The times when people really DON’T want to be bothered is probably exactly when they most need to be bothered. That simple message has to kick off this review of one of the most genuinely intriguing films I have seen in years. In a period when we have a television show host as president most of us are not in the mood for mind-bending spectacles. But that is exactly what Sorry To Bother You is and your mind will be ‘buffering’ long after you leave the theater attempting to download all you’ve seen.
I can only imagine the hell Boots Riley had to walk through or the mountains he had to move to get Sorry To Bother You funded and distributed.
I imagine he felt a lot like Melvin Van Peebles did when he was killing himself (and everybody else) trying to get his ground-breaking movie Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song in front of audiences the year that Mr. Riley was born. If you happen to see Sorry To Bother You (and you damned well better) you will immediately appreciate the miracle it is that Mr. Riley’s directorial debut was in 805 theaters across the country in its first weekend of wide release.
Films that are so deeply political and overtly thick with social commentary just don’t get out to the masses like this. Not these days. Evidently, this film hit a nerve with people – and it certainly didn’t hurt that it blew away the audiences at Sundance in January. The outstanding leads Lakieth Standfiled and Tessa Thompson brought the charisma and chemistry required to pull audiences in and pull off the wild ride.
All that is to say that the box office pace that it is on right now and the word of mouth on this film will make it an important success. Like 2017’s Get Out, the success of this movie will help keep the door propped open for other projects with this kind of unyielding originality and creativity.
On the point of originality, there is no question that Mr. Riley hit up some great films and remixed their themes here. But I advise caution about the use of the popular phrase “mash-up” that has been floated in between the superlatives I’ve read in other reviews. There has to be a better way to describe a movie that boldly puts images on the screen that have NEVER been seen before in mainstream cinema. (TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.)
Because Mr. Riley is a veteran hip-hop artist in the Bay Area he is no stranger to sampling and clearly knows how to do it. So when many viewers thought they were hearing chords from Sally Field’s Oscar-winning turn in Norma Rae, they were really getting the bass line of Richard Pryor’s underrated yet often imitated starring role in Which Way Is Up. Both of those films, released less than two years apart, deal with similar themes revolving around class-conflict and organized labor. The protagonists in both narratives were drawn into the struggle unwittingly but found themselves the central figures in events they could not have imagined when their stories began.
There are also strong thematic connections with Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and of course, Jordan Peele’s 2017 smash hit Get Out. More people will see ‘Sorry To Bother You‘ than saw ‘Bamboozled‘ but if you ever want to see a razor-sharp critique on the plight of black folks competing to succeed in a postmodern economy where race is commoditized as entertainment more than manual labor both films will do you quite well.
I would be remiss not to mention the astonishing creativity on the Sci-Fi front that Mr. Riley brought to this project and the momentum it must have drawn from Get Out. I’m a 47 year old cinephile and I can only name two overtly Sci-Fi driven movies by black directors and these are it. Yes, I am aware that Sophia Stewart (a sister) won her copyright case that proves she wrote The Matrix but she’s not the filmmaker that got the movies made- no disrespect to her. What I appreciated the most about the use of science fiction is that it was as much a plot device as social commentary. I know that the word “genius” gets thrown around a lot but every time I saw “Worry-Free” on the screen, my brain processed “Wi-Fi” and I know that was not an accident.
I don’t know if Boots Riley will ever make another movie. It took him a long time to get this one out here but I’m sure he’d find his pathway a lot clearer next time around. But if he’s not moved to do another one he doesn’t have to. He made much more than a movie in his first at bat. He made a statement and he made his mark. You can decide for yourself exactly what it means to you. I strongly encourage you to do so. Boots kicked ass.