NOEL KING, HOST:
A new movie out tomorrow is getting a ton of buzz even by Hollywood standards. It's called "Sorry To Bother You." It was a hit at Sundance. And it has been described as - get this - defying description. Here's Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Let's go back to the dead of winter - January 2018, Park City, Utah. Writer Andreas Hale's attending the Sundance Film Festival for the fourth time. And he's going through that long list of movies.
ANDREAS HALE: I started marking my list of what I'm going to cover. Mostly I'm skewed towards African-American films because, you know, there's not a lot of people covering them that are African-American. So I looked. And I was like, Boots Riley? And I had to look at it again because I was like he don't direct.
MERAJI: "Sorry To Bother You" is Riley's directorial debut. So if you know him, you probably know him as a rapper with the group from Oakland, Calif., called The Coup.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE MUTINY")
THE COUP: (Rapping) I'm Boots Riley. It's a pleasure to meet you. Never let their punk ass ever defeat you. They got us on the corner wearing pleather and see-through. All y'all is gold mines. They want to deplete you.
MERAJI: You're listening to the track "My Favorite Mutiny" from The Coup's 2006 album "Pick A Bigger Weapon." It's one of Andreas' favorites. He says, before stepping into that packed theater on January 24, he wasn't sure he made the right decision. There was no trailer for "Sorry To Bother You" - only a vague description of what the film was about, a photo of the film's star Lakeith Stanfield, who he knew from the FX comedy "Atlanta," and...
HALE: The intrigue of Boots Riley. That was really all we had. So I had no idea what I was walking into. Fifteen minutes in the film, your preconceived notions are completely blown up. Within 30 minutes after that, what you thought 15 minutes ago - that's gone. What's happening?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU")
LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) I just really need a job.
MICHAEL X. SOMMERS: (As Johnny) This is telemarketing. Stick to the script.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hello.
STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) This is Cassius Green. Sorry to bother you. I just wanted to...
(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE SOUNDING)
DANNY GLOVER: (As Langston) You want to make some money here? Use your white voice.
STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) My white voice?
GLOVER: (As Langston) Like this young fella.
PATTON OSWALT: (As Langston's white voice) Hey, Mr. Kramer (ph), this is Langston from Regal View.
BOOTS RILEY: I'm Boots Riley, the writer and director of "Sorry To Bother You." This film is an absurdist dark comedy, with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.
MERAJI: OK, my turn to describe it - this film takes place in Oakland, Calif. The main character Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, needs a job. He's living in his uncle's garage, and he's late on rent. Cassius finally lands one as a telemarketer. The working conditions are deplorable. His colleagues and friends organize for better wages and working conditions. But Cassius get special treatment because he can persuade just about anyone to buy stuff using his white voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU")
DAVID CROSS: (As Cassius Green's white voice) Was that Visa or MasterCard?
SOMMERS: (As Johnny) You're going upstairs, my compadre.
MERAJI: He gets promoted. He's a power caller now, selling poor people's hard labor - labor they traded for food and a place to sleep. But Cassius is gettin paid. And all kinds of wild things happen, which takes us right back to Boots Riley's description of the film - an absurdist dark comedy, with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.
RILEY: I've designed it, in a way, to have ups and downs and pauses. It's like a song lyric.
MERAJI: That's how he designed the movie description and the film itself, with ups and downs and pauses in odd places - a dark and funny movie about how capitalism works and how workers can fight back. Born into a family of labor organizers and artists, the art Boot's creates is an extension of who he is - the content and the approach.
RILEY: My music has always been strange - in the sense of not normal. Like, we have a song called "5 Million Ways To Kill A Ceo."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "5 MILLION WAYS TO KILL A CEO")
THE COUP: (Rapping) Make sure you ain't got no priors. Don't tell them that we conspired. We could let him try to change a flat tire. Or we could all at once retire. There are just a few of the five million ways to kill a CEO. Slap him up. And shake him up. And then you know.
RILEY: And besides it being funny and being about capitalism and how it works, it's also a 5-17 count, which is not something you want to do if you want to make a song get on the radio. However, we hid that 5-17 count inside a four-on-the-floor beat.
MERAJI: Full transparency, I've never heard of a 5-17 count. And part of me wonders if this is some musical magical realism at play. Regardless, Boots says the four-on-the-floor beat for "Sorry To Bother You" - what keeps it steady through multiple plot twists, magical realism and science fiction - he says that's the actor's stripped-down, realistic performances. Actors like...
TESSA THOMPSON: Tessa Thompson. And I played Detroit in "Sorry To Bother You."
MERAJI: Tessa's probably best known for her roles in the blockbuster films "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Creed" or the HBO hit "Westworld." She's everywhere right now. But she decided, at this point in her career, to sign on with a first-time director because she's always wanted to do something in the magical realism space.
THOMPSON: And for whatever reason, it just seems like black and brown people are kind of excluded from those worlds in film - all these brilliant films like "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind." And I could go on and on. I literally just never saw myself in those films. And I have always wanted to. And so when I read this screenplay, I just felt, oh, finally.
MERAJI: Her character Detroit is an artist and activist - a creative spirit who won't stand by and watch her boyfriend Cassius Green sell out. Her role in "Sorry To Bother You" is the only robust female role - something Boot's has gotten some heat for considering his progressive politics.
THOMPSON: I mean, I think he sees versions of himself in all the characters. But in terms of an artist that lives right at the intersection of art and activism, I mean that is Boots Riley. So it's interesting that he would have made sort of the closest depiction of himself be the woman. And she's not the, you know, subject of the narrative. But I will say. I don't think she's just an object of it.
MERAJI: Speaking of the narrative, film critics have also knocked Boot's for its lack of clarity and one too many subplots. Andreas Hale, who we met, earlier wrote in his review for The Root that the film, quote, "may have benefited from pulling back on a few social critiques," unquote. That said, he was pleasantly surprised and totally inspired after watching it on that chilly January day in Utah.
HALE: This film is one of those things where there's going to be a whole group of young directors - whether they're African-American or not, they're going to say, I can do this now because somebody is just as crazy as I am.
MERAJI: Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" opens in select cities this Friday and across the country on July 13. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE ARITHMETIC")
THE COUP: (Rapping) History has taught me some strange arithmetic, using swords, prison bars and pistol grips. English is the art of bombing towns while assuring that you really only blessed the ground. Science is that honorable, useful study where you contort the molecules, and then you make that money. In mathematics, dead children don’t get added.
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