No sooner had the Greatest of All Time firmly established his reign as champion than he abandoned the name Cassius, as the world’s most glorious butterfly might have shucked its cocoon. But in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (which is, in part, a tale of metamorphosis), the scuffling and frequently scuffed protagonist clings to his given name of Cassius, often shortening it to Cash, which goes well with the surname Green. Amiable, imaginative, and at first seemingly none too energetic, Cash is all about getting that green, as he has to be, living in a garage in Oakland on which he owes four months’ rent. To make money, he will sell whatever he needs to, including himself. For a considerable stretch, he does well at it, too, though with shameful consequences for his soul—which is the only part of this movie I could have predicted.
How many parts are there? It’s hard to say. Sorry to Bother You bears some resemblance to the car that Cash, in his original state, impels through Oakland on pocket change and willpower: a vehicle banged together from so many spare panels that it’s a five-tone. Working with much the same ingenuity and disdain for elegance that would have ruled in that auto-body shop, Riley has made a fable about union organizing and worker solidarity—astonishing to see such a thing nowadays—and then welded it onto a satire about the ways in which people perform race, a diatribe about contemporary media as a culture of humiliation, a critique of art-world critiques of global capitalism, and a horror movie. How all this fits together, I’m not sure; but I’m content to have muttered “Now what?” during the screening far more often than “That again!,” and I’m delighted to have staggered a little on the way out, having had all that subject matter dumped on me in a little under two hours.
To the extent that Sorry to Bother You holds together, the person doing the binding is Riley’s lead actor, Lakeith Stanfield. Best known for playing the kind, hapless, and obliquely brilliant stoner Darius on Atlanta—and for having shouted the title in Get Out—Stanfield begins the film holding his body like a question mark. The shoulders are hunched within an unfortunate sweater vest (just the thing, Cash apparently thinks, to impress the white people doing the hiring at the RegalView Telemarketing boiler room). The head is thrust forward, with eyes sometimes vaguely downcast, and it’s topped by a possibly inadvertent hairstyle, whose protrusions echo the old ornamental fringe that dangles from the ceiling of his car. Everything about Cash at first seems puzzled, tentative, and dubious; everything overwhelms him. When he takes up the telemarketer’s craft, he feels as if each call brings him crashing down from his workstation to a site he can picture on the other end of the phone, where people are going about their lives with no need of him. Each time, as you laugh, you see the mute apology that Stanfield puts into Cash’s eyes.
Then the old hand at the next workstation (Danny Glover) lets Cash in on the secret of successful telemarketing: Use a white voice. No, not merely nasal, but also unconcerned, unpressured, unrushed—the voice of someone who has never been fired but only laid off. It’s not the way white people actually talk, the mentor explains, but the way they think they ought to sound. Cash tries it (the abruptly high-pitched, singsong tones that emerge from Stanfield’s mouth are voiced by David Cross), and it works too well. It’s not just that Cash begins to rack up sales. It’s that you see him straighten up and start to smile, with pride and pleasure brightening his face for the first time. And worse: Now that he’s using his white voice, Cash no longer feels the slightest empathy for the people he’s got on the line.