Inimitable artist and Dallasite Erykah Badu invited musician and longtime friend Boots Riley to advance his debut film Sorry To Bother You before a packed theater at the Angelika Friday. The story begins in Oakland, where protagonist Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, (Get Out, Atlanta) is after one thing: money. After taking a job as a telemarketer, he quickly realizes it will not be enough to sustain him and his art-ivist fiancé Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson. A work colleague, Langston (Danny Glover), sizes him up. If he wants to make more sales, he tells Cassius, he’s going to have to relate better to the customer. Cassius heeds his advice, and turns up his code-switching technique to the max, much to the chagrin of his fiancé. Cassius soon realizes that making more money comes at an even higher price than he could have ever imagined, when his boss Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is accused of selling slave labor to major corporations.
After the lights went up, Riley and Badu took their seats for a Q&A with actor Omari Hardwicke, who plays the dubious Mr. Blank, at the front of the audience. There was a moment of silence while Badu held the mic. Even she seemed at a loss for words. “I’m shaken for some reason. Anybody else out there shaken?… I’m nervous because I don’t think I’ve ever seen some shit like that. And I think I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of shit, but not no shit like that,” she said.
As a founder of the legendary band The Coup in Oakland, Riley has collaborated with famous hip-hop groups whose messages are rooted in change and community awareness. Badu recognizes him as “social, political, conscious.” His latest film examines real problems inherent to a capitalist society with just enough satire and fantasy to make you recognize how problematic our world is without feeling completely crushed by it.
“We always had a similar conversation and it was for the most part dedicated to figuring out where we stood in this capitalist society,” Badu said. “How do we function?— because we are benefiting in many ways, because we’re all capitalists.”
“This movie deals with just a regular fact of life that people are trying to pay their bills,” Riley continued. “We have these movements that talk about everything BUT that…People are tired of the way things are.”
That audiences can so easily recognize the world in Sorry To Bother You is a testament to the fact that America’s socio-political landscape has become even more rocky since Riley first published the screenplay in McSweeney’s back in 2014, two years after completing it.
“I agree that this film is a heavy movie,” Riley said. “I don’t do any art that I don’t think is important, but I also always try to make art that makes you feel alive and hopeful…In the end it’s about figuring out what their power is and moving from there,” he said.
“I think one of the main objectives of art is to create dialogue,” Badu continued. “They don’t have to love it. They don’t have to hate it, they don’t have to support it. They can protest it, they can be inspired to make their own film. But what the artist has given you is not up for debate. What the artist has done, the question is not— do you like it? We don’t give a shit if you like it, we just want you to do something, we just want you to move, we want you to create, be inspired.”
Badu did not come here to play with us today. (OK, maybe a little.) At past eleven, we’d clearly overstayed our welcome. Theater employees were sending silent signals to each other to wrap up the Q&A, but even Badu begged, “C’mon white man! Let a brotha have his moment!” Laughter ensued. Hers was both a plea and an indictment, much like the film itself. Sorry To Bother You stands as less of an apology and more of a declaration. Boots’ vision is fearless, powerful, and wild—and he has absolutely no intention of apologizing.
Sorry To Bother You opens in select theaters on July 6 and nationwide on July 13.