John Morrish

Sorry To Bother You, one of the surprise hits of 2018, is a strange film by any standards, but then it had a very odd genesis.

The film is a powerful, funny, unorthodox satire by Raymond Riley, born 1971, better known as the rapper Boots Riley. Riley is a highly political artist: his parents were social rights activists in Chicago and he has been associated with left-wing groups since he was 14.

Sorry To Bother You starts as a somewhat heightened account of life in a call-centre, and then moves rapidly on. It tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), known to all as “Cash”, who discovers he can achieve excellent results by adopting a “white voice”. This simple, if somewhat demeaning technique sets him apart from his colleagues and before long he is elevated to the aristocracy of the company, where he learns more about its sinister activities and methods, becoming a kind of confidant of his evil (white) boss. To say more would be to ruin the surprise that drives the second half of the film, and which has divided its fervent admirers from more sceptical viewers. What is worth saying is that wild, sci-fi imaginings have been part of the satirical genre since Jonathan Swift.

The early, more realistic part of the film owes a lot to Riley’s own experiences in telemarketing, which he took on to support himself while making a music career. He founded his group, The Coup, in 1991 with a fellow worker from the United Parcel Service. He created the group’s explicitly political lyrics and produced its records. In 2001, the group’s fourth album, Party Music, plunged it into a ferocious controversy. Its original cover showed the New York Twin Towers exploding and Boots pressing a button on a guitar tuner. The picture was taken in May. In September, the towers were destroyed by terrorists. In the aftermath, Boots put out a press release calling the attack “symptomatic of a larger backlash against US corporate imperialism”. This made him a bugbear of right-wing commentators but did him no harm among his own audience.

In 2012, he wrote the screenplay for Sorry to Bother You but had no path towards producing it. Instead, he created an album of the same name for The Coup, using some of the same characters and plot material. Then, in 2014, the screenplay was published in the literary magazine McSweeney’s. It drew on his experiences – the “white voice” thing was real – as well as a panoply of literary reference points: he is a big fan of magical realism. As a result of that publication, finance was pulled together and in June 2017 production went forward. Lakeith Stanfield, also a rapper as well as an actor, was hired to play Cash, with the more experienced Tessa Thompson playing his girlfriend Detroit.

Shooting started in Oakland, California, in June 2017. Shortly afterwards, the veteran Danny Glover joined the cast in the key role of the co-worker who encourages Cash to adopt the “white voice”. The identity of his white voice was unknown for a while. Gossip suggested it was Steve Buscemi, but Riley eventually revealed it was the film’s sound engineer.

The shoot finished after only 28 days and the film was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018. Immediately afterwards, it found distributors and funding for some reshoots and an extra scene. It received a full US release in July 2018. International distribution was slow to arrive, but the film was premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2018 and went into cinemas in December. It received a mixed response, generally enthusiastic from critics, although some wanted to make allowances on the grounds that it was a first feature. Exhibitors found that it did surprisingly well, considering its challenging material, especially with black and minority audiences. By early 2019, it had taken $18.3m worldwide; not bad for a film with a production budget of $3.2m.

Riley now faces the “difficult second album” problem, having produced a first feature that astonished people by its inventiveness, verve and capacity to astonish.