tv catch up: vida, westworld
music friday: 1994

african-american directors series: sorry to bother you (boots riley, 2018)

Sorry to Bother You has so many things going on that it's tempting to blurt out all of the oddities, the ones that work and the ones that don't. But this is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better.

It's easy to give a basic description, something like "young black man gets a desperately-needed job as a telemarketer, finds he has a talent for the job, and climbs the corporate ladder, causing him to worry about selling out". If you've seen the movie, though, you know how pathetically insufficient such a description is. I could go with a more detailed approach, but then I'd bump up against the desire to avoid spoilers.

Suffice to say that first-time writer/director Boots Riley (of the political hip-hop group The Coup) is unafraid to try anything to get his points across. One reason Sorry to Bother You fascinates is that Riley's willingness to break filmmaking rules, which gives the film a chaotic feel, combines with his clarity about certain points: that capitalism is bad, that racism is alive and well, that Oakland is a great place. The oddest things happen in Sorry to Bother You, so many that it's hard to get comfortable while watching (which is one of the reasons for the movie in the first place). But while it seems like Riley will try anything, he always ties his inventiveness to his themes. He is set on demonstrating the evils of capitalism, and he'll use any device to get that point across, even if it means entering into fantasy.

This is cumulative ... you see something and think you've never seen a presentation like this one, only to have that topped ten minutes later by something even more surprising. Riley gives himself over to fantasy, but it is a rooted fantasy. It isn't clear, for instance, exactly when the film takes place ... today? A few years from now? Gradually, you realize this is a vision of Oakland that is skewed towards fantasy, but only to claim a more solid realism about Oakland today. (And Riley manages to make it feel like Oakland without playing the Spot the Local Hotspot game.)

By the time we get to the most outrageous fantasies, entering into the realm of science-fiction, we are still surprised, but especially in retrospect, everything we see grows out of a commitment to rationality. You may wonder where the hell Riley thought up some of this stuff, but he convinces us that what is fantasy in the movie is metaphorically real to our lives today.

Sorry to Bother You benefits from some fine acting. The leads, Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, are the kinds of actors who grab the screen without seeming to try. Riley also managed to get all sorts of "name" actors for his film: Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Lily James, Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, W. Kamau Bell. You get the feeling that all of the people who worked on this film wanted to do so ... no one is in this for a big paycheck.

I want to give a more concrete sense of what Riley is up to, while still maintaining the surprise potential. How about this: a popular TV game show in the movie is called "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me", where contestants volunteer to, yes, get the shit kicked out of them for ... well, who knows, for a cash prize, for 15 minutes of fame? It's an example of how Riley uses fantasy that is just a step removed from reality ... in real life, there might not be a show called "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me", but the expectation of contestant humiliation is fairly common. And, as I say, the show is popular ... even characters that we come to like enjoy the show, because after all, who doesn't find people getting the shit kicked out of them to be funny?

I know I've skipped around the concrete, here. But if you see Sorry to Bother You, and you should, you'll thank me for keeping you spoiler-free. Oh, and it's a comedy.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


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