When I first sit down with Boots Riley, he intimidates me from the start - a man in his high 40s, rocking a collared up tracksuit; prominent afro and mutton chop sideburns - he isn’t the Hollywood director type; not by a mile. His look is all 1970s in textile, completely Black Panther-esque in a way that he fucks with the idea that I’m in a local Toronto pub rather than a protest. And when he speaks on politics, his sentences are dense and meaty with ideas that attach themselves to sub-ideas.
I don’t get how this radical, hip-hop, grassroots organizing, anti-capitalist artist can remain grounded in all that, despite promoting a film within money-grubbing Hollywood. When I question that contradiction he answers me plain.
“I have so much work to do that I don’t have time to not be grounded,” he admits. “I’ve made my life such that I’d have no choice but to be grounded.”
Just as Riley’s linguistic work as the front man for an Oakland-based hip-hop group The Coup took on the aesthetics of rebellion and protest since 91’, the Oakland-born legend isn’t easily removed from what he’s always been about, even when directing a film aimed for capitalist success in So_rry To Bother You._
Set for a nation wide release on July 13, the ridiculous, terrifying and surrealist comedy is jarring and psychedelic as much as it’s grounded in serious topics like black success and the soul-crushing impacts of capitalism on the working class. In it, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) plays a black telemarketer who reaches the height of success at a telemarketing company when he discovers his talent for switching on his (dubbed) “white voice.” From there, he tumbles into a corporate web of dark intentions that borderline on slavery when placed between personal success or protest.
When we exchange words about this Hollywood film that’s so unlike his previous work, I get the sign that Riley hasn’t lost anything radical. His street cred over the years of occupy Oakland protests and Che Guevara name drops against authority remain intact, just in a different medium. But why a film? And why Hollywood of all places which in some ways is a partner to all that he’s been against? I sat down with the Riley to ask him about that.
VICE: This is your first directed film, but your past activism brings a different perspective. What did you most want to bring to the table?
Boots Riley: You know, a lot of writers keep rebellion out of their movies for one. It’s not even in the background or in the script even though it’s a huge part of our lives, whether it’s the unions or grassroots organizations. To me, that’s like cutting out cafes from indie movies. They put these things in their even though they aren’t in our lives as much as indies feel the need to include them. There’s something that’s caused people to cut rebellion out of the worlds they’ve created. You have a sci-fi film like Never Let Me Go, where they discover that they’re being raised to be organ donors, and they have this mentality that if they fall in love and show themselves in love, they’ll be spared, and when they say no you’ll die, it’s the end. Nobody’s like, maybe we should fight back and not let this happen? That’s’ partly because writers who believe in those things won’t get funded. Writers often, like myself, come from a background where they have to run away from rebellion and they want to make it so that the whole world has to as well. This is a film where I critique myself in it as well.
You went through a ton of hustle to create Sorry To Bother You , ever since you wrote the script in 2011. Given your background, why try to make a movie though?
Same reason why it's important for someone to make music. For me, art is communication. It’s talking directly to folks and creating a world. Music might be in creating a vibe, but you’re creating a world for folks to be in, with the question of what they will come out of that world with. I started film school at San Francisco State and was making music at the same time my group landed a record deal. This was a time when Oakland was the place where every record label had to have someone from our spot. So somebody offered up the money to create stuff and our music from then on was very story based. In film, you can kidnap someone basically for an hour and change and put them in this world to make them experience the things you want them to experience.
L**evel with me here. How miserable was your telemarketing past since the movie is largely inspired by it.** When I did telemarketing, it was because after our second album called Genocidal Juice, I quit music because I was 24 and had a mid-life crisis. I thought I was being an artist that was self-serving. So I quit, and my friends and I created an organization called The Young Comrades, and naturally I needed money, so I went back to telemarketing. Unlike Cassius Green from Sorry to Bother You, at the beginning of this I was actually good. I could work one day every two weeks and make all the money I needed. The soul crushing part of it however came from using my creativity to basically get money out of people. You bend your brain and do all this stuff, and I imagine it’s similar to what’s going on with most art students who could be creating art that can have ripples through time, but instead they’re deciding what font will make people buy more cereal.
What’s a personal telemarketing example that you can give me though?
So in telemarketing, the last thing that I did right after my album Genocide & Juice, was actually telefundraising, which ostensibly is not as bad but it kind of is because you're raising money for nonprofit organizations. In order to do it, you kind of have to do some crazy shit. So for instance, I was I was in the Bay Area raising money for an LA organization six hours away, but in order to raise money, we were calling to Orange County, a notoriously conservative Republican area.
So my call would normally be something like, “Hey how you doing? Yeah this is Raymond calling with the our survey where we're just trying to gauge on what what people are feeling after today's incidents.” They’d go, what are you talking about? “Right well there's been a rash of break-ins, but are you saying they didn't happen to you?” I would then would then look up the streets and know what's around there. And I'd be like, well, OK, great, because we are getting frustrated. We understand that the police are not going to be able to stop this stuff. And that that's an old solution. We have a new solution which is this we want to move the very poor people, the homeless people who are doing these crimes out of your neighborhood and move them into the LA mission. There we're going to teach them how to have a job interview we're going to get them cleaned up.
The main character Cassius has the superhuman ability to speak white. This is something folks like myself have had to do in the past. In the process of getting this film to the right eyes, were you ever tempted to tap into this so-called white side?
I don’t think I had to do that. One, you have the movie that speaks for itself. There’s a certain amount of selling the movie that requires talking shit, and everyone can talk shit. I definitely can. But all of my talking didn’t help me until people started reading the script. All of my talking doesn’t even help you with your friends. The movie becomes this thing, and to an extent, in those spaces it wouldn’t matter if I was speaking a whole different language that folks didn’t understand, but they understood the movie. I didn’t have to do any of that because I also think in a situation like this, people want to be a part of something different compared to what came before. They aren’t looking for the same old, so in that sense you wouldn’t have to put on any voice.
I saw the film the other day, and naturally what hits you on a visceral level comes from the bombastic style. It has a surrealist bent. What was the attraction to you with this style?
It’s all necessary to what I’m trying to say. I’m not going for the surreal in the sense that I like the style or because I like to be weird. A lot of what I do comes out weird, whether it’s in music or film, because there’s a purpose to it. When I wrote the monologue for Danny Glover to explain the white voice, I didn’t know until the end that I needed him to voice a magically dubbed white voice. What I had found was that when I want to bring bigger ideas in, it’s a lot better to bend the reality of the world I created for folks so right there at that bend, it highlights the way our own reality is bent and ridiculous in the real world. All of those things help this movie to talk about serious topics without being cliche. You get these characters in films that lay it all out for you through trial and tribulation. I needed the audience to go through things with Cassius, not just to empathize through watching, but to go through it as well. I needed the story and visuals to make the viewer see the discovery of new ideas as the world changed because of them.
You’ve made comments about black cinema being too reactionary, how they rarely deal in systemic issues. What makes Sorry To Bother You so special?
Here’s the thing. I made a film that wasn’t a job application. A lot of people are making films like ‘cool, this shows that I’ll do what they want me to do so that I could make the next Superman, Batman or whatever film.’ They’ll stay away from certain topics. There are things in my movie that I knew would feel different because movies don’t usually do this. Not just the content, but the narrative structure as well and it served me. Some people may view it as wrong, like you’re not doing what everyone else does. But I didn’t want to make any movie, I wanted to make my movie, right or wrong. That has brought something that people find intriguing and exciting because it’s being approached from a different place. It also has an analysis of the current economic system that we’re in.
What’s an example of that oversight?
Often when we talk about things like racism of problems in the world, we don’t talk about the fact that capitalism is based on exploitation of labour. The truth is that even when people are in movements to fight racism, they’re having issues getting other black folks involved, why? Because they’re hustling to pay the bills and that’s the thing black folks would rather handle. People have enough problems spending eight hours a day figuring that out, and that’s the milieu with which movements should operate around. That real shit in the sense that racism under capitalism has utility. The racist tropes that we hear and complain about are said in a way that tells us that the economic system has nothing to do with it. That people come from cultures that make them make bad choices while also telling white folks about themselves, and what made others remain in poverty. This surreal, absurdist movie is more real than those other movies that are meant to be a slice of a reality. People are feeling a movie that brings to them in a way that a lot of other films don’t bother to touch on.
Given your background with critiquing those elements of capitalism, and the fact that you’re making this film in a system like Hollywood, which has its own issues within that same place, how do you view the industry after this whole process?
Like in any industry or group of people, there are many different forces at play. Everybody wants their own piece. Everybody's looking for their own thing, and so in that, there are also people that have lofty ideals as artists, and unfortunately a lot of times those folks, they get swallowed up and changed to being about the bottom line like everyone else. While they're there, those are the people that I can go to, to help make this happen. Since this movie is really connected to the ways a group of people are feeling.There’s millions of people more to the left of the Democratic party that didn’t vote for Trump despite what the results suggested. If you’re going to make art for the consumption of most people, you’re going to have to stop making this art that’s putting out this middle-of-the-road politics.
You’re going to have to stop that if you want your art to be relevant. The reason people didn’t go see Solo as in other stuff simply wasn’t because they didn’t like the direction. It was also because people are tired of the same thing with the same viewpoints. All those movies have a viewpoint when when they’re acting like they don’t. It has a view of the world where most people aren’t being represented.
I remember when you used to work on Occupy Oakland , you said that your on-the-ground activism had a stronger message than your music. And that it could reach more people.
Yeah, it was because we were doing it around around work stoppage. We had a general strike that brought out 50,000 people.
But in correlation with that, the idea that it was stronger is there, and yet you’re doing this film addressing similar issues, what kind of impact are you expecting then with this direction?
Hopefully this film opens up the discussion among radicals and progressives about other tactics that we can use for social change. I mean with like any of these police brutality cases when we're trying to get like so many people out in the street to say we're against police killings, they are, to a certain extent toothless. When we do that, by itself, we're selling the idea that this is a system where you complain loud enough to someone it’ll work out. And that's not really a complete analysis of the system if you have a police killing in a certain city. Rather, you can organize around groups of people in front of workplaces, as they shut things down, not by being in front of them, but by closing them down until something happens. That way, you'll have that cop indicted right away, because as we all know, those with the money have the power right? The thing is, is that us as the producers of that profit, we have control over the money if we withheld our labour, so it's introducing that as a tactic for social change.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.