Welcome one and all to Flixist’s new end of the year awards program, the Golden Cages! With Hollywood becoming increasingly out of touch with what the people like, we at Flixist have taken it upon ourselves to deliver the fair, balanced, dignity-filled awards you deserve. Why are we delivering our 2018 awards so late in the year? Because the Oscars do it and we’re better than them. The winners of the Golden Cages will be spread out over the next two weeks, right before the hostless Academy Awards.
One of the most shrewd and intelligent films of 2018, I only wish Sorry To Bother You had stuck around for longer in the UK. Fearing it wouldn’t get a full international release after it was announced and met with critical acclaim in the US in the summer and a select screening at London Film Festival in October, I was delighted it made it to theaters at all. Going in unprepared may be advisable because the full force of the plot and its absurd ramifications will hit home even more.
Perhaps the best things about satire is its ability to scrutinise an aspect of modern society and exaggerate its proportions. The ideologies underpinning everything we do in the West are made out to be so bizarre here that it causes you to question everything you surround yourself with. Why is it that we are forced into selling our souls for meaningless work and the exploitation of others? Why is it that this work isn’t even paying enough to cover rent, and why are workers so afraid to speak out against this? (See: every zero-hour-contractor and the majority of grads in the US and UK.) Further, why is it that we have become so desensitised to the utter chaos perpetuated by the media, instead fixating on inane memes and viral videos when the next channel over shows unspeakably violent riots? Why do we watch programmes like ‘I Got The $@*! Kicked Out Of Me!’, other than reasons of pure Schadenfreude? It’s lunacy, but it’s happening! Boots Riley has exactly pinpointed the millennial malaise, and I believe everyone should see his work, if they can. It is a piercing, gut-punch of a film looking at the world we live in, and, scarily, even the exaggerations don’t stray too far from the truth.
Sorry to Bother You is set in an alternate, modern-day Oakland. Played by the unassuming but powerful Lakeith Stanfield, Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (capitalism, geddit?) is an ordinary man in need of a job, and so subjects himself to the soul-crushing drudgery of exploitative telesales. But hang on! In the middle of a call, suddenly he’s right there in someone’s living room, another’s kitchen, talking to them face to face and jolted back into his office when they hang up. Yes — Riley has crossed into the realm of the absurd, physically translating characters through time and space in order to build worlds around them and distort usual patterns of perception. In satiric fashion, Cash makes ludicrously heartless cold calls in the same of sales. Yet in the real world, that’s just how we get by: there are no qualms in calling up a woman whose husband had just died of cancer to try to get a sale out of her.
Once Cash has been going at this a little while, his superiors spot potential. The most darkly comic part of the whole affair is an older worker’s advice: ‘Use your white voice. It’s in you. The voice that means you don’t have a care in the world and all your bills are paid, and you’re just about to jump into your Ferrari when you end the call.’ It’s a no-holds-barred examination of white privilege and class, all bundled up into Boots Riley’s version of This is America, which I think Childish Gambino would be proud of. As if this doesn’t prove to reiterate the point enough, in an outlandish artistic decision, Cassius adopts a white voice (superbly provided by the unmistakable David Cross, perhaps most recognizable from his Arrested Development days), and this ultimately gets him to suppress who he is and embrace the world of white domination. Many critics have rejected the ‘superficial’ comparison to Spike Lee’s peerless BlacKkKlansman earlier this year, but Sorry To Bother You has some important parallels: namely, directors who aren’t afraid to tackle pervasive, ugly issues of racism and class and broadcast them on the big screen.
The trajectory that Cassius’ character follows is not dissimilar to what many a worker may have to face at some point in their lives: a compromising decision has to be made, and he abandons his friends and co-workers in a bid to become successful and pay off a few debts. Predictably, his career arc is the result of greed, penetrating a deep hierarchy with a less than benevolent leader (Armie Hammer), drunk on his own power and influence. Is he a stand-in for the senseless world leaders we have ruling over us, making decisions based on power highs and taking no regard for the working classes? He’s a truly evil overlord without even a smidgen of conscience and the results are terrifying.
Naturally, these instances spiral out of control. What had become a simple step forward in his career progression causes a rift between Cash and his wild, artistic fiancée Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and his zealous, revolutionary friends Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun). These three were absolutely brilliant and were well-matched to spar with Cash’s existential struggles. I love that the film begins with him questioning the Sun, the end of humanity and posterity – that’s all of us, right? Tessa Thompson is her own majestic force throughout, too. She is completely on her own radar, living life by her rules and wearing hilariously outsized earrings of her own design in order to make a political point in the everyday. Likewise, when Cash comes up against Salvador and the two lock horns, their unbearably strained pleasantries towards each other (‘Have a good’ day’ / ‘Have a great week’ / ‘Oh, a good week? I wish you a very happy month, friend, with every success’) just points to the saccharine treatment of enemies in the corporate world, all for the sake of saving face.
I spoke to an older couple on my way out of the screening – the only ones remaining, after a group of others had walked out of the screening midway through. Maybe they’d not taken a liking to the sheer wackiness of the plot, or perhaps it was the racist language that put them off. We talked about how the actors weren’t given access to the script beforehand and how this was such an integral part of the film. It makes the interactions between characters so much more reactionary — as if they’re just as dumbfounded as we are — and certainly shows that Riley wanted the shock factor to be evident. He would stop at nothing to make sure his message was well and truly received, both at the point of production and distribution, which is why it’s such a shame that so few of us were remaining at the end. I hope our experience wasn’t a mirroring of its reception in theaters across the country, but even if that was the case, I’m glad I got to see it and will gladly preach about how important its messages are.
As many reviews have pointed out, this isn’t your typical plot line; it really has to be seen to be believed. I wouldn’t describe it as weird, because it never occurred to me throughout that that was a word to describe it. Outlandish, maybe, and unusual – but more than that, bold. Dramatic. Laughable – ludicrous. I loved it because so many people can’t stand the system, the film can’t stand the system, and I feel like we’re on the same page here. Sorry To Bother You was out for a somewhat limited UK release, which I felt demanded all the time and attention it could get while it was around. It also made it extra surreal that the cashier at my screening mistook Sorry To Bother You as a pleasantry rather than a request for the ticket – showing how pervasive the culture of passivity really is, and how important it is to think about the whys behind our everyday actions.