Summarizing Boots Riley’s subversive debut feature, Sorry to Bother You, can prove to be as elusive as leading an equisapien to water and making it drink.
As FSR’s own John DeLillo pointed out in his review, the film “defies description or analysis,” and yet it is this quality that makes analysis all the more enticing for viewers to try. I left the theater shocked and energized but unable to properly put my fascination with what I’d just witnessed into words. All I could do was to simply return to a painfully general take, that Sorry to Bother You “just has so much to say.” And that it definitely does, and it’s all genius and wild and layered. But I wanted to be able to say why. I wanted to read as much as I could about the film. I wanted to know more.
Cut to some months later, when personalities from Janelle Monae to Guillermo del Toro have commented on Sorry to Bother You’s genre-bending brilliance. In following the conversation surrounding the film, I noticed another voice offering some interesting takes: Sage Hyden, creator of the YouTube channel Just Write. Watch Hyden’s “2018’s Weirdest Film and the Psychological Toll of Modern Capitalism” below.
Hyden’s latest video essay takes a closer look at the Sorry to Bother You script and brings it into a psychological context. He posits that the film’s principal aim is to portray the effects of economic injustice upon the mind and to show, in turn, how those effects feed back into and strengthen capitalism as a system of oppression.
The essay was released just ahead of one of the biggest Oscar snubs of the 2019 awards season. Many saw Sorry to Bother You as a “feasible but surprising” contender, especially in the Original Screenplay category. And yet, when this year’s nominations were announced, the expected yet still disappointing outcome emerged, with a nod nowhere to be found for Riley’s electrifying film.
Original screenplay for Boots Riley. https://t.co/xh65gLqzuv
— Amy Nicholson (@TheAmyNicholson) January 21, 2019
The snub resulted in some righteous “if only”s from many residents of Film Twitter, which Riley himself responded to. In a Twitter thread, the writer/director clarified that Sorry to Bother You’s smaller “For Your Consideration” campaign was a factor in its lack of formal recognition from the Academy, and that the real benefit of engaging with the season at all was the exposure that it afforded the project.
But the largest factor as to why we didn't get nominated is that we didn't actually run a campaign that aimed to get a nomination for Screenplay or Song. We didn't buy For Your Consideration ads in the trade magazines and we didn't service the whole academy with screeners.
— Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) January 22, 2019
When considering the screenplay snub in the context of Hyden’s essay, there’s one point in the video where Hyden leans into Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic theory of the persona. Paraphrasing a quote that the essayist uses from Jung, a persona is essentially a set of socially accepted behaviors that people endeavor to adopt themselves. This definition is used to frame protagonist Cassius Green’s constant “white voice” code-switching as an act of relinquishing independence.
By this token, perhaps we can think of Sorry to Bother You as existing in defiance of an awards season persona; after all, both the film and its creator seem to escape simple characterization within the Hollywood system and have instead been recognized not by their participation in the machine, but by operating outside of it (or, at the very least, alongside it as a means to an end). Really, it is for this very reason why all of Sorry to Bother You’s twists and turns make us want to “know more”: it’s because everything about the film defies expectations, even when you think you’ve predicted what’s coming.