When you spend so much of your time watching films, it’s hard to find one that really blows you away. This is especially true in the comedy genre. There are always new reasons to make people feel bad about themselves (haha) or really just empathize, but it’s really hard to find new ways to make people laugh without having to rely on old stereotypes or putting people down. That’s why I became pretty obsessed with “Sorry to Bother You” as soon as it was released. I think I saw it three or four times in theaters, once with Boots Riley (writer/director), Lakeith Stanfield, and a few other members of the case on stage at the Arclight. It was fantastic to hear him talk about this surrealist comedy.
I knew I had to include this move in the breakdowns but I also didn’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Yes, I’m breaking down a sequence that happens in the second half of the film, but I’m not revealing anything that is not in the trailer or connected to the first act… thought I would be spoiling you hard if I’d done this movie for the False Climax/Low Point as I’d originally planned.
In case you don’t know what this film is about, here is the logline:
In an alternate reality of present-day Oakland, Calif., telemarketer Cassius Green finds himself in a macabre universe after he discovers a magical key that leads to material glory. As Green’s career begins to take off, his friends and co-workers organize a protest against corporate oppression.
I didn’t come up with the above, it came from Wikipedia or Rotten Tomatoes, and I had to even shorten it because it reveals stuff about Steve Lift (the head of WorryFree – an evil corporation that is fixing to run the world in this film) that really doesn’t come up until much later. The one thing the logline leaves out is what the “key” is that Cassius discovers. Cassius uses a “white voice”. Basically, Cassius is black and his friends make fun of him for “acting white”, but that isn’t enough to win over the white people that Cassius is calling all the time. Enter Donald Glover, who teaches Cassius to use a white voice talk people into buying things.
This skill is used by multiple people in the film and is depicted by having white actors actually dub their own voices over the black actors we see on screen. For Cassius, David Cross’s voice is used. For Cassius’s girlfriend, Tessa Thompson’s Detroit, the voice of Lily James is used. It’s pretty hilarious to watch while also hitting you hard with some pretty accurate commentary that feels on par with the predictions we read from writers like Raymond Chandler and Aldous Huxley in high school. Here’s the breakdown:
– While working with the power callers, Cassius is invited to a party at the owner’s, Steve Lift. Cassius says he’ll join after Detroit’s art show that night.
– At the art show, Cassius arrives and Detroit spots him. He acts like nothing is wrong as he compliments her. Detroit keeps it friendly, but not romantic.
– Squeeze approaches and gives a similar compliment to Detroit. Unlike with Cassius, she is openly thankful to Squeeze.
– Squeeze and Salvador show Cassius the viral video of him crossing the picket line and getting hit by a Coca Cola can. Squeeze tries to use the popularity of the video to talk Cassius into switching sides and fighting for their union, but Cassius isn’t listening.
– Detroit comes out for her performance using her own “white voice” and letting people hurl objects at her. Cassius is horrified.
– Cassius jumps on stage to protect her and she kicks him out.
As you can see in the above, the number of beats that the script uses is small but they make an impact. What defines a second reversal is the protagonist losing sight of themselves and, in response, their closest confidant. Some movies will skip this sequence (ie. “The Truman Show”) but I highly recommend you keep it, as this moment acts as a great pause to look at how far the protagonist has gone in the wrong direction without realizing their mistake.
A few years back, every young white female actor was making either “The Devil Wears Prada” or something similar (“The Nanny Diaries”, “Morning Glory”). Films about post-college women struggling to get ahead in their careers and figure out what they really want while also balancing their love lives. Those protagonists all have a mom or a best friend character that they lose in the second reversal. They lose their love interests in the Low Point (they probably started dating those love interests in the Midpoint, since we know those two moments are connected). This is the moment that is supposed to make the protagonist really second guess what they’re doing, but not enough that they’re ready to make a change.
In “Sorry to Bother You”, Cassius is a guy who wants to be successful but hasn’t really figured out what that means. It definitely should include money since he’s short of it, but everyone around him manages to make enough money and also champion a cause. Cassius’s job demands that he ask himself how much of his soul he’s willing to give up in the process. In the previous sequence, his girlfriend, Detroit, tells him that he’s gone too far, but Cassius has not accepted that things are over between them. That’s why he shows up to her art show, hoping to change things. But it’s a hollow action, which Detroit knows. If Cassius truly understood why Detroit was upset, he would respond differently to Squeeze and Salvador’s plea to join their side. He wants things to change, but he hasn’t completed his emotional arc yet in order to take the steps needed to actually make those changes happen. It’s not until the end of the next sequence where Cassius will see the error of his ways. I would hate to spoil that reveal for you though. This surrealist, comedy masterpiece is available on Hulu for your viewing.