‘Sorry To Bother You’ Reflects Our Own Dark Reality
July 6, 2018
By Myles E. Johnson for AFROPUNK
Sorry To Bother You is absurd.
In one of the opening scenes of this surrealist sci-fi film, Cassius Green played by Lakeith Stanfield finds himself talking to his girlfriend Detroit played by Tessa Thompson. He is having an existential crisis, one that many people experience. Why does the universe exist? Is there any inherent meaning in life? And where does my life fit inside this struggle between meaning and nihilism? The absurdity is born in Cassius’ struggle to swim through this crisis and land on something that finds him at both spiritual and intellectual peace.
Cassius begins working at a telemarketing company where a more experienced colleague played by Danny Glover gives him advice on how to excel at his new job: “Use your white voice.” This opens up the room for the surreal and absurd world that rapper-turned-director, Boots Riley, wants us to believe in.
Riley uses cinematography to soften the viewers expectations of realism. The scenes of Cassius Green making phone calls are illustrated by him actually — desk and all — dropping into people’s homes while mourning, defecating, and fucking. This humorous and poetic way of showing the intrusive nature of his profession let’s us know that we are in a fantasy. The discourse is pure poetry. In the aforementioned bedroom scene, Cassius and Detroit talk about the sun exploding and the dialogue is riveting, like a well-written novel. The darkly comedic moments are there to show us that we are not to regard anything too seriously. Riley masterfully allows the viewer to let their guard down, so the critical shots he does fire hit flesh.
In Riley’s absurd world, he weaponizes reality to critique. The ideas Riley presents to us via satire are uncomfortable because they are not far enough from our own reality, absolutely letting us melt into laughter. Riley’s critique of monopolies like Amazon and Apple feels all too familiar. His idea (or prediction) of what the prison industrial system may morph into doesn’t fully feel fantastical — in fact, at moments, it feels probable. This is why the universe of Sorry To Bother You can’t be labeled as ridiculous — its most ridiculous moments can be construed as maps of what America could look like in the not too distant cultural and political future, if nothing changes.
When we meditate on the life and death of Kalief Browder — why he was imprisoned, why he died — it is tragic and ridiculous. When we think about how American celebrity power easily translates into political access, it is frightening and ridiculous. The amount of violent deaths the average American child will witness through television and/or the internet by the time they are 18, is telling and ridiculous. When we reflect on Black culture and whiteness’ willingness to absorb Black folks’ creative survival mechanisms for their own fodder, it is irritating and it is ridiculous.
Sorry To Bother You dares to create a world more ridiculous than our current reality, but it fails to leave the viewer comfortable enough to think our world is better off than the one on the screen. The gap between Riley’s fantasy and our everyday lives is not wide enough.
The disturbing and brilliant element of Sorry To Bother You is not just how absurd the film is, but how close the absurdity flirts with our current accepted reality.
Myles E. Johnson is a cultural critic living in Brooklyn, New York.