In a world of Netflix and Marvel hegemony, it is fitting that a radical black director broke the trend.
In today’s UK premiere, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You smashed through the lines – some of them picket, others cultural – to deliver a masterpiece of intelligent commentary and bizarre comedy.
Riley’s cinematic debut sees young Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) locked in a battle between individual aspiration and collective solidarity as he is promoted through the corporate ranks.
Alongside him, we see Tessa Thompson’s wonderful enactment of Detroit, Green’s radical artist fiancé who travels down the parallel path of organising and activism, their relationship mirroring Green’s own internal conflict with class interest.
Dubbed the ‘communist rapper’ by The Times earlier this week – a title Riley has embraced throughout his career – it is no wonder the political artist inserts class and capitalism as the main themes for the story.
The movie begins fairly innocuously – a young, poor, politically unaware Oaklander stuck in the world of telemarketing rises through the ranks due to his use of the ‘white voice’ (done by Steven Cross).
In doing so, his betrayal of his union, his fiancé and on occasion, his race, don’t deter him. He forgets about the literal ‘slave labour’ he’s selling when presented the salary – rather, it emboldens him to take on the true ‘dog-eat-dog’ spirit of the capitalist world.
Mr _____ (Omari Hardwick) sums the attitude up: “We don’t cry about what should be; we thrive in what is.”
Yet in the background of his success, two ominous developments occur.
These are, most interestingly, displayed in the relative paucity of channels. A particular channel switch from a police baton striking a protestor to a willing volunteer’s bleeding nose on a gameshow will provide viewers with a sense of deja vu when they return to their own home viewing.
WorryFree – a feudalistic corporation that promises the same accommodation and meals that prison does – and telemarketer RegalView combine as the corporate enslavers, a reference to Amazon and Facebook’s ‘workers’ towns’.
Meanwhile, the people’s movement, while strong, is broken – partly by private security, but mostly by betrayal as workers abandon the collective for individual success. Even so, Riley’s parallel display of grassroots authenticity against elite debauchery is done with finesse and is a key component of the political commentary.
It takes a huge plot twist – a Green discovery that, worryingly for viewers, doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary – to break all that.
While class is the main theme, race is ever present. Green rises by being white – yet at the top, he is treated as black, made to perform for a room of white ‘success’.
Sorry To Bother You is grounded, yet revolutionary; real, but bizarre; comedic, but solemn. Boots Riley produced this against the odds – but a star-studded cast and sharp writing should resonate with a British audience as it did in the States, reflecting a stunning directing debut.
Sorry To Bother You is showing in Wimbledon Odeon from December 7.
Feature image from ComingSoon.net, from YouTube, with thanks.