The most immediate thing viewers will feel while watching Boots Riley’s trippy Sorry To Bother You is that they’re in a different world, not quite the slick Jetsons future or the past of a thrift store but another place, somewhere real and unreal. Mothball sweaters in woolly colors not fashionable since Mr. Rodgers and the old Kanye confront the sleek panache and costume of the future. The movie is about a telemarketer named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) whose life is flipped by sudden professional success but it feels larger than that, Riley’s wraps itself around you and disquiets easy ways out. Much of this comes from that sheer visual effect, much of which is the creation of Deirdra Elizabeth Govan, Riley’s costume designer whose work on the movie has been praised as anchoring a “distinctive style” and a “revelation.”
This is because Govan’s colors and designs are quiet triumphs. They are found inside of thrift shops and are collected to costume handy metaphors for the very present, where the retro seamlessly accompanies the new. Govan says she discovered the alternate universe of Riley’s script in today’s headlines, where every day holds moment destroyed by capitalism and rocked by protest, symbols that the movie handily mines. “Sorry to Bother You is really about understanding what’s happened to a lot of the major urban areas and how they have changed,” says Govan. She sees the movie as a literalization of the effect of gentrification, where space still contains the distinctive remains of its past amidst being transformed into something blank and homogeneous.
Nowhere is this change in more flux than in the movie’s most charismatic, consequentially, fashionable character, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cassius’s fiancé, an artist who leads the movie’s visual fight against symbols of capitalist decadence. She wears graphic tees with slogans that are second-wave by way of Twitter (i.e. “The future is female ejaculation”) and earrings with slasher manifestos. Riley scripted her with the sensibility of a protest musician aware of creating vital-feeling things for the merch table, you can indeed buy those earrings, but Govan makes the movie itself feel like things found in the ideological and economic waste of post-capitalism. The visual palette is all shabby-chic and isn’t this how we will fight the terror of becoming a cog in a machine we can’t control, with all the things we can find and make into our own?
Thompson lifts her character outside the place of accompanist to Riley’s protagonist; she owns her look, can’t be controlled, will do what she wants. The graphic messages overwhelm the imagination and the movie is recommended to consume at least twice, but of equal signification are the Working Girl-style pantsuit that’s a little too large or the Grace Jones-in-aviators look she wears at a gallery show. Govan considers the latter outfit here to be one of the more exceptional outfits she has created for the film; it is revealed to a be a bikini piece made up of hand gestures, an obscene middle finger at its center. Govan says she found herself particularly influenced by her regular attendance at Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival, an annual music festival designed to combat Coachella culture with the detailed visceral assault of artists like Lauryn Hill, Danny Brown and Riley’s own rap group The Coup, whose last album was also titled Sorry To Bother You.
The movie’s own obsessive details can also be found in characters with even less screen time. Some of Govan’s strangest creations were detailing some of Cassius’s strangely charismatic co-workers. Langston (Danny Glover) gives him the idea to use his “white voice” and looks like he was dropped off from the wild west, like Nat Love moonlighting in his later years. The idea is fitting for Glover, who played an ex-slave turned cowboy in one of the few popular depictions of black cowboys, in the 1989 miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. One of Glover’s few black supervisors, “Mr. _______” (Omari Hardwick), is a figure from the euro-surreal tradition, a leather pirate eye-patch, and a bowler hat. Govan’s largest influence here, she tells me, was finding space for the uncanny of René Magritte in Riley’s office relations satire.
Sorry To Bother You is a movie about the day-to-day construction of dichotomies: the past and future; black and white; the lower floor where Cassius works as a telemarketer and the exalted place upstairs, where the “power callers” telemarket to the wealthy of the world. “It was an idea I presented,” says Govan. “there should have a palette change, like back in the 60s, when the new thing was always in technicolor and high-def.” The colors are suddenly rich like a Demy movie, turning that historically white space into a zone where Cassius and Mr. _______ are only allowed to speak in their respective “white voices.”
Govan modeled the movie’s most ostentatiously white character, Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift, after today’s robber barons of industry, citing Steve Jobs and Elon Musk as normie fashion icons for the businessman running Worryfree, a company operating a system of modern slavery. Of course, he was almost outfitted with a man bun. The equestrian jacket he does wear is a particularly nice touch, it’s the Mitt Romney-look that Hammer has spent much of his life cultivating and nods also at the movie’s third-act twist, which casts the idea of the silicon valley service economy in brutal light.
The heightened tone of Riley’s movie affects because it draws the extreme angles of contemporary society in vivid satirical language. But it stays in the mind became it doesn’t only want to be satisfied with itself like most American satires, content to make their point and then retreating to pop sentimentality. It is a vivid costume drama that never undresses.