Critic’s Notebook: In 'Sorry to Bother You,' Boots Riley Makes Much-Needed Room for Black Weirdness

The new comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson is the rare film to feature deeply eccentric black characters who transcend the usual angry/noble dichotomy.

In the buzzy, Sundance-feted comedy Sorry to Bother You, in theaters July 6, writer-director newcomer Boots Riley lets his black working-class freak flag fly — and he is mostly unconcerned with whether or not you’re following his trippy parade.

Saturated with ideas, Riley’s feature debut is bursting at the seams; it’s too much, and he wants it that way. That’s why the film holds your attention: You can’t quite wrestle its chaotic rhythms into something palatable, or something you’ve seen before.

That unapologetic weirdness feels like relatively new territory in black film. We’re in an era in Hollywood where more black storytellers than ever are creating work featuring black protagonists who lead lives that don’t revolve around white saviors or the woes of blackness per se; Dee Rees’ Pariah, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and Barry Jenkins’ 2017 Oscar winner Moonlight are three semi-recent examples that spring to mind.

Riley's movie takes that departure from what we've come to accept as the big-screen black norm a few steps further. Indeed what Sorry to Bother You lacks in story structure, it tries to atone for by delivering a decidedly unbothered celebration of black weirdness, injecting a new archetype into the black film canon — one that unapologetically says, "Black people can be weird, too." Riley has cited Terry Gilliam’s cult classic Brazil as an influence, but some of the great black satirical films, like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, laid cinematic groundwork that allowed Riley to catapult his film beyond satire into full-blown absurdism.

Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man behind on his rent who finds fast success in a telemarketing job by learning to use his "white" voice with customers. This propels him into a new world of corporate hyper-exploitation as a "power caller," and eventually forces him to grapple with a sickening trade secret that he accidentally discovers. Stanfield depicts an edgy black male protagonist who is neither irrationally angry nor Uncle Tom-compliant. Cassius lives in his head and in the world. His interior life is a double helix of the absurd and the basic. He is awkward and nerdy, yet never loses sight of the fact that the world sees black men, including eccentric ones like him, as a threat or a thing to possess.

Stanfield plays a different version of this character on Donald Glover’s award-winning FX comedy series Atlanta. His Darius is streetwise but innocent and always in his own little world, even as he hustles for success alongside Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi and Glover's Earn. (Issa Rae’s web-series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which eventually led to her HBO comedy Insecure, similarly pioneered a different kind of black woman onscreen — one who wasn’t particularly worried about being strong or perfect, and instead embraced her quirkiness.) 

Until recently, though, black men in film tended to be either bitter and militant or respectable and striving, but rarely authentically odd or unconventional. In one of the first quintessentially #AwkwardBlackBoy exchanges I’ve seen depicted on the big screen, Cassius and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) have what Riley described in a recent talk as a "compliment argument." Newly promoted Cassius crosses the picket line as a scab while Salvador holds the line with the other striking entry-level workers. The two jab and joust at each other, but flip what could’ve otherwise been a typical "yo mama" showdown on its head: “You have a good day,” Cassius says, to which Salvador retorts, “You have a better week!” And so on. It’s a politely implosive and funny scene that is perfectly illustrative of Riley’s "black weirdness" aesthetic.

So, too, is the character of Cassius’ artist and activist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Her most revealing moment shows gallery-goers throwing cell phones and balloons with sheep’s blood at her head in symbolic protest. It’s an experimental performance art piece about the horrors of cell phone manufacturing and a message about the tech-obsessed age we live in. The scene suggests that while Cassius is important to Detroit, her life doesn’t revolve around him. I kept waiting for Detroit to recede into the background or into sidekick status, as is too often the case with female leads onscreen, but Riley makes a point to imbue her with her own agency, her own distinct, non-traditional voice and interests.

Ever the risk-taker, Riley leads us on a weird, wild ride and hopes the novelty factor justifies the moments where the ideas become more important than the story. It doesn’t always add up. The most apparent example is when Cassius accidentally stumbles into an unlocked room and conveniently finds the big trade secret that coke-snorting CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) wants to keep quiet. In a world where the special elevator Cassius uses is secured by a code made up of no less than two-dozen numbers, it’s hard to believe that the boss would leave his capitalist kryptonite unprotected. Riley seems to think that story logic and originality are mutually exclusive.

That doesn't have to be the case. Take Afro-Latina writer-director Janicza Bravo’s 2017 debut feature Lemon, starring Bret Gelman and Nia Long. Lemon is also offbeat and low-budget, following an awkward white male protagonist on an uncomfortable descent into man-baby darkness. Whether you love it or hate it, the narrative bones of the film are sturdy, and Bravo is clearly in pursuit of a question: "Why do we make excuses for white men when their destructive tendencies endanger the lives of the women around them?" 

In Sorry to Bother You, on the other hand, it’s hard to point to a singular question that Riley is posing. Since he's already received nearly enough Hollywood zeitgeist head nods to be compared to 2017’s breakout film Get Out, with Riley we’re expected to interpret the film’s big swings as brilliance instead of a rookie filmmaker’s trial and error — while similar efforts in Lemon failed to attract the same kind of respect or eyeballs.

What’s heartening is that the collective anticipation around the release of Sorry to Bother You triumphantly signals that the truism "black people are not a monolith" has indeed broken through to Hollywood gatekeepers — and, more importantly, to film audiences. That is worthy of celebration. It also underscores that the truly original stories — the ones we haven’t heard before, the ones Hollywood claims to be always in search of — are indeed out there if only we are willing to give new voices like Riley’s a chance.