Boots Riley had been waiting nearly three decades to make a movie. The Chicago-native turned Bay Area resident studied film as an undergrad at San Francisco State but didn’t immediately become the next Spike Lee. He earned a record deal in the early 90s and focused instead on spreading his leftist messages through the medium of hip-hop. Riley released half a dozen raucous party rap/funk-rock albums with the group the Coup starting with 1993’s Kill My Landlord while managing to balance his art with political activism and community organizing—most famously as the public face of the Occupy movement in Oakland. But that doesn’t mean Riley ever gave up on his dream of becoming a filmmaker.
Eight years ago he penned the script for Sorry to Bother You, a surrealistic satire about his own experience as a and hustled his ass off for years to get it made. Eventually, he won over comedians David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers—who published the screenplay through his book-publishing house in 2014. That led to some financial support and interest from a handful of actors, including Jordan Peele and Donald Glover. In the end, Riley cast Glover’s Atlanta costar, Lakeith Stanfield, as the director’s surrogate and shot the film over 28 days last summer.
The result feels like 30 years of Riley’s ideas stuffed into one nervy and provocative 105-minute feature that simultaneously feels like a kaleidoscope of cinematic influences (critics have most commonly compared it to Get Out, Office Space, Being John Malkovich, and Brazil). It’s a magical realist, sci-fi horror comedy with commentary on race and Marxist messages about class relations and the soul-sucking machinations of capitalism, and quite possibly the most bat-shit insane union recruitment video ever.
Riley, a self-described communist, says the movie’s ideas aren’t “revolutionary,” they just seem that way. Over the last generation, he says, the political left abandoned the working class and union halls in favor of the university and the professional class, in doing so influencing speech, art, and self-expression, but not money or real political power. This movie, he insists, offers a way of toward changing the status quo.
Sorry to Bother You opens in seven cities—including Chicago—today, and nationwide next week. Riley celebrated with the opposite of a red-carpet event. He spoke Thursday night at Socialism 2018, a four-day conference of 2,000 leftists that meets annually in Chicago, and then did a Q&A in the South Loop. The Reader chatted with Riley on-site at Socialism 2018 about Hollywood, class politics, and more. ✖
Rolling Stone‘s headline in its story about you was “Is Hollywood Ready for Boots Riley?” Is it?
I mean, it’s irrelevant. I’m making my movie and people are showing that they want to see it. So I don’t know what they have to get ready for. They just have to accept it.
What about vice versa? Do you think you’re ready for Hollywood?
I didn’t want to just make a film but be a filmmaker. I have a thing that I want to do. People can be on board or they can say “I don’t want to be on board.” If it’s successful, then I’ll just be able to continue doing what I want to do. So I won’t have to deal with it.
It’s not like I’m applying for a job, you know? I’m not like, “Hey, I’m really good at making the kind of movies you want to make!” I don’t have to deal with that. And here’s the real thing: “Hollywood” is this amorphous term. In reality, there are so many people in what would be called Hollywood that really wish they were doing something like what I want to be doing. This [film] is actually opening up the door for them to be involved in stuff like this.
Look at the poll where they studied 4,200 millennials, and one in two of them say they wish that this was a socialist world. A lot of other people in the other generations have felt that way too but feel constrained because they’re like: “OK, this is what I have to do to keep my job.” So this is opening up a door to a large part of what we would call Hollywood to allow for a kind of movies to get made that may not have had much support before this.
A minute ago you said, “I have a thing I want to do.” What is it exactly you’re trying to do?
I’m doing something that’s more representative of real life even though it uses fantastical things because it puts [in] those things—the real ideas and motivations and worries and hopes of people that often are edited out of film because they don’t fit the political agendas of the films that were being funded before. So my goal is to make something that really represents people where they’re at, and what that means is taking the world into context, taking the way people operate inside of this contextualized world.
Do you think Hollywood is now more accepting of your kind of politics?
We didn’t fund this through what you would call Hollywood ways. I went through Sundance Labs, so they didn’t have to be more accepting. Would I have been able to make this in a studio? No.
What would you say are the movie’s politics?
There’s a radical politic that has a class analysis, which just means “analysis” because if you have an analysis of capitalism, it’s an analysis of class. Otherwise, it’s a useless analysis. It means that it situates problems as [systemic], not just the outgrowth of a bad person there and a good person here. That’s pretty unique in modern media.
Other critics have noted that class critiques have all but disappeared from pop culture over the last 30 years. I think there are two things going on. One is the more innocent version: writers don’t interrogate themselves when writing. They make a scene based on their version of the world, not based on their experiences, but they’ve seen. This is why they tend towards cliche, like conversations when breaking up with someone that all sound alike. Think about how many movies have a noontime cafe date. In my life those rare and for most people it’s rare. But in blockbuster movies, it happens a lot because it’s been in some other movie. It’s not even based on the writer’s experience, so they don’t even go through the process of going through it themselves.
I’ve had that experience writing songs—I try to get away from cliche and try to figure out what I actually think and feel about the world. Writers are just writing worlds that already exist and then have the rebellion edited out of them. Even when they’re creating new worlds, they are making fictional worlds where no one fights back. Or only one guy fights back. The not-so-innocent yet more practical version is that it won’t get funded if you write certain things. You get told, “Figure out the one guy who’s the hero.” Even if he’s fighting the corporation, he breaks through the door and exposes the corporate overlord. The guy walks away in shame and the secretary takes over the company.
If I had done that plot in this movie, no one would have blinked an eye. So they think it won’t get funded. But, for me, I have certain things I want to put forward about what I think about the world.
Will people go to this movie and think, “Oh, I can connect this to socialism?”
I don’t know. It does offer a class analysis and offer the idea that if we want to make social change, organizations need to be doing things that we can plug people into.
That’s because a lot of other artists equate the art itself with politics. I remember Spike Lee talking about Chi-Raq, and he believed the power of his art alone was going to cause social change in Chicago and decrease the violence without connecting to any sort of substantive politics.
I can’t talk about other filmmakers. The things that I believe and the things that I work towards have to do with the fact that I am in a disciplined movement, an organized thing. That’s my whole point.
If you’re not, then you have other ideas about the world. We get taught that letting your voice be heard is enough. And if that’s true, then you can make a film or a song and you’re really letting your voice be heard. But that’s just a myth created by the New Left that was leaving behind class struggle and workers and focusing on students. They thought students were the revolution.
It was not historically accurate, but it was focusing on students and made everything about spectacle and demonstration. In the 20s and 30s, the demonstrations were just that. Here are 50,000 people who work in the steel industry who will shut your shit down. They’ll shut the industry down if you don’t do A, B, or C. It was a demonstration of power. I’ve been involved in actions where we bring 50,000 people out and the new people are like, “What’s next? How does this thing work?,” and we’re like, “I don’t know.” That’s because we have been disconnected from the actual point of power, which is at the point of creation of wealth, which is on the job.
How do you change? I think this movie offers one suggestion. Even right-wingers understand that the people with the money have the power. There’s not even any hard-core Republicans that say, “No, the people with the money don’t have the power, that’s communist shit.”
People understand that. They might believe it should be that way. But if the people with the money have the power, they get their money, they’re like: “Let’s get our money at the point where they make a profit off someone’s labor—whether it’s retail or production.” And then we can control them by not giving them that wealth, which is their power. And we have power in that way.
What I’m saying is not revolutionary. It’s revolutionary, but it’s not new. It’s just regular shit that a lot of the left has decided it’s just not doing because we started focusing on students. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on students. But then students get jobs in academia or at foundations or nonprofits or kind of keep the same thing going to the point where they think that we just gotta get more people to be saying the right thing to make .
Some critics have focused on your critique of big tech in this movie.
I don’t know. That’s what Wired said, but I disagreed with him even in the interview. But it’s not just tech.
People want to point to tech because it makes you not point at capitalism. They’re the new kids on the block, but it could be Henry Ford. It’s about the relationship of labor to wealth and it seems to me that you look at all those old pictures of the capitalists, like Henry Ford, and they’ve got these fancy things on. They look cool. They’re that year’s version of cool.
The movie does address all these new terms and the ways that employers seek to hide the fact that everything is about capitalism: “Hey, this isn’t a workplace, check out this beanbag chair,” or “I’m not your boss, I’m your friend who tells you what to do.”