Boots Riley has never been the type of artist to color within the lines. To the co-founder of politically minded rap groups like The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, lines and barriers might as well be transparent. Riley and his cohorts bent rap, funk, soul, and punk into jagged edges that they’ve been using to dissect capitalism and the human condition in ways that are just now coming back into vogue, seasoned veterans of un-subtlety. He brought that raw and righteous energy to his screenplay for Sorry To Bother You, originally finished in 2012 but without the money to film it, he used it as fuel for The Coup’s 2012 album of the same name. Eventually, Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions fronted the cash and brought Riley’s demented vision to life.
*SPOILERS FOR SORRY TO BOTHER YOU AHEAD*
Set in a dystopian version of Oakland, CA, Sorry To Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an Oakland resident living in his uncle’s garage who becomes a telemarketer at a company called RegalView. He taps into his “white voice” (overdub of actor David Cross) at the suggestion of co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to help him make sales, which boosts him up the corporate ladder just as his radical artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and fellow telemarketer Squeeze (Steve Yeun) are beginning to form a union to demand higher pay. It’s a movie that plays fast and loose with genres and even different styles of film making, bouncing from the broad satire of a game show called “I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me” one minute to heavy-handed indictments of war profiteering and new-era slavery the next (the evil corporation WorryFree lets people live and eat in their factories in exchange for a lifetime’s worth or work - sound familiar?) and making a third-act pit stop into full-on sci-fi weirdness.
Genre-bending films like Sorry To Bother You with predominantly Black casts and writer/directors don’t come around very often, so of course clueless critics are ready to compare it to the closest common denominator: last year’s Get Out. The Guardian published a piece called “Sorry To Bother You: Is Boots Riley’s new film this year’s Get Out?” this past weekend, calling the film a “post-Get Out experience” because of their shared elements. While both Riley and Get Out’s Jordan Peele are both Black first-time writer/directors working with sci-fi and horror, the comparison is low-hanging fruit, especially when they’re both clearly working from a different set of influences. Get Out is steeped in the horrors of “othering” by boldly confronting white liberals who “would’ve voted for Obama for a third term” with a plot involving literal Black body-snatching. Sorry To Bother You treats the “white voice” like an eerie superpower instead of just a code-switching tool, one that literally and figuratively alienates Cassius from his friends and earns him a spot among the “power callers” of a company selling war and destruction to the highest bidder; more of a reflection of our present than we might want to admit. With all due respect to Peele, Sorry To Bother You is working at a more ambitious level, especially considering that it manages to fit flights of magical realism into a film with a budget a million dollars smaller than Get Out’s.
Both films are very Black on their own terms and deserve to be dissected as part of their respective genre’s rich histories, not just in direct relation to each other. Here are five films that more than likely played a huge role in inspiring this demented trip to Oakland.
The Brother From Another Planet
Displacement isn’t an easy thing to deal with. The Brother From Another Planet takes that idea one step further by centering its story around the titular Brother (Joe Morton in one of his first roles), a mute alien whose spaceship crash lands in 1970s Harlem. Other than having three toes instead of five, he doesn’t look different from anyone else in the neighborhood; just another brother trying to blend in. He spends the film stumbling through bars, houses, and arcades fixing just about anything with his magic touch while avoiding U.S. and... otherworldly immigration officers.
Watching Brother make his way through a land where he can’t even speak the language is the first parallel I saw between he and Cassius. Even before he takes his job with RegalView, Cash is already told he talks with a white voice by his best friend, an isolation that grabs hold even further when he starts to make his way to power caller status. Both films also work with sci-fi elements on relatively shoestring budgets; Sorry cost around $3.2 million to make while director John Sayles used his McArthur Fellows genius grant to fund most of the $350K for Brother’s budget. Both look at how two sides of the world — Harlem and Oakland — have respectively become strange and overwhelming by outside forces like gentrification and racism, using science fiction to highlight our present instead of letting us off easy with a distant future. Both films can also feel more like a series of connected vignettes on occasion for the sake of an overstuffed viewing experience, but there’s a reason that stuff like this is called experimental.
What’s scarier to corporate America than having to hire a Black person? Having to work under a Black person, at least that’s how Putney Swope might’ve seen it. The 1969 satire is a bombshell of a movie that catapulted both actor Arnold Johnson and writer-director Robert Downey Sr. to the forefront of American independent cinema, and they all managed to do it with a little soul. Johnson stars as Swope, the only Black executive at an ad agency who is suddenly voted chairman after the original chairman dies. What’s the first thing Swope does with his new power? He fires all but one of the white employees, renames the company Truth & Soul Inc., and cuts ties with anyone shilling alcohol, tobacco, or guns. Oh, and he orders satirical commercials that win over their audience and turn them against buying anything at all. These commercials — ranging from horny teenagers selling pimple cream to a man responding to nutritional facts on a cereal box with “no shit!” — are some of the film’s highlights, playing into society’s perceptions of Blackness, especially how it’s sold back to us.
Both Putney Swope and Sorry To Bother You have corporate America’s relationship to Blackness on their minds, but Boots goes further than Downey Sr. ever dared. Instead of selling Blackness, characters like Cash, Langston, and the ominous power caller Mr. ___ (Omari Hardwick with the dubbed voice of Patton Oswalt) completely suppress their Blackness, selling the illusion of “a white man without a care in the world” to the point where you don’t even know Hardwick’s character’s real name; even the radical Detroit dons a British white voice during her art show, just another layer of performance to make the idea of throwing iPhone batteries and sheep’s blood water balloons seem that much more authentic. Swope and his team try to dismantle the system from the inside, a lesson that Cash learns the hard way when billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) attempts to convince him to infiltrate the newly liberated equisapiens as their Martin Luther King Jr. figurehead. Overdubbing the white voices in Sorry is another idea that owes a debt to Putney Swope. Johnson allegedly had so much trouble remembering his lines that Downey Sr. dubbed over him with his own voice; the main difference being that while Downey Sr. worked to make his voice sound natural, Riley wanted every white voice to sound eerie and unnatural coming out of every person who used them and challenges our complacency at every turn. Even funny commercials can’t do that all the time.
A dollar and a dream will get you far as you’re willing to spend it in Hollywood. Just ask Robert Townsend, an actor constantly turned away from film roles for not being Black enough who eventually wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his own movie about said struggles and fighting against what he perceived to be negative Black stereotypes in Hollywood. 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle was the semi-autobiographical story of Bobby Taylor, an actor hesitant to sell out by taking on a role in the movie Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge that he found demeaning. Like a lot of the other films on this list, Shuffle is chopped into vignettes that jump between points; a fake ad for a “Black acting school” run by white professors selling their idea of Blackness to students and a dream sequence where Taylor is asked to impersonate Eddie Murphy before slowly turning into Eddie Murphy help to drive the point home. It was a bold and provocative movie for the time, helped even more by the fact that Townsend funded $60K of the movie’s $100K budget with his own credit cards.
On top of the vignettes and Black independent spirit of both films, Hollywood Shuffle and Sorry To Bother You both have a similar ending. Just as he’s about to begin shooting Jivetime Jimmy, Taylor quits with his family on set, unwilling to betray his standards. The film ends with him shooting a commercial for the US Postal Service with an unsubtle closer: “If you can’t take pride in your job, remember there’s always work at the post office.” It’s a confusing holier-than-thou turn that’s almost reflected in Sorry’s ending where Cash is set to work his way up through RegalView with the rest of his coworkers, confiding with Squeeze that the fight for equality has to start somewhere. Both films’ senses of humor are about as subtle as their messages, which gives each their righteous energy and helps Riley overcome the pretension that Townsend’s messages sometimes fall prey to.
“Weird Al” Yankovic is an artist who traffics in the silly. His parody songs are the reason that anyone even knows what parody songs are in the year 2018, and his big screen debut is just as out there. UHF was an idea that Yankovic co-write with his manager, Jay Levey, who also directed, revolving around George Newman (Yankovic) being handed the keys to Channel 62, a failing TV channel owned by his uncle. He cracks the code to more viewers by treating it like public access TV with ridiculous shows like Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse. The film is driven by parodies of movies and TV that air throughout like “Conan The Librarian” and “Ghandi II.”
It might not seem like Sorry To Bother You has much of anything in common with such a good-natured and silly movie like UHF, but there’s still a connection buried in there. Riley uses television in Sorry to hold a mirror to society’s fascinations with pain and punishment; the game show “I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me” features people literally being beat up on camera and even being forced into a “shit tank” for the audience’s enjoyment, crude reflections of shows like Kevin Hart’s recent TKO: Total Knockout and American Ninja Warrior. Some of the commercials for WorryFree feature their “workers” giving tours of their shacks a la MTV Cribs. Riley’s use of TV may be more pointed but it’s no less silly and hilarious than watching Yankovic run around in a rubber Rambo suit.
The Toxic Avenger
I can guarantee you that there aren’t any superheroes in the world like The Toxic Avenger. Melvin Ferd is a nerdy janitor who works at a gym in the fictional Tromaville, New Jersey. He’s constantly bullied by four of the gym’s members, a gang of racist psychopaths who murder people of color on the street for kicks. One of their pranks leads to him falling into a vat of toxic waste that hideously deforms him but also grants him superhuman strength and the ability to “sense” evil. He uses his newfound powers to fight back against his tormentors and eventually the corrupt government of Tromaville, staffed with literal Nazis and greedy business owners. It’s a gory exploitation film with heart, humor, and righteous political anger that helped put landmark independent movie house Troma Pictures on the map with a splatter of fun.
Almost immediately on the surface, it’s easy to see similarities between Toxic Avenger and Sorry To Bother You. Both are low-budget independent movies mad at the power structure and hell-bent on shocking you into submission with jokes, violence, and special effects. They both run on a raw punk energy that hits you from all angles, but both films end on notes of protest and uprising that somehow feel earned on top of all the mayhem. Toxie leads a citizen’s uprising against the corrupt government, ending with a shot of him screaming at the Statue of Liberty from Tromaville’s blighted toxic shores. While Cash prepares to “fight” another day at his day job, he begins turning into an equisapien himself, eventually becoming the leader he was engineered to be, only hellbent on bashing Lift’s face in with his new friends instead of being a fake messiah figure. No matter how big your budget is, that dedication can’t be faked.
Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures