Sticking to the Script: How Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You Reflects Post-Classical Cinema with a Hint of Formalism

Stick to the Script. From the beginning, that is what Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is told by his employers. And if there’s anything David Bordwell argues is that “…a complete account of Hollywood storytelling needs to recognize how the dominant tradition assimilates them to its formal demands” (50). Therefore, it is almost like Sorry to Bother You is criticizing Hollywood itself as a major theme of the film is completely rebelling from sticking to the script. The film does indeed embody much of the Post-Classical characteristics Bordwell spends a good time defining, such as the character arc, the mythic journey, the three Act structure, and minor things like foreshadowing and recurring motifs. However, director and writer Boots Riley creates a very unique film that I argue reflects formalism due to its highly stylized sequences and his desire to make an artistic statement.  

Something very unique about Sorry to Bother You are the characters themselves. As Bordwell mentions, characters are “vulnerable, driven by demons, drawn to the dark side––all these clichés of story pitches are invoked to give the protagonist a compelling fault” (29). While they are vulnerable, Cassius and his own group of friends refuse to stick to the script. The character cliché does not fall on Detroit (Tessa Thompson), however. Detroit is a character that never sticks to the script both in the film and outside traditional character traits. Riley writes a progressive, female character with thoughts, feelings, and emotions of her own. Although she is with Cassius for the first half of the film, she is free to break up with him and chooses to hook up with someone else. She is also a character of her own free will as she is part of the Left Eye Faction––something that even Cassius himself doesn’t know. This is all part of the post-Classical film as characters besides the protagonist are goal-oriented and encounter obstacles.

 In the beginning of the film, Cassius tells Detroit “I’m just out here surviving” while Detroit has her own calling–her art. This sets up his conflict with himself. And as the tagline of the film mentions, “Destiny is Calling”, this conflict is one that will change Cassius for the worst. His character arc is best defined by what Bordwell calls the mythic journey. Quoting from another theorist, Bordwell characterizes this as “Campbell’s synthesis of mystic traditions presents a hero called from the ordinary world to embark on adventure. The hero enters a ‘special world’ of trials, allies, and enemies. Eventually the hero approaches the ‘inmost cave,’ the arena of supreme ordeal” (33). Cassius comes from Oakland and takes a job at RegalView to make means end. The moment Cassius joins Squeeze’s (Steven Yeun) Union, he begins his journey. His allies are established––Sal (Jermaine Fowler), Squeeze, Detroit, and Langston (Danny Glover). Sal’s role is similar to that of a sidekick as he is the one who helps Cassius get his job while also being his best friend. Once Cassius is promoted to Power Caller, he enters the “special world” Bordwell describes. Here, Cassius encounters the trials of choosing to do what’s morally right: sell slave labor and get money or continue working with the rest at the cost of minimal pay.

Upon entering the “special world,” Cassius is able to support his uncle who was in deep financial trouble and was considering working for WorryFree––the company that is constantly accused of slavery. Cassius is also able to move out of his uncle’s garage and out of Oakland, which is also filmed in a very formalist way, and buys a new car. Although it seems like Cassius is living the good life, he chooses to ignore the fact that he is selling slave labor, abandoning his friends who were also trying to get paid, and allows his white voice (David Cross) to take over. Once Cassius loses Detroit, gets hit with the Cola can, and receives the invitation to Steve Lift’s (Armie Hammer) exclusive party, this is when he is approaching the arena of supreme ordeal. After he encounters the Equisapiens, it is the much needed wake-up call that Cassius required so he could do what is right. As Bordwell mentions, “given a flaw, the character must conquer it” (30). 

Besides the character arc and mythic journey, Sorry to Bother You also adopts the three-act structure. The first act, or as Thompson calls it according to Bordwell “The setup…establishes the characters’ world, defines the characters’ purposes, and culminates in a turning point near the half-hour mark” (35-36). This setup is present in the film as exactly on the 35 minute mark, Cassius gets promoted to Power Caller––changing the course of the film. Prior to this promotion, the film sets up Cassius’ life in Oakland: broke, living in his uncle’s garage with past-due rent owed, only able to afford 40 cents for gas, and a crappy car without windshield wipers. Next, “Act 2 should culminate what has come to be called the ‘dark moment’..it could constitute a decision…in which the protagonist finds the means to defeat the antagonist” (Bordwell 29). Cassius’s dark moment is peculiar. It isn’t when Detroit leaves him. It isn’t when he loses his friends after choosing the job over them. It isn’t when he gets hit with the cola soda. Cassius’s dark moment is with himself when he comes face-to-face with the type of people he’s been working for. While all of his friends have been rebelling against the script, Act 2 highlights Cassius’s turn to stop sticking to the script that leads to the final third act. Act 3 “should consist of a continuous climax…capped by a resolution signaling a new harmony and balance” (Bordwell 29). The final act of the film includes Cassius doing everything in his power to expose WorryFree’s practices. Where the film takes a particular turn is the resolution. Even after the happy ending Cassius believes he got such as reuniting with Detroit and moving back to Oakland, the film takes a turn as Cassius ends up becoming an Equisapien himself. As soon as the film ends and shows the title card, there is also an epilogue, but instead of confirming stability of resolution, the epilogue is more of a quick revenge with no resolution. Cassius, after taking the full form of the Equisapien, breaks into Steve Lift’s home for revenge. However, the epilogue leaves more questions than answers and maybe Riley doesn’t want us to know why it ended like it ended. 

Another hidden gem in Sorry to Bother You is how it foreshadows the events of the film. Foreshadowing is part of the post-Classical characteristics as “major events should be foreshadowed (“planted”) but not so obviously that the viewer can predict them” (Bordwell 28). There are two foreshadows: 1) the VIP room scene and 2) Detroit’s Performance. The VIP scene is on the 12 minute mark of the film. Sal tells Cassius the password for the VIP room (to which Cassius says “What qualifies a person to be VIP?” and Sal mentions “Well, you need the password”) and he proceeds to enter the VIP room. Cassius stays in the VIP room for a moment before accidentally getting his drink poured on him and refuses to stay. This foreshadows the later event of Cassius abandoning Sal (and the rest of the union) to join the Power Callers. As Sal mentions “Well, you need the password” is what qualifies a person to be a VIP, Cassius is soon given the password for the elevator that is only allowed for Power Callers. At first he enjoys staying as a VIP until he reaches Steve Lift’s party. After being terrified from seeing the Equisapiens for the first time, Cassius urinates in his pants (similar to how he dropped his drink in the VIP room) and has convinced himself that he will be leaving the Power Callers for good (leaving the VIP room). Next, on the 63 minute mark, is Detroit’s performance during her art show. Detroit, while using her white voice, recites lines from the film “The Last Dragon” while allowing her audience to throw items at her that use minerals from Africa if they are moved by it. Cassius is immediately disturbed and stops the show asking Detroit “Why would you subject yourself to this?” In his eyes, Detroit is degrading herself by allowing people to throw things at her for the sake of art. This event immediately foreshadows Cassius at Steve Lift’s party. After Steve rambles on about Cassius being able to bust a rap or his “Oakland gangster shit”, Cassius puts on a performance for the guests at the party (exactly like Detroit did in her art show). After failing to come up with a rap, Cassius immediately degrades himself by repeating “N-word Shit” to appease the white crowd––which it works. Similar to the crowd in Detroit’s show, the party guests engage with Cassius’s rap and cheer along. Due to the uniqueness of Sorry to Bother You, it can be easy to be distracted from the foreshadowing which makes the genius of the film even better. 

Lastly, Sorry to Bother You reflect post-Classical film with its usage of recurring motifs. Bordwell writes about these motifs “Like foreshadowing, the repeated object or line of dialogue serves as a standard cohesion device and can produce a tingle of pleasure if the audience doesn’t see it coming” (43). In the film, Cassius’s photograph of his father is a Touchstone while his head bandage is a Twitch. The photograph of his father is a recurring object that reminds us of the story world before disorder arose. However, there is a contemporary take to the touchstone as the photo changes depending on Cassius’s actions. The first change of the photo occurs when Cassius engages in the “Phones Down” protest––his father is also raising his hand in the photo. The second change occurs when Cassius continues to work as a Power Caller––his father has his hand on his face, ashamed at Cassius. The third change occurs after the fight with Detroit and Cassius crosses the picket fence line (choosing to work for corporate greed over what is morally right)––his father gives him a thumb down. Lastly, the final change occurs after the fight against RegalView and Cassius redeems himself––his father is jumping in joy. This touchstone is reoccurring yet tells a story based on the changes at different points of the film. The head bandage, however, is a twitch that symbolizes Cassius’s inner conflict. It only appears when Cassius is a Power Caller. At first, it is able to hold back the blood when he goes to work. His wound begins to bleed and the bandage is unable to contain the blood right before Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick) invites him to Steve Lift’s party. Cassius is conflicted because he wants to attend Detroit’s art show but he also wants to attend Steve’s party––thus the bandage unable to hold the blood. His inner conflict becomes too much. Once Cassius leaves his job as a Power Caller and goes on the show “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me” to show proof of the evil happening behind walls, his bandage disappears. While a cut remains, it is still healing as Cassius begins to overcome his inner conflict. 

The character arc, mythic journey, the three Act structure, and the minor things like foreshadowing and recurring motifs are just a few characteristics that Sorry to Bother Youembodies from the Post-Classical film. Just as Bordwell states “Those conventions have remained in force throughout the post studio era, constantly and sometimes ingeniously applied to fresh material” (50). But Post-Classical isn’t the only paradigm the film reflects. It also reflects characteristics from the formalist paradigm such as its highly stylized sequences and the artistic statement.

Just like a formalist, Riley “remove[s] us form the day-to-day sense of time and the practical priorities of mainstream cinema and locate us in another cinematic dimension…” (Tony McKibbin 3). Riley takes us to an alternative version of Oakland where a company is calling the shots and its residents are just trying to survive under the capitalist world. It isn’t necessarily a post-apocalyptic world, but rather speculative. 

There are several instances of highly stylized sequences in Sorry to Bother You. For example, once Cassius begins his job as a Power Caller, there is a sequence of how the money has brought him change. What is important to note from these sequences is also how they are edited because it “is one of the most significant instruments of effect possessed by the film technician and, therefore, by the scenarist also” (Vsevolod Pudovkin 7). The sequence begins with Serge (Terry Crews) upset until Cassius enters with a check, then Cassius pulls out of the driveway in his crappy car that is then replaced by a newer car, then after picking up Detroit, the couple return to the garage and engage in intimacy while the cheap objects around them begin to fall apart and birth expensive versions of the same objects. The sequence, while highly stylized, obviously indicates Cassius’s abundance of money. This works because as Pudovkin explains, “this sequence must be expressed a special logic that will be apparent only if each shot contain an impulse towards transference of the attention to the next” (9).

Alexandre Astruc states that cinema is “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thought, however abstract they may be” (352). Another reason Sorry to Bother Youreflects formalism is Riley’s artistic statement. Sorry to Bother You is clearly commenting and critiquing capitalism. Riley also expresses this statement through Detroit. Detroit’s calling is art and her art revolves around Africa. As she mentions to a not paying attention Cassius, “Capitalism basically started by stealing labor from Africans”. While the film itself is critiquing capitalism as a whole, Detroit gets more specific of what Riley wants to truly say. However, due to how the scene is purposely filmed, the meaning gets slightly incoherent but enough to make out what Detroit says. 

In Sorry to Bother You’s 111 minutes, there is so much to unpack. This is because “cinema is now moving towards a form which is making it such a precise language…” (Astruc 352). This precise language is one that has a new discovery after a re-watch. The film is carefully constructed with every detail having significance. Some details are easy to miss such as Steve Lift’s collection of vandalized WorryFree memorabilia done by the Left Eye Faction or Detroit’s earrings. Nevertheless, as Bordwell mentions, “Hollywood has always updated its stories by interests and emerging social trends” (50). The fact that this is Riley’s directorial debut is beyond impressive. Now the next thing to do is for the audience to rebel against the script in their own lives. We’ve seen Cassius, now show us yours through the precise language of cinema. 

Word Count: 2485

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