08 August 2018

First Impressions: Sorry to Bother You

Has anyone seen this movie? Because if not, you should go see it. I don't even know how to begin talking about this movie with someone who hasn't seen it. Let's get a SPOILER warning out of the way to discuss this bastard.

Hottest Halloween look this year
I had heard this was a pretty weird flick going in to it, so I was obviously very interested. As the movie progressed it was a little quirky and stylistic but not all that weird. THEN IT GETS SO FUCKING WEIRD. I loved every second. There was one dude in the theater who REALLY loved it, though, and was laughing at literally every line. This was a crazy person, but then again, crazy people made this movie.

This will sound like the whitest thing ever, but I was introduced to The Coup by the movie Superbad (2007). This scene. That's "Pork and Beef" off of the album Party Music, which has the most unfortunate cover choice in the history of music - featuring an exploding Twin Towers. The cover was designed in June 2001 for an initial printing on - wouldn't you know it - September 11th, 2001. That's your Coup trivia for the day. Again, it took my white ass until 2007 to lock in but I've been a solid fan ever since.

I was pretty excited then, when band member Boots Riley finally got to make his Sorry to Bother You movie. The script has been around for a long damn time, and also provided the name for the Coup's 2012 album. If you're still unfamiliar, the Coup is filled with some politically charged hip-hop that defiantly goes against the grain of mainstream acceptance. Riley is a progressive activist with socialist and communist leanings, and frankly it's amazing that he was allowed to go anywhere near a camera to make his cinematic opus.

What works is that the politics here are sly, subtle, and ultimately universal. Regarding Black Cinema we're finally at a point where we're moving away from solely slave narratives that define the Black American Experience and getting into this era of new voices like Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler who are putting their stamp on popular culture. We even see Spike Lee getting reinvigorated with his BlacKkKlansman (2018) landing this week. Is Black merely a trendy topic right now? Well, this is Hollywood and the goal is ultimately money and nothing else, no matter what you may think about art, so yeah - but if unique and new voices get to tell their personal stories that elevate all of our world perspectives then that's a pretty cool thing.

For a first time writer / director, Boots also does a fantastic job. He's probably a better writer than director - the dialogue and morphing of the plot was a bit sharper than the images on screen, with some off-center frames and other odd choices, but altogether this comes off as a supremely confident masterstroke of cinema. The cast gels perfectly, the colors pop, and the dark comedic tone that skewers everything about the times we live in, from landing a job to media consumption to the nature of art to viral video fame is pitch perfect. I was blown away.

Leading this insanity is LaKeith Stanfield, who after scoring bit roles in every great Black movie of the past five years in addition to being awesome on Atlanta is finally able to anchor a movie. He's a great fit - a sheepish kind of slumped over guy who finds success that totally goes to his head. He doesn't always make the greatest choices and it's until he's met with true horror that he finally recoils. That horror being horse people (I said SPOILERS) but we need to get into the magical realism later.

There's a lot to unpack about his journey. As Cassius "Cash" Green starts off faking his way into a telemarketing job despite the fact that his unscrupulous bosses know instantly that he's faking. In some ways that's all this movie is - faking everything until we find some success. Anyway, he struggles until Danny Glover tells him to use a White Voice. Channeling his inner David Cross he's able to suddenly connect and gain appreciation from his peers and the poor saps he sells shit to. It's an instant indictment of how people interpret Black and White perspectives, the idea being that White People find a lot more instant success and appreciation than Black People. Where the movie finds its niche, though, is how Cash copes with the fact that he's co-opting another race and neglecting his own in order to be successful. Does that matter? Is financial stability and advanced social status worth the personal selling out of one's friends, peer group, and race itself? When faced with no other option but living in a garage and being four months behind rent with no job - is that sell out worth it?

There aren't a lot of other movies that face these questions as frank as Sorry to Bother You. As Cash moves up in the telemarketing world (I've interviewed for jobs in Call Centers like this. It's not great. You really need to leave your soul at the door. This is another aspect the film nails), his co-workers become despondent. Under the leadership of Steven "Glenn" Yeun, they unionize and go on strike. This also presents this massive pro-union angle and again this conflict between working at something you're good at and supporting other people. It's capitalism vs. socialism, for the record. The folks at the top obviously want to keep working and neglect the union - they're rolling in dough. What's important is to note that the only reason Cash finds success is that he sells out his soul and race. There's this idea that success is only reserved for those elite few who find their niche well the rest of the hard-working proletariat suffers through an immense disparity in wealth, working conditions, and daily struggle. So much so that many consider joining the WorryFree organization, a thinly veiled slave-labor commune.

I mean, this has been my go-to video game avatar for years.
The irony of course is eventually that Cash as a "Power Caller" uses his White Voice telemarketing skills to basically sell this slave labor to various companies across the globe. We get a counter glimpse of this lifestyle through Mr. _____ who seems to understand Cash's soul-sucking struggle, but also revels in the advantages being a plugged in Power Caller can afford. As the film goes on though, we actually see a surprising nuance out of actor Omari Hardwick as he goes from being the King of his Element at Regalview Telemarketing to dearly out his element around Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) and the real rich, powerful white people in the world. There's a moment where they goad Cash into rapping, and he really can't because he's a multi-dimensional human being and not just a Black Person. Giving up he just repeats "Nigga shit!" over and over, because that's really all that White Rap Fans want to hear. Or maybe it's more that's just what White Rap Fans here anyway. Mr. ____ and Lift himself seem to be the only ones capable of seeing through the facade. Mr. _____ is overcome with his own reflection of his selling out while Lift sees Cash how he sees everything - a way to make money and control people. Mr. _____ also has huge mutton chops, an eye patch, and bowler hat, none of which are ever explained nor should they be ever.

Lift represents this deceptive power structure of bosses and companies that pretend to be your friend but are really just there to make money. His insane science and social control wants to push that further - by yes, creating super-strong Human / Horse hybrids called equisapiens that will be more loyal, whine less, and work harder. It's a damned surreal moment, folks. Knowing that they might revolt, he also wants a faux-Martin Luther King, Jr.-type figure to lead and settle the horse people, tricking them into thinking they've accomplished some Civil Right crusade, but in actuality, it would really just be Cash working for Lift. This was a little (SPOILER) Snowpiercer (2013)-esque and there are class revolution similarities, but these are really different movies.

Got all that? This of course makes implications towards the actual Civil Rights Movement - I don't think Boots is going as far as to say MLK was a fake, more so that we idolize this leader and other Black Leaders like Barack Obama, but it's all an illusion. As long as mega corporations still hold White Interests at heart, Black Interests will be neglected. Some of this isn't necessarily racial in the film, more a class struggle - it's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) pretending to support the people while ushering in their downfall (for the record, that movie really stumbles with that concept, but whatever, you get what I'm talking about). Cults of personality surrounding one leader doesn't make a difference when it's the institutional systems that are at fault for world problems.

That's a lot to take in. This movie is also a comedy. There is media on an Idiocracy (2006) "Ow My Balls!" level that virtually serves to show people in constant states of schadenfreude. Actually, this movie could have just been called Schadenfreude. Although the biggest bullshit in this movie is that 150 million people would ever watch the same show. There's this running side story of Cash being the unlucky star of a viral video of himself getting nailed in the head by a "Soda Cola" can. It progresses as this flavor of the month that would have only been better if there was some Internet Outrage attached. This eventually works in his favor as he's able to parlay his fame into playing an equisapien clip to the world, thus exposing WorryFree's horrible genetic experiments to the world and ending Lift's reign of terror.

Except of course that no one really cared, WorryFree's stock rose, and investors were excited about both profits and burgeoning gene-splicing technology. That's about how it would work. Cash really needed to get a video of Lift sexually harassing one of the horse-people. That's the current outrage. No one cares if you modify your body to work a little harder. And if they did, another news story will be around in a few weeks that's even MORE shocking and we'll forget all about horse people.

The final major character is Cash's girlfriend, Detroit, who is a performance artist that I'm still trying to unpack. She mostly exists as both Cash's moral conscience as well as his motivation for improving himself. Although, even as he expressly states this, I'm not sure the latter is true because he seems more focused on leaving some kind of mark on the world or existing as a significant individual and Detroit seems to not particularly care about any crap he's trying.

Detroit is played by Tessa Thompson who is crushing her resume right now. As I struggle to come up with what she represents, the simple idea is that her views are never really explained, and ignoring this Black Woman's perspective is the film's one major fault. She is certainly a revolutionary in dress, art, and action, but her seeming comfort in Cash's high-profile scab life (at least at first) seems to indicate that she doesn't necessarily care about what she's trying to care about. Eventually as she hooks up with Glenn (err..."Squeeze"), you get the sense that these two are more right for each other than her and cash.

As for the performance art segment, a lot of it seems overboard - more a way to rile up a crowd into participating in what they think is high special art, but is really just an empty farce. It's another means of control, of faux-revolution - the Facebook era of toe-dipping support of social justice. That fits in line with most of the movie's other messages concerning false prophets, self-deception, and an unwinnable class war.

In that same vein, it's subtly revealed that Squeeze is a guy who more or less goes around to different fledgling companies and goads the workers into strikes and unions. Sure that work has some merit, but he's basically an undercover revolutionary rather than someone organically pushing for change. That topic isn't really addressed again, nor is his hook-up with Detroit (unions and Detroit...a flirtatious yet deceiving and fleeting hook-up without meaningful value - there's the core message of this movie right there), but you know, it had to get in those Horse People.

There's somehow a lot more to this movie than what I've covered here, which I feel is just scraping the surface. I'm prepared right now to name this the best film of 2018 and feel pretty confident that no other movie is going to hit me quite as hard. What do you think? Can you get past the communist leanings? The Horse People? The magical realism? Tessa Thompson's developed but ultimately perspectiveless character? How many Academy Awards will this win? Definitely none? Leave a comment below!

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