It is not hyperbole to say that you’ve never seen a film quite like Sorry to Bother You. Highly ambitious, effortlessly creative, and coming out of the gate swinging, Boots Riley’s directorial debut is one of the most dazzling first-time films in recent memory and should be the visceral indie of the summer. It does, after all, depict what its director describes as “basic human nature” on a surreal landscape filled with magical realism. Ostensibly about Lakeith Stanfield’s aptly named Cassius (Cash) Green and his movement up the ranks of telemarketing, it is also very clearly about many other types of movements… including Cash questioning whether to sell his soul to Armie Hammer’s white devil in a nice suit—Hammer’s Steve Lift made his fortune pioneering legal indentured servitude—or to use a white, white voice to get ahead.
Soon Cash must decide whether he should keep climbing or join a literal resistance in the movie, personified by an army of former co-workers who now picket his place of business and demand they get a fair wage… or at least not be replaced by corporate greed’s latest scheme.
“Rebellion is a part of our lives, part of everyone’s history,” Riley tells Den of Geek during an interview. “It happens all throughout the day, different struggles happen. And somehow for the past 50 years, it’s been written out of movies for the most part.”
Pointing to a recent specific example in Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s thoughtfully understated drama about a group of orphans learning they’ve been raised since birth as clones intended to feed other humans, Riley is baffled about why so many filmmakers and novelists always choose a sedate vision for oblivion.
Says Riley, “They’re just like, ‘What are we doing in this school? Oh we’re food! Oh that’s sad. Maybe we can fall in love and they won’t eat us? Okay, let’s say we’re in love. Oh, they’re still going to eat us. That’s sad, goodbye.’ Nowhere in there is someone saying, ‘Fuck this, let’s fight!’ Even though that is closer to human nature than anything. But writers, which I’m one of them, have figured out a way in their lives to escape fighting. So they write these worlds where nobody is going to fight and nobody is rebelling… It’s a big part of real-life, and we should think about why people have written this out.”
This sense that Riley would break the rules in his filmmaking and challenge what he suspects other writers are pressured by the industry to ignore is something that attracted all of the actors who worked with him on Sorry to Bother You, up and down the line.
Hammer, who has a small but pivotal role in the film, considers Riley an already major influence on his own goal of one day becoming a director. Watching and reading the Sorry to Bother You mastermind work, Hammer reflects, “Someone who’s been writing scripts their whole life, who knows, ‘Okay this is a formula I have to stick to. And if I want to sell this, I have to do this, and the budget has to be that, and I have all these things I have to think of.’ Boots didn’t think of any of that. He just vomited creativity onto paper, and it ended up being this totally unique thing that I don’t think anyone else could have done.”
This is also what attracted Tessa Thompson to the film. Already a respected actor who’s worked with several arguable auteurs in recent years, including Ryan Coogler and Alex Garland, Thompson says she looks to find fresh voices like Riley before they are labeled as geniuses within the industry.
“I really like working with first-time directors, because I love the idea, as much as possible, to have the opportunity to work with auteurs, and, just frankly, to do that you get them early on in their career before they or anyone else realizes they’re an auteur,” Thompson laughs.
In the film, Thompson plays Cash’s girlfriend and relatively moral angel on his shoulder, but as Thompson is quick to point out, she is still a character with her own pressures and demons to fight. While Thompson’s Detroit is quick to judge Cash for selling out to corporate America, she herself puts on a literal white voice for her anti-corporate performance art—a voice Thompson confirmed to us she asked friend Lily James to do after working with her on Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods. However, the difference between Detroit and Cash is knowing where their individual line is.
As Stanfield surmises, “Sometimes the question we all have to ask ourselves, especially where we’re moving up the ladder of a certain type of job where it can be difficult to discern… ‘Should I have really signed that paper? Should I really have done that thing?’ Where does the morality come into just trying to do what you have to do to survive?”
It is an open question—the need to live versus the need to resist—that is at the heart of Sorry to Bother You, and one that the movie refuses to give an easy answer. Co-star Terry Crews, however, gave us a very elegant and succinct estimation of where the line in the sand might be.
“Are you buying in and are you selling out, or are you sacrificing and sharing?” Crews asks.
Sorry to Bother You raises other questions too when it opens on July 6.