My thoughts on the new film Sorry to Bother You will feel like they are an addendum to my review of The Spy Who Dumped Me. Just as I was disappointed in that film but was pleased at the fact that more films written, directed and starring women are being made, I feel the same way about films by black artists. The prevailing notion for films made by women and/or by minorities is that they have to be really good because there are so few of them. White men have been making movies for decades and when a film directed by a white man fails or gets terrible reviews, they don’t suddenly say “well, see, this is why white men just shouldn’t make movies.” However, there is the fear that could happen for black or women filmmakers. We need to get to the same place where minority filmmakers can fail just as often as their white male counterparts and still have the chance to try again. With white male filmmakers, the opportunity to make a first film is called “let’s see your potential.” With minority filmmakers, it’s called “your one chance to impress us.”
Boots Riley, the writer/director of Sorry to Bother You, is making his debut with the film. And I think it’s a wickedly off-course failure of a movie. HOWEVER, this is a filmmaker I most definitely want to see more of. There are so many original ideas, masterful filmmaking elements and clever moments that make Sorry to Bother You a true announcement of a major talent who just needs to find the right project. Many reviewers disagree with me and think Sorry to Bother You is a genius piece of filmmaking, so, thankfully, Riley won’t end up on the trash heap of cinematic history, one and done. But the point I’m trying to make here is that if everyone else agreed with me, if everyone agreed that Sorry to Bother You is an unfocused mess that only shows glimmers of genius, my great fear is that Riley would never have a second chance to prove what he can do. But if he were a white male, especially one who came up through the Hollywood system, he would be given not just one more chance, but most likely many chances. It’s an unfair system that needs to be called out.
That being said, I personally must critique Sorry to Bother You in a vacuum. I can’t pay attention to the fact that it’s a black filmmaker and I can’t pay attention to the fact that the reviews for this film are almost universally positive (94% on Rotten Tomatoes). For me, the film is truly a mishmash of ideas that never come to gel in an entertaining or even sensical way. Riley is crafting a film that is part satire, part fantasy, part science fiction, part horror and part wacky comedy. And it’s all trying to be socio/political commentary, which ends up making the movie just too much.
LaKeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a desperate man in an alternate reality Oakland who needs work. He gets a job as a telemarketer and a co-worker, played by Danny Glover, convinces him to use his “white voice” to make more sales. It’s this social commentary that sells the movie (see the trailer), but it turns out this comic element is a small fraction of this movie’s larger agenda. Riley sends Cassius on a Quixotic journey through corporate America that, at times, feels greatly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and, at other times, feels a bit like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Sadly, in the end, Sorry to Bother You ends up reminding you of all the great films that seemingly inspired it but doesn’t deliver anything of substance itself. It’s overly ambitious and ends up way, way out there—far beyond where I was willing to go with it.
But, I do have to say that, even though I didn’t like Sorry to Bother You at all, I am really looking forward to what Boots Riley does next. He’s got a real visual skill and has all the makings of a legit auteur. Every frame is crafted brilliantly, his use of editing and composition are masterful and his use of music is powerful, which is no surprise, considering he is a composer. The failure here, for me, is in the script and the too-large a bite he takes as a writer. If he can focus a bit more and craft a story that is a bit more grounded but keep spreading his artistic wings as a visual artist, I think—and hope—that Boots Riley will be around for a long time. Let’s hope he continues to have the chance to show us what he’s capable of.