Boots Riley Talks About a Socialist Alternative for Society
Chatting work and politics with the 'Sorry to Bother You' director.
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Sorry to Bother You is a breakneck absurdist comedy set on the frontlines of the class struggle in a call centre in Oakland, California. It follows young man Cassius Green (Lakeith Stansfield) searching for meaning as he tries to scrape together enough cash to pay his uncle rent. After landing a job at RegalView call centre – and after some coaching from his desk neighbour Danny Glover – he soon finds out he's able to deploy his "white voice" to great reward. But at the same time as his career begins to boom, his colleagues are unionising for better pay. Which side will he choose?
I spoke to the film's director and screenwriter Boots Riley (initially famous for his hip-hop group The Coup) about the difference between radical and liberal art, why film is the perfect medium for portraying a political message, and Armie Hammer's socialist roots.
VICE: Sorry to Bother You is a communist film – or, at least one with a communist message. There haven’t been many of those in Hollywood’s history. How did the film get chosen to be made?
Boots Riley: [Laughs] I don't think it got chosen; I think I forced it in there. I am a communist, but I don't think the film goes all the way there. The film has a class analysis which would lead you to the idea. When you point out that capitalism’s main contradiction is the exploitation of labour, then it leads you to the idea that maybe the people should democratically control the wealth that we create with our labour. And so the idea that it leads you to is a communist idea.
Here’s the thing: most people in the world understand that capitalism isn’t working for them and is something they wish could be different. However, many of us just think it’s just a fait accompli – it just is, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. So, there’s people in all sorts of positions that wish the world was different. I mean, last year there was a right-wing think-tank that published the results of a survey they’d done – and they were up in arms about it – but they’d polled 1,400 millennials and one in two of them said they want a socialist society. You see all these things in Russian newspapers of surveys of their readers who say, "Well, it was better before we moved to capitalism, when we had free healthcare and all that stuff." So the basic ideas are just human ideas.
A lot of times, writers just leave out rebellion and those thoughts about the world. First of all, let’s just admit it: most writers come from a different group of people than most of the world. You have to have the ability to have the time to write. Let’s say you’re a writer who doesn't have a job you can write in – at the very best, you have to be in a position where you have to sacrifice lots of stuff to write and still pay the bills and all that stuff. I was able to do that because I was doing music, but most people don’t have the time to do that. So writers tend to come from college-educated backgrounds, and their view of the world is very skewed by their experiences, and they’re around a lot of people who are holding back exactly what they think or mitigating what they say they think possibilities are. So I just think I came at it from a different way of thinking about it, but I think a lot of what I’m talking about is more true and realistic than other films that are supposedly hyper-realistic.
The question as to why this got made – I think I’ve had a lot of practice in terms of how to put my ideas of the world with my personal feelings about my day-to-day life. I’ve had the experience of making music, which was basically a pamphlet on recording, to making stuff that was more artistically and emotionally true and doing that while maintaining a sense of how the world works.
Art that is openly political is often seen as didactic and boring. But your film avoids that and is fun while having a serious political message. How did you avoid being preachy?
I think it definitely has to do with having a radical view of the world. The liberal view of the world when it’s talking about dealing with issues like oppression and racism and even exploitation, it's that the people are fucked up and need to learn. That people need to learn the right way. My view has always been that I have a class analysis that says that the struggle is between the ruling class and the working class and the main contradiction of capitalism is the exploitation of labour. The point of my art has never been "you need to learn", but "let's go get 'em". And so it's preachy if it's "you need to learn", but it’s not if you’re understanding who is on your side.
Millions of people love this movie and didn't even have to be taught any classes about it or anything like that. They understand it. And it speaks to the politics that have been there, but we have been lied to about it. That survey didn't pop up out of the blue. And even with that survey, the other one in two people who didn’t choose socialism, there’s a certain percentage of them that would agree with the other one in two, but would just use different wording.
Why did you think film was a good medium to expose capitalism's contradictions?
Well, with music for instance, it’s something that you listen to, and maybe the first couple of times you’re really just listening to it, you might put on your headphones or turn it up loud and really listen to the lyrics. But most of the time it really plays throughout your life. It plays when you fall in love for the first time, when you’re having sex, getting divorced, when you’re getting drunk with your friends, when you get in a fight with somebody. You know, it’s in the background of your life and so you may pick up different things, but it also sometimes takes on other meanings because it’s often heard in the context of your life. A song plays, and the teacher you hated in high school who used to play it in their car: you associate it with them. So, you know, there’s a little less control. But with a film, I can kidnap you for an hour-and-a-half and create the world around you. And lead you through experiences. It won’t be playing as many times as the song you love to play, but I think it might affect you more.
Have there been any films that have emotionally affected you especially?
Hmm, maybe in the wrong way. When I was 11 or 12, the movie Red Dawn came out. I don’t know if you know that movie, but it came out in the 80s and it's about a Soviet invasion of the US, and it’s all these teenagers who band together when the army get conquered, and are like: "This is our America, and we need to fight!" I was really moved by that as a 12-year-old; I was ready to join the military to fight the communist threat and all that crap. That's why the Pentagon has regular communication with Hollywood. I’ve talked to producers who have been in those rooms – it’s not some conspiracy theory. And it's not always the obvious films; other shit, like you might just think is a comedy, or something where the police solve a mystery.
In the film, Lakeith Stansfield’s character has a choice between unionising with his colleagues or climbing the company ladder. Is that the choice that capitalism gives us? Why is the capitalist route so intoxicating?
For most of us, it isn't that it is necessarily that intoxicating; it's just that's the only route shown to us. Much of the movement of the left since the 1960s in the US has been stuck on spectacle as the end result, like, "Let's get 50,000 people in the street, let’'s get millions in the street – once the government knows that millions of people are fed up, things will change." You know, this isn’t just liberals, but this is also radicals. I’ve been at stuff where there are 50,000 people on the street, and the new people that show up are hyped, and are like: what do we do now? And we're like, "Uh, I don’t know, lift your voice louder?" And so we push this idea that we’re in some sort of democracy that just comes from people voicing their opinions. People don't see an alternative idea that works, so they take their job in the only game they see in town. If someone wants to feel engaged with their world, and you don’t see a movement around you, and you want to do something that affects history, right now most people will say, "Well, I'm going to get a job in tech," or, "I'm going to be an entrepreneur that does this thing that gets me famous."
What does a socialist alternative look like?
To have some real feeling of power over your environment. To not just decide on who decides on the broad policy for your region, but to decide where the resources and the wealth goes that we create. So, for example: we work at this workplace in this region and these schools don't have enough money; we want to put the wealth from that workplace into these schools. And it also offers more time. People like the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, they all openly worry about the unemployment rate going down because it makes wages go up and stocks go down.
Hopefully you have a job in which you love what you’re doing. But in case you're like most people, where the thing you love is hanging out with your family and friends – or doing some other project – I think people could have a four- or five-hour work day. Having an eight-hour work day started as a socialist dream 150 years ago, right? Everybody could play an instrument, do art, hang out with their family. Because that system wouldn’t be based on overproduction like capitalism is, so we would only need to produce for need and not for profit.
Look: life is never going to be perfect, but there are certain stresses that don’t have to be there, and are only there to help the system work for a few rich people. There are so many stresses around rent and healthcare: at least let our stresses be around romantic relationships and who’s going to win the football game.
This was your first film. How was it working with Hollywood actors? Rich actors don’t tend to be well versed in class struggle.
To be clear, probably only the very rich individual historically is Armie Hammer, who is [businessman and philanthropist] Armand Hammer's great-grandson. And Armie’s smart, he knows stuff, but you also have to think of his great-great-grandfather, who was the leader of the socialist party in the United States. That’s why Armie Hammer was named Armie Hammer. Lenin went around telling everyone to do business with Armie Hammer’s granddad, because he was the only guy doing business with the Soviet Union. So the capitalists were having embargoes, and Armand Hammer was the only one not adhering to it. So that’s a whole complicated thing there. Danny Glover has been involved in radical politics for decades. Him and my father met each other at the San Francisco state university student strike that created the first school of ethnic studies in the US.
But back to what I was saying earlier, people get involved in the system as it is because they don’t see an alternative. So many people agree with these politics, even if they have a lot of money. That doesn't mean that they are themselves downtrodden by the system, that just means they are good people who understand politics and want to be part of something that means something.