Critic’s Notebook: In ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley Makes Much-Needed Room for Black Weirdness

The new comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson is the rare film to feature deeply eccentric black characters who transcend the usual angry/noble dichotomy.

In the buzzy, Sundance-feted comedy Sorry to Bother You, in theaters July 6, writer-director newcomer Boots Riley lets his black working-class freak flag fly — and he is mostly unconcerned with whether or not you’re following his trippy parade.

Saturated with ideas, Riley’s feature debut is bursting at the seams; it’s too much, and he wants it that way. That’s why the film holds your attention: You can’t quite wrestle its chaotic rhythms into something palatable, or something you’ve seen before.

Black people are not a monolith.

That unapologetic weirdness feels like relatively new territory in black film. We’re in an era in Hollywood where more black storytellers than ever are creating work featuring black protagonists who lead lives that don’t revolve around white saviors or the woes of blackness per se; Dee Rees’ Pariah, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and Barry Jenkins’ 2017 Oscar winner Moonlight are three semi-recent examples that spring to mind.

Riley’s movie takes that departure from what we’ve come to accept as the big-screen black norm a few steps further. Indeed what Sorry to Bother You lacks in story structure, it tries to atone for by delivering a decidedly unbothered celebration of black weirdness, injecting a new archetype into the black film canon — one that unapologetically says, “Black people can be weird, too.” Riley has cited Terry Gilliam’s cult classic Brazil as an influence, but some of the great black satirical films, like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, laid cinematic groundwork that allowed Riley to catapult his film beyond satire into full-blown absurdism.

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