Putney Swope and Undercover Brother, though decades apart, are masterworks in the same genre — sharp satire targeting good old American racism. Both films attack dead on with tongue firmly in cheek, creating side-splitting hilarity.
Robert Downey, Sr.’s underground classic Putney Swope (1969) employs scathing wit, presenting a token advertising executive who’s suddenly in charge when corporate board members, each sure no one else will vote for him, elect him as the chair.
He turns the place upside down, renaming it Truth and Soul, Inc. and making it a lot less White, which revolutionized television commercials across America.
Undercover Brother (2002), directed by Malcolm D. Lee and scripted by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, gives us espionage ace Jackson, a maverick force for truth, justice, and soul power. He saves the day from an evil White genius who’s brainwashing Black leaders into embracing chicken-gobbling, malt-liquor-swilling stereotypes instead of a strong self-image. Both films have, at the center, a brother tempted to sell out and each delivers a message.
Sorry to Bother You (Annapurna Pictures) by rapper-cum-director-screenwriter Boots Riley, wants to be today’s Putney Swope or Undercover Brother. But, as there are good and bad in all genres, Sorry is a far cry from either.
Twenty-something telemarketer Cassius “Cash” Green can’t cut it as a telemarketer until he adopts a nerdy “White” voice. Suddenly, his career skyrockets up the corporate ladder. How much will he compromise to keep climbing? And at what cost to the community, as his girlfriend and co-workers organize to protest corporate oppression?
Early on, the writing has a gaping hole — if all he had to do was change his voice to become a success, why aren’t the White men there who already talk like that making money hand over fist? It can’t be his special technique, because we never see any.
The actor, Lakeith Stanfield, doesn’t actually change his voice. Instead, Riley pipes in a ridiculous voice-over — one of several cheap devices that fall flat in a comedy that literally doesn’t have a single laugh line, humorous situation or, more importantly, characters who are the least bit interesting.
The premise is so poorly executed that viewers very quickly don’t care about Green’s trials and tribulations in this stilted circumstance. And, the dialogue is clumsy, cluttered and pretentious, not to mention gratuitously foul-mouthed.
The cast is loaded with heavyweight names, giving rise to speculation that Forrest Whitaker, one of the producers, called in a few friendly favors. How else to explain the likes of Danny Glover, Rosario Dawson, Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger, Man From U.N.C.L.E), Steve Yeun (The Walking Dead), David Cross (Men in Black I, II) and Omari Hardwick (For Colored Girls, The A-Team) joining in to help sell a lemon? Dawson plays, of all things, a bit part as the voice of a talking elevator.
In short, Sorry to Bother You is, indeed, sorry. The best part about it being when the film is finally over.