The Leeds International Film Festival, also known as LIFF, opened on the first of November with the surreal yet wickedly funny film Sorry To Bother You. In an alternate reality of present-day Oakland, we follow the life of a black man named Cassius Green who is struggling financially and in life. Cassius soon gets a telemarketing job at Regalview and quickly rises up the ranks due to the ‘white voice’ he uses when calling potential customers. His behaviour begins to alienate the various people in his life that he cares most about in his quest to reach the top and be a “power-caller”. Once there however, Cassius finds himself caught up in questionable morals before a money-hungry and ethically-questionable CEO offers Cassius an opportunity beyond anything he could have imagined.
One incredibly powerful theme of the film is its strong anti-capitalist sentiment. Capitalism is shown to go hand-in-hand with oppression and a complete lack of ethics and morals. While Cassius earns ridiculous sums of money as a power-caller, his friends and previous co-workers prepare to go on strike against the unfair pay they receive from Regalview. As the strike goes on, the brutality from the authorities against the protesters is a jarring reminder of the police brutality seen in our present-day world, especially in America.
Cheap labour is also seen as an outright evil: one of Regalview’s clients, a firm named Worry-Free, promises to give workers free food and housing in return for a manufacturing job. Essentially these people are slaves, living in prison-like conditions doing menial work. Though this is a horrifying thought, it is not altogether alien to our own reality where sweatshops in less economically developed parts of the world are used to mass produce goods for corporations on the high street, and as a result the comparison lingers unpleasantly in the viewers’ mind after the credits roll.
Another theme that emerges later on is the racial dynamic between those who have power, and those who don’t. One of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film occurs at a party thrown by the Worry-Free CEO Steve Lift in which he orders Cassius to rap for entertainment, despite the fact that Cassius repeatedly insists he can’t. After stumbling over a few bars, Cassius erupts into a stream of n-words that his majority white audience gleefully scream back at him. It is a disturbing portrayal of how underdogs who want to be in positions of power can have their own morality corrupted, and the audience feels as broken as Cassius looks after the encounter.
Sorry To Bother You is an excellent debut from Boots Riley. Although there is an unexpected and shocking twist towards the end (which might be too much for some viewers), overall it is a wildly original, powerful, and entertaining film that makes the audience reflect on the more problematic issues facing minorities, people of colour, and lower-income earners in our present-day society. Definitely worth watching if you like a good yet challenging film.