I don't know if Boots Riley has any interest in directing or writing a second feature film. And if he did, I don't know if I'd expect it to be an even better refinement over his debut, or if he'd have one of those careers that begins in an explosion of pure creativity and then immediately turns into a bunch of shallow retreads that never come close to recapturing the richness of that initial flush of mad enthusiasm. What I do know is that Riley's Sorry to Bother You is a godsend. This is absolutely a first film, the kind where the filmmaker puts each and every idea he has about movies, stories, and the world in, on the assumption that he might not get another shot and needs to make the most of it. There's always something fascinating and electrifying about such movies, the more ambitious the better, with their charge of untrained, desperately hungry youth, andΒ Sorry to Bother You is like an intensified version of that. For Boots Riley, who has been active for more than a quarter of a century in the political hip hop group The Coup, is 46 years old, and has clearly come up with way the fuck more ideas about all of the above-mentioned topics than the average passionate 20something making their first film.

As a result, the mere question "what's the film about?" is one that very quickly becomes very hard to answer, both in terms of narrative and the social issues the narrative addresses. The initial situation is that Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), at present living in his uncle's garage in Oakland, California, needs a job, and he's just gotten one at RegalView, a telemarketing firm in the area that puts row after row of immiserated locals selling encyclopedias. They're almost all African-Americans, though it's a polyglot of races united only by being fucking poor enough to put up with the indignity of the work, and the even greater indignity of the peppy "you can do it!" attitude thrust upon them by the three white weirdos in management, Anderson (Robert Longstreet), Johnny (Michael X. Sommers), and Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant). Cash's friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) has a job there as well, and soon even his activist artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is logging some part-time work, in between her other job standing on street corners holding signs and her time spent preparing for her anti-colonialist one-woman performance art piece. When he first starts, Cash is quite hopeless at the work, but his older cubicle neighbor Langston (Danny Glover) soon gives him an important tip: when he calls up his (almost all white) targets, he must his his "white voice". Not merely a voice stripped of the characteristics of African-American Vernacular English, but a voice oozing insouciant confidence, a sort of insincere jocular bourgeois comfort in sonic form - the voice of white people as they wish to be. And as soon as Cash realises that he's a natural at putting on a white voice (overdubbed by David Cross), he overnight becomes RegalView's best caller.

There is so much here already, enough for an entire film to unpack it all: obviously, there's the systemic racism of a system in which black Americans are compelled to "whiten" themselves just to work the most horrid, impersonal jobs, but there's also already been questions of the difference between being aware of problems and putting in the effort necessary to combat them, in the relationship between Cash and Detroit, as well as the question of what "activism" even means, and whether or not it's valuable if all you're doing is raising the consciousness of people who already consider their consciousness to be raised. On the margins, the film depicts white people who are themselves broken down and immiserated - the three managers are not implied to be happy, contented people - while eager to reify the social structure that keeps them at least one rung above non-whites. And likewise, the film very nearly opens by depicting the way that even the poorest of poor African-American communities still manage to stratify themselves into who has more vs. less money. In the form of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), Cash's union activist Asian-American co-worker, the film manages to start nudging towards questions of what the natural alliances are or aren't between different non-white groups in America. Plus, there's a percolating background of WorryFree, one of those Silicon Valley disruptor-type companies that has hit upon the perfect solution to Americans of every race, gender, and creed who just want a roof over their head: lifetime contracts to work in exchange for living in austere dormitories, a set-up that sure as fuck looks like a start-up reinvented chattel slavery. And then there's the whole matter of stylistic concerns: the way that Cash's telemarketing calls send him rocketing into the very room where his marks live, uncomfortably forcing himself right into their lives, for example. Or the way that that Riley and cinematographer Doug Emmett frame shots to emphasis the space around characters, who frequently sit low and to the side of compositions; or the mixture of quite real Oakland spaces with the more fancifully terrible office spaces of RegalView. And then there are the dashes of pure unreality: the otherworldly, sci-fi inflenctions of the musical score by Tune-Yards, or the positively eerie way that Cross's voice seems to come from nowhere at all when Stanfield talks.

That's a shitload of words, and here's the thing: that's not even the film. Saying that Sorry to Bother You is "about" all of that is kind of like saying that The Godfather is "about" a mafia don doing favors at a wedding. All of this is very necessary to lay the groundwork for the film, to start pushing its themes, and to explain what we're about to watch and how to watch it, and somehow, it all feels like the prologue the actual movie, which kicks in once Cash becomes a "power caller" and is led up the secret floor where another African-American man (Omari Hardwick) with a perfect white voice (Patton Oswalt) shows him the ropes of RegalView's actual business: selling WorryFree's slaves, via telemarketing. And even this isn't the movie, though it's starting to get us closer.

The point being: Riley has a lot on his mind, about the oppression African-Americans, poverty, worker's rights, the commodification of human life under capitalism, the futility of being an activist, the importance of being an activist even when it's futile, the dangers of liberal technocrats "solving things" on behalf of the rest of us, the unbearable shittiness of the media, dumb people's dumb pop culture. And he comes up with a whole lot of ways to explore these things through style and form: the quirky fantasy of the telemarketing scenes, brute realism, sardonic mocking comedy, horror (at one point, Cash has to creep around a very Saw-looking bathroom, and the shift from the loopy comedy of Cash's dialogue with Armie Hammer, dispensing screwball banter at a mile a minute, to the low angles and sickly lighting of a slasher movie happens so fast that it somehow manages to feel invisible despite being the most dramatic shift possible), a remarkable habit of restraining our ability to see and understand things that Cash doesn't see or understand, most delightfully by showing the film's entire climax through a peephole. The very narrative structure of the film feels like a bit of anti-capitalist radicalism: the film's pacing is profoundly unsettling, moving too fast and then slowing down and then suddenly we're in a different plot that we didn't even realise existed, and part of this, I am certain, is to keep us from ever being able to get a bead on the film: it wants to up-end our notion of what movies can do just as much as Squeeze or Detroit want to blow up the system. So if I say that parts of the second half feel unsatsifyingly arbitrary, I think I mean the film is working (though the very last pair of scenes are just plain bad, even if I think I get why they're present). It's messy - boldly messy, brazenly messy - but a film that has more ideas and more extraordinary ideas for how to execute those ideas comes along only very rarely. Sorry to Bother You is a thoroughly demented film in ways I haven't even slightly touched on, while remaining surprisingly easy to unpack in its message about the sprawling shitpile that is American racism and class warfare. It might very well be a disaster, and I have no clue how well it or my opinion of it shall age through the years, but it sure as hell isn't like anything else, and that's all I need here and now.