The buzz surrounding Boots Riley’s sci-fi film, Sorry To Bother You has grown to a deafening fever pitch since its debut at Sundance earlier this year. Riley’s debut film starring Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield, Westworld’s Tessa Thompson, and Call Me By Your Name’s Armie Hammer taps into the director’s history as an activist. Prior to releasing Sorry To Bother You, he was the frontman for the Oakland-based hip hop group, The Coup. So we aren’t surprised Sorry To Bother You takes a hard but hilarious look at Oakland, California in the midst of gentrification, following Cassius (played by Stanfield) as he rises through the ranks at a telemarketing job using his “white voice.” And while the plot is interesting to say the least (no spoilers here!), we have to say the best part of the social commentary film is simply how much fun it is to watch.
Costume designer Deirdra Elizabath Govan brought each of the characters to life, really capturing their development using a style narrative. “I was literally designing the characters’ looks in my mind as I read the script,” Govan tells Refinery29. She was inspired by annual arts festival Afropunk, the idea of Afrofuturism, and Oakland. From there, she built Pinterest and Photoshop boards with close to 1000 photos to present to Riley and the cast for feedback.
The most exciting thing about working on this film, Govan says, is that each character has their own signifier used to make a statement. She scoured through hundreds vintage stores in Oakland to perfect each character’s look. Like Cassius’s co-worker Squeeze (played by Steven Yeun) who has a very minimal aesthetic which speaks to his organizational skills, or Hammer’s character Steve Lift, a psychopath CEO, who wears a sarong, an idea directly from Govan. “This guy is an eccentric who is a complete cultural objectifier in the worst sense of the word and misappropriation in every fashion,” she explains. “This man wearing an equestrian jacket with a sarong — that was his statement.”
Govan’s use of color illuminates Cassius’s evolution into a “power caller,” turning his unshapely sweaters and pants into more streamlined suits. “Each character, politically, has a signature look throughout the film but it’s very subtle,” she notes. “Some people may automatically relate when they see Detroit because it’s such a strong call out that I created but at the same time, all the other characters are equally weighted as well.” Detroit stands out in the cast, as someone who even when she isn’t speaking, tells viewers exactly who she is. “She doesn’t waiver and that was intentional,” Govan explains. Detroit also says it like she means it with her earrings, with phrases like “murder murder murder” and “bury the rag,” taken directly from Riley’s lyrics. (You can also buy a pair in the Sorry To Bother You merch store).
The gentrification also plays up the dissonance the characters feel throughout the movie. That sort of contradiction — a shack next to a fancy coffee shop — also shows up in the characters’ wardrobes. “How can you evolve without selling out and giving up your soul while standing firm in who you are,” Govan asks. That’s the million dollar question.
Sorry To Bother You is in theaters July 6.