Dear Fellow Critics,
As an old cynic, there isn’t much that can surprise me. But the last few years have felt like we’re playing a collective game of global Mad Libs. Let’s try it! (Person) went to (place) with a (thing) and said (quote).
Elon Musk went to Thailand with a child-sized submarine and said “one of the rescuers _is a__ pedophile.”_
Melania Trumpwent to a hurricane-ravaged community with a designer jacket that said “I really don’t care do you?”
Accused sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaughwent toa supreme court confirmation hearingwith an inflated sense of self-righteous entitlement and said “I like beer.”
Life is getting so weird that the only place I feel safe is at the movies. Watching movies is the only place I want to be surprised. And 2018 was a year that delivered many cinematic surprises: Black Panther, Hereditary, The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, If Beale Street Could Talk, Roma, Shoplifters, At Eternity’s Gate, The Favourite, Eighth Grade, and BlacKKKlansman among them.
But then there isSorry to Bother You, an absurdist social-commentary magical-realist stoner comedy, so wholly original and yet rooted in a frightening meta-reality with an over-the-top premise and slap-dash aesthetic. It feels like what would happen if the year 2018 became sentient and started walking among us.
How does a film tackle racial politics, the growing divide between the ultra-rich and everyone else, 21stcentury gender dynamics, pop-culture, genetic engineering, and existential angst - all without devolving into a messy polemic, or worse, a watered down, focus-grouped, high-concept studio film? The answer is Boots Riley. A 47-year-old hip-hop musician and community activist, Riley worked in the Hollywood periphery, producing soundtracks for films like Superbad and Losers, and working as a telemarketer between gigs where he conceived the rough plot of Sorry to Bother You. A chance meeting with author Dave Eggers inspired Riley to adapt the script into a short story which was featured in McSweeney’s in 2014. The next year he went to Sundance and pitched a fake film about Sidney Poitier as a serial killer. Once he had people’s attention, he told them he had another script called Sorry to Bother You. That got him invited to the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, and then the next year to the Director’s Lab. Then came the buzz, and the investors. The rest is history.
This is not how films are typically made. Kids, the hustle is real. And it is this outsider’s perspective that gives Sorry to Bother You its heart. Despite the Musks, Melanias, and Kavanaughs, it is always the people on the margins who drive change, often as a direct response to the fuckery conducted by the rich and powerful. If Sorry to Bother You was just a rebuke of capitalism, pop-culture, and racial progress, it would have crumbled under the weight of earnest self-importance. But Riley gave us characters to relate to and root for, and a society so eerily similar to our own that to ignore his voice is to do so at our own peril. All that, and it’s gut-bustingly, head-shakingly hilarious. It is what so few films are, which is why its circuitous provenance is so improbable and remarkable. Sorry to Bother You shouldn’t have been made. This isn’t a film “they” want us to see. It is protest as art.
Like the most unforgettable art, it is unpolished and raw, with visual effects recalling Michel Gondry, droll dialogue that would feel at home in a Coen Brothers movie, and an alt-universe sci-fi sensibility reminiscent of Repo Man. The satirical parallels to our current society make me wonder; if Riley had had to wait another few years to get this film made, how much of his script would have been less “alt” and more “reality”? His mock reality TV show called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me” doesn’t seem so strange when the Netflix Fyre Festival doc introduced us to a man who was ready to suck dick for a trailer of Evian water and now has a deal for his own show. The idea of adopting a ”white voice” as a key to success and respect isn’t so absurd when just last week, not one, but two blackface scandals broke out and a well-liked actor admitted to once stalking black men for revenge. The evil corporation Riley created called ”Worry Free” is a modern-day slave operation, where employees live, work, and eat together under the illusion that life is easier without having to pay bills for rent, food, or lodging. In 2018, Amazon workers walked out on Prime Day, to protest unjust working conditions and long hours which found employees peeing in bottles rather than take bathroom breaks. If in a couple of years we discover that Jeff Bezos is genetically engineering half-horse/half-human “equisapiens” to work tirelessly in his warehouses, will any of us really be surprised? And if we are, how long will our outrage last? According to Riley, not long.
If none of this is enough to convince you that Sorry to Bother You was the best film of 2018, I have two words for you; Tessa Thompson. Thompson has spared no time becoming one of the most compelling and accomplished actors of her generation, and though her role of Detroit in Sorry to Bother You is a supporting one, she owns every frame. Detroit is the antithesis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She has agency, opinions, and a venue to express herself. When she piggy-backs Lakeith Stanfield’s character to a protest it isn’t to be quirky, it is an expression of their equitable partnership. Not many actresses can deliver the line, “don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I want” without sounding like a cutesy rom-com character. But Thompson is a force. Come for her MURDER/KILL earrings and “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE EJACULATION” t-shirt, and stay for her performance art involving sheep’s blood, bullet casings, old cell phones, and dialogue from the Last Dragon.
Unlike the other films my DC&C colleagues are championing as the best of 2018, Sorry to Bother You is not nominated for a single Academy Award. This doesn’t mean it isn’t as good or worthy (because, by definition, it has, without a doubt, the Best Original Screenplay). It means Boots Riley had no desire to campaign for nomination consideration. He didn’t send out screeners. He didn’t throw lavish parties for Academy voters. He refused to follow the advice of his telemarketing manager character who constantly reminds his employees to “Stick To The Script”. A Hollywood script that dictates filmmakers prostrate themselves and their film to the industry ass-licking machine. If anything, this stance made me like the film even more.
Sorry to Bother You was a cult film the minute it debuted on its first screen. It doesn’t need time or reconsideration by newer audiences to reach exalted film status. It is a one of a kind masterpiece that we will still be talking about in twenty plus years. And with a bonkers, banana-pants year like 2018, it is one of the few things I look forward to remembering.