Rap/hip-hop star Boots Riley makes his feature film writing and directing debut with this week’s new release Sorry To Bother You. Based in part on Riley’s own experience, the movie stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius, a young man living in a magical alternate version of Oakland with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Riley is kind of aimless and has trouble holding down a job, but is a nice guy who works hard.
One day he gets a job at a telemarketing firm and finds the key to success is simply hiding his blackness and pretending to be someone else. Suddenly he’s raking in the cash both from his real job and taking other opportunities that are a little more questionable, all while living a life that is ever-so-slightly exaggerated from reality.
A series of brightly-colored posters, one for each character, came out right around the time of SXSW. Each one gave us a look at the character, with the name of the actor above the title, but written like it’s going to offer their character name. So it’s “Tessa Thompson is Sorry to Bother You.” That’s kind of fun and shows the movie’s irreverent and unusual attitude.
Two more posters came out later, one of which showed Cassius on the phone despite his head being bandaged while the copy emphasized “Destiny is calling.” The other was more of a theatrical one-sheet, showing Cassius from a distance as he leans against a wall while looking at something on his phone. There’s no tagline here, just a couple of positive blurbs from early reviews of the film.
I honestly don’t know what’s going on in the first trailer and I don’t really care. We have Cassius working menial jobs and living with Detroit before finding the keys to success in making himself sound more white on the phone and getting involved with the shady Steve. It’s a trip and a half and looks incredible. This is going to appeal to a lot of people for its whacked out attitude and clear message about what it takes to make it in the world and how much you have to sell out to celebrate.
The second trailer is similarly inscrutable, showing more or less the same level of “wow…what?” as the first, only slightly more outrageous thanks to its red-band designation. There’s so much good stuff here but if you’re looking for realism, this isn’t the place.
Online and Social
For a movie that’s so obviously presenting a heightened version of reality, the official website is pretty ordinary. There’s all the usual material like the trailers and information on the cast and crew, along with some quotes from early reviews of the movie. Up in the corner are links to the film’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook profiles. One interesting addition is a link to a merchandise store where you can buy some of the fashion and other items featured in the movie.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I haven’t seen or been able to find any TV spots, which is surprising given the studio is generally giving this a sizable push. There has been some online advertising done using elements pulled from the key art.
Media and Publicity
Almost universally – unsurprising given the creative talent on both sides of the camera – the movie made critics’ “films we need to see” lists in advance of its Sundance Film Festival debut. While the subsequent buzz wasn’t universally positive, it was still well-received and was called out as one of a handful of films at the festival taking a fresh look at masculinity. Hammer spoke while there about the unusual nature of the story and the character he plays. Annapurna Pictures acquired distribution before the festival was over. Riley also was interviewed a bit, talking about how he’s always harbored aspirations of being a filmmaker, what it was like to attend Sundance and more. After that it was also screened at the SXSW Film Festival.
Riley was later announced as the recipient of the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award. A feature profile of the freshman filmmaker went through his whole career, the somewhat difficult process of getting the movie made, how he’s had to hustle and scrap to maintain his creative edge and lots more. He, along with members of the cast, spoke more when the movie was screened at BAMcinemafest.
A video profile introduced Riley to those unfamiliar with him and allowed the filmmaker to explain what the movie was about. He and the rest of the cast talked about the experience of filming in Oakland and more in a series of interviews like this. There were also a few joint interviews with Stanfield and Thompson where they talked about how unusual and interesting the movie was and what attracted them to it.
If Riley was looking to come out of the gate with a strong first impression, he appears to have succeeded spectacularly. Not only has he made what looks to be a spectacularly original movie, but Annapurna has given it a campaign that is one of the most colorful and eye-catching of the year. Its vibrant personality and skewed sense of humor is front and center, making sure anyone who catches any part of the marketing is going to know exactly what kind of movie it is they can expect should they choose to visit the theater.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
Writer/director Boots Riley ignited a thousand hot takes when he spoke up about the lack of international distribution for his well-received movie, citing a belief by the studio and others that “black” movies still don’t work overseas.
There isn’t usually a lot of attention paid to producers, but Nina Yang Bongiovi got a nice profile covering how she has become a force in the indie movie world and helped bring this movie to fruition.
The movie has generated a metric ton of stories such as this about code-switching and “white voice.” Annapurna Pictures leaned into that by releasing a featurette with Patton Oswalt and David Cross, who provide some of the white voices used by black characters in the film.
Star Lakeith Stanfield has engaged in a bit more media, including appearing on “Kimmel” to promote the movie.
Lakeith Stanfield received a substantial profile in The New York Times covering how he’s made a decent career to date by playing off-kilter characters.
There’s also been lots more coverage of writer/director Boots Riley, including this feature where he talks tech and this one where he weighs in on the role activism should play in the life of the artist.