similar in spirit and tone to the music that director/writer Boots Riley produced with his band the Coup. Riley is an Oakland institution: as critic Mark Kemp put it in his review of the 2012 album of the same name (and the genesis of some of the characters in this movie), Riley has “always been one of the few contemporary rappers who’s kept the spirit of Public Enemy and Dead Kennedys alive through years that have watched rappers and rockers alike nearly sap punk and hip-hop of their searing social commentary.”
As Kemp points out, the Coup’s work is both uber-political and uber-danceable: songs like ‘The Guillotine” and “I Want To Piss On Your Grave” and “Fat Cats Bigga Fish” merge danceable fun beats and with a sharp and even jaundiced, view of the historical, institutional, and global forces that conspire to keep a body down. This is the band, you’ll remember, whose record “The Party” featured a cover image of the Twin Towers being blown up — in May of 2001.
That same prescient spirit animates Sorry To Bother You throughout. It does it in the scenes of union-busting, which bring to mind current teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia, in the telemarketing scenes, which invoke the intrusive reach of technology into our private lives, and finally, in the premise of a company which will solve all health care, housing and living wage problems in one simple, final, solution.
In other words, Sorry to Bother You bothered me — but in a good way, in the way we should all be bothered, constantly, by the incredible hypocrisies and violations that surround us on the daily, but which seem to slide on by, connived at and accepted by an increasingly spineless public. Things like the fact that rape, child molestation and people blowing the heads off little children aren’t even blinked at by our government. Things like the double standards surrounding drug laws and jobs and housing and immigration and education. Things like casually bombing Syria to distract from a stupid sex scandal. Things like Taylor Swift releasing a ‘country tinged’ cover of the song “September” by Earth Wind and Fire, as if there is not a single person anywhere who had the courage, good taste, or just plain decency to tell her not to.
Obviously, Swift’s bad music decision isn’t on par with bombing a country, but in a way it’s all of piece, in that people like her, who have a ton of cultural and economic power, are never held accountable, and in any case just continue to earn money on whatever bullshit they perpetrate on the masses. Boots Riley’s art has always been in opposition to that mindset, and surely we’ve never needed that kind of moral rectitude more than we do now.
In addition to its depiction of the city of Oakland in its most beguiling best light, the film also features the enormously likable actors Danny Glover, Terry Crews and Armie Hammer, and given this film’s dark content, I think Hammer in particular should be commended for offering himself up as the human embodiment of toxic white masculinity in a film like this. Buzzfeed recently excoriated the poor guy for being a super-rich and privileged person in real life, which I think is so unfair — no one asks to be born rich, any more than they ask to be born poor. Hammer’s willingness to be the butt of this movie is way more than most rich white guys do, so, respect.
I mention Hammer’s role in this film only because I’m a white person myself, and some white people are turned off by films that critique their participation in a racist culture. But although Sorry To Bother You is a film made from an African American perspective, the vision of America that it paints — the field of play, as it were — includes all of us, and that’s why all of us should go see it. As Ta-Nehesi Coates writes in Between The World and Me, it’s not really the job of African American community to convert white people — the people he calls ‘Dreamers” — into warriors for the black cause; rather, he writes, “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” Sorry To Bother You makes that clear as day. Apology accepted.