I first met Boots Riley, frontman of the Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, at a little café in West Oakland, which is how it should be. In hip-hop circles, Riley is a big deal—he was in a music video with Tupac, his album Party Music was Rolling Stone's "Hip-Hop Album of the Year," and Pick a Bigger Weapon is a masterpiece—but also seems like the kind of guy who still hangs out in Oakland. At first, I was unsure if it was Riley. He's grown a beard around his trademark muttonchops, but his huge afro and leather jacket gave him away.
Early last year, after running into Dave Eggers while walking around San Francisco, Riley sent Eggers a film script he had been working on. Eggers told him it was one of the best unproduced screenplays he'd ever come across, and the script, Sorry to Bother You, was released as part of McSweeney's 48 last November.
Riley's film is a dark comedy about Oakland, unionization, and the world of telemarketing. The protagonist, Cassius Green, finds himself as a rising star at a telemarketing firm right as his friends and girlfriend are organizing a work stoppage to protest wages. As we learn more about WorryFree, the telemarketing firm's most important client, the film takes a surreal turn.
Sorry to Bother You is funny, political, and more than a little bit bizarre, which is exactly what you'd expect from a Boots Riley production. After reading it, I met up with Riley at the San Francisco Film Society, which is tucked inside a half-constructed building in the heart of Chinatown. We talked about his history as a telemarketer, the state of Oakland, and whether or not his film can start the revolution.
VICE: What first sparked the desire to write the screenplay Sorry to Bother You? Has it always been a dream to write a film?
Boots Riley: Coming from more of an indie music thing—we started out selling our music out of the trunks of our cars—these weren't really dreams, they were just a choice. Do I want to do this or do I want to do that? I never looked at any of these things as some sort of unattainable goal. It's just about what you spend your time on.
While I was doing Street Sweeper Social Club, Marc Geiger from William Morris Agency was our agent. He said, "Hey, you should come in and maybe we can get you some acting jobs." I was in LA and went by there to have the meeting, but all the roles were like cops or dope dealers. Why would I want to spend hours and hours of my life fulfilling somebody else's fucked up vision of the world? I'd rather spend hours and hours of my life putting out my own fucked up vision of the world.
What did you hope publishing the script in McSweeney's would do for the prospective film?
Nowadays, there are no rules how a piece of art can come out. Having McSweeney's publish it is just one way. This is the script printed out in a tangible form you can hold in your hands—there's something to that. It will get some buzz going. But we are getting this movie made. Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Wyatt Cenac have all signed on to it. We got some good people on the team.
You initially told me the inspiration for the film came from your personal experience as a telemarketer. Throughout the film, the protagonist, Cassius Green, switches between his natural voice and a white voice he has to use to be successful at selling over the phone. Did you feel that kind of pressure to "act whiter" while telemarketing?
I had so many telemarketing jobs, and if you could sound like you were white, you would sell a lot more. What I actually was doing a lot of the time was tele-fundraising, so it was ostensibly not as bad. But, in order to raise money for the LA Mission, we'd be calling Orange County and I'd have to go into this whole thing like, "Look, we're really worried about the homeless people in your neighborhood—there's been break-ins—and what we're trying to do is get them out of your neighborhood and all here to Downtown LA." I'd tell them, "We're going to solve homelessness by teaching them to do better in job interviews," like the problem for poor people is that they don't know how to do good in job interviews or what color tie to wear. Like it all could be solved with a good "How To" YouTube clip!
To do all that, you have to get in a different mindset and use all of your creative energy to lie to people or paint a different picture. You come away every time just feeling drained.
Was there actually a character like Hal Jameson, the idealized, top-selling telemarketer from your script? Was there an idea that if you do it just right, you could be that guy?
Oh yeah. You'd always hear stories about some guy with a real nice car who had paid off his mortgage, but you never really saw that. That's how it is in every job. If you sweep the floor good enough every day, you too can be a manager!
In Sorry to Bother You, you create this kind of dystopian Oakland, where people are living in RVs and everyone's out of work. Is it a reaction to the real-life gentrification of Oakland and to those who are getting left behind?
Actually, in West Oakland there are a lot of people on my street living in RVs. It's not some dystopian version, it's actually happening.
But gentrification is a part of capitalism, so the script is really talking about the system in general. I don't think you can fight gentrification by just being against it. The real thing that would fight gentrification is a combination of things, but number one would be jobs that pay enough. We need a militant union movement that made the jobs that do exist in Oakland pay enough so people could afford to pay rent. And combine that with a real rent control.
Those things are like the opposite of the "development" you always hear about. We always hear about "economic development" or "developing the city" and they're not talking about people—they're talking about the geographical boundaries of a city. Economic development is never for the people that are there. It's not bringing in jobs, they're bringing in people with jobs. And if it's not the people, then you're just talking about the buildings that are there. It becomes a better place for other people to live, better for the real estate developers.
Tell me about WorryFree—the corporation selling a sort-of chic slave labor in the story. It's clearly an evil company, but it has a little of the Silicon Valley feel to it, too. Their rent-free, live-in dormitories for factory workers are being sold as a way to "disrupt" the old offshore factory system.
I'm sure that some version of that is going to come up in the future. Like, you're saving money because everybody is living in the CEO's basement or something. It's not too far from Google, but at Google at least they actually get paid something.
I think that it's also how slavery was described, right? We're taking care of them. You get meals, you get shelter. At WorryFree, they live and work in places that are like prison cells, but have a chandelier. What's the difference?
Near the end of the film, the telemarketing firm breaks the picket lines with a paramilitary escort. In the last few months, the issue of a militarized police force has been all over the news and your lyrics have focused on this militarized state for a while ("we have hella people / they have helicopters" from "The Guillotine," for example). How important is it for police forces to demilitarize? Do you think the horrors of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the aftermath will finally start the movement toward a less-armed police?
I think the conversation I want to spur is not just about the fact that the police are militarized—Actually, I don't want to spur a conversation. I want to spur a movement. If we're not doing anything, but the police are demilitarized, is that going to be a better world? No. What makes it a better world is if there's a movement that has a chance of growing and actually changing material conditions in our lives. That is the reason that there's a militarized police force in the first place.
When I say, "We have hella people, they have helicopters," I'm trying to point out that they can have this technology, but we're the ones that have to operate it. They've got our eyes on the details of technology, but the truth is, this whole world is run through the power of the working class. We're who creates the profit and we can reorganize it. Helicopters won't matter.
The conversation needs to be about the fact that we can, through actually withholding our labor at strategic times, stop the system, cause negotiation around changing little things, and also organize for a bigger change. And that's the conversation that I would really rather have: the idea that these movements need to have some teeth behind them, and that those teeth need to come from withholding labor.
Right on. Thanks, Boots.
Joseph Bien-Kahn is a freelance reporter, part-time café worker, and roving intern in San Francisco. He's had articles published in the Rumpus and the Believer, and writes a hip-hop column for BAMM.tv. He's also editor-in-chief of the literary mag OTHERWHERES. Follow him on Twitter.