Boots Riley has worked in the film world for a while, but mainly doing soundtracks and music. This is the first movie he has written and directed. I had first heard about the movie very late last year and early this year when it started hitting the festival circuit looking for a distributor. It’s a very unique story, told in a very unique way. Honestly, I struggle to sum it up, or begin to tell you what genre it is.
The story revolves around Cassius “Cash” Green, who is unemployed in Oakland and living in his uncle’s garage-apartment, fighting to keep the garage door down when his girlfriend Detroit comes over. Cassius heads to a telemarketing company, RegalView, where his friend Salvador works so that he can get a job. Swiftly hired, Cassius at first struggles with attempting to sell what I think was encyclopedias over the phone, but then gets some advice from co-worker ‘Langston’. Langston tells him to use his “white voice”. The white voice is not just speaking properly, but a voice that conveys the idea of wealth. Cash starts speaking in a David Cross voice, and immediately becomes hugely successful at selling, finding he has a gift for it.
Meanwhile, Detroit also begins working at the company, and a coworker named Squeeze starts to organize the employees to demanding fair wages and union opportunities. Before Cash can even get too confused as to where he stands on the issue, he is promoted ‘upstairs’, to be a “power caller”. He goes upstairs, and is briefly trained by Mr. _______ to make the big calls for RegalView’s parent firm, WorryFree. During the first half of the movie, WorryFree ads and billboards show up in the background, advertising a life free of bill-paying. You just have to move into one of their ‘buildings’ that look suspiciously like prisons, eat what and when they tell you, and work as they tell you. A radical group called “the Left Eye” is opposed to this WorryFree lifestyle, and is fighting against them. Cash stops wondering how he feels about WorryFree when he gets his first paycheck.
Cassius proves to be as good a power caller as he was a regular caller, but as the employee riots grow larger outside of RegalView, he is hit in the head with a soda can as he enters the building to work – which gets caught on video and goes viral. Cash makes it to Detroit’s art show opening with his head bleeding, where she does a piece of performance art. Cash then heads to a WorryFree company party to meet the owner/CEO, Steve Lift. Lift lets Cash know he’s been watching him, and wants him to take a special assignment in the company, that sort of involves overseeing a new workforce for the WorryFree endeavors.
From this point on, things get weird. And, they were weird before this point. I would attempt to describe the movie as a surrealist comedy, but with layered social overtones about money, wealth, employment, and corporate treatment of black Americans. Riley has done something completely unique, with some genuine laughs as well as some moments that really make you think, and some moments that will make you cringe. The movie is directed well, it’s a little choppy here and there, but honestly, I think that is a style choice rather than a mistake. Riley has an incredible eye and the movie is visually very slick. The cast is wonderful, and embraces the absurdity.
- Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a guy who just wants to get paid so that he can advance his situation. Stanfield plays the character just right as Cash is trying not to get overly invested in anything, existing just on the edge of constant frustration and lack of engagement. Cash is instantly relatable, and the perfect center for this storm of crazy.
- Tessa Thompson plays Detroit, a character that felt very similar to her characters from Dear White People and Creed, but she is good at that particular character.
- Terry Crews plays Sergio, Cash’s uncle, who is trying his best to maintain his house, but with Cash four months behind on the rent, he is starting to consider WorryFree living.
- Jermaine Fowler plays Salvador, who helps Cash get the job. He’s over the top and hilarious, providing the right counter to Cash’s low-key frustration.
- Steven Yeun plays Squeeze, who is bound and determined to unionize the RegalView employees and has some surprising sign spinning skills – or at least his stunt double does.
- Michael X. Sommers plays Johnny, Cash’s immediate supervisor, he’s creepy, weird, but also seems very supportive of Cash as he progresses.
- Danny Glover plays Langston, and he absolutely says that he’s too old for this sh*t in this movie.
- Kate Berlant plays Diana DeBauchery, a new manager brought in at RegalView to help motivate the employees.
- Omari Hardwick plays Mr. ________, and I am not typing it that way because I forgot his name – his name is never revealed in the movie. For the majority of the movie, his voice is Patton Oswalt.
- Armie Hammer plays the obnoxious Steve Lift, so again, perfect fit. He absolutely values profits over ethics and gets to play this character completely ego-maniacal corporate villain!
Overall, the movie is so strange – it is funny, but it can also make you feel really uncomfortable. It’s worth a viewing because it’s completely new and unique, but the back half of the movie almost feels like a different movie than the front half. It's interesting enough to make me look forward to the next thing Boots Riley does.
6 out of 10: points given for being so interesting, different, and out-of-the-box. Points off for the somewhat shocking appearance of equisapians. Spoiler alert, there are equisapians in this movie.