The title of Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You, has some irony to it, from the very start it’s an experience that makes no apologies, not in the stark commentary on late stage capitalism, the hyper surreal style or the infamous and instantly iconic idea of the ‘white voice’ – a state of problemness that middle America projects onto themselves. The film has no problem being abrasive or non-conforming, and it’s done to dizzying effect – the buzz it has is usually reserved for the conveyor belt of Blockbuster films, but a cult following and rabid word of mouth has carried it from the independent circuits of the States to an international release. Riley’s debut has been described as wild, refreshing, macabre, provocative, hilarious and a string of other adjectives that would normally contradict themselves, but its rebellious nature in the subject and filmmaking is what has lead it to cinemas here in the UK.
Rebellion is a common theme in Riley’s art, his band The Coup (who soundtracked the film) have been wrapping emancipatory messages with progressive sonic ideas from punk, funk and hip hop since the 1990s. It’s impossible to claim song titles like ‘Kill My Landlord’, ‘5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.’ and ‘What The Po-Po’s Hate’ have no root in socialist politics, and to Riley, there is very little point in creating works of art that don’t question our world, and what we consume in it. Meeting in a hotel room in Central London he tells me, “I wouldn’t have wanted to make it without that core idea. I wouldn’t be an artist. I wouldn’t have a reason for making the work. That’s what drives all of my art. It’s very important… I probably wouldn’t be as creative if I tried to make something more trite.” The importance of art in critiquing the world and creating a new one is of the utmost importance to Riley, and is a core aspect of character Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson), the artist and partner of lead Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) – his characters pop off the screen because they’re all grounded in people he’s met or been with during his time organizing in unions across America.
Just from talking with him briefly, it’s clear he’s as articulate and inquisitive as Steven Yeun’s character Squeeze, a community organizer and as funny and laid back as Jermaine Fowler’s Salvador. For Riley, the role of the artist is still the same role he’s had in community organisations in his hometown of Oakland. “Functionally I’m an artist right now because that’s what I’m doing, my ideas are formed because I have been involved in organisations and I have organised. I think everyone’s role period is to make the world better around them and to organise and help change things. If you’re a human – that’s your role, if you are a human artist – then that’s what you have to do it through. The thing is if you’re commenting from the outside “I see this movement there, I see that movement there, this is what I think needs to happen” often you miss the mark. Because artists need to be involved in grassroots movements and be part of those things, not just because they need to know with the campaigns are asking but they need to be involved with trying to get average everyday people involved in the campaigns because that’s when you learn what the questions are that people are dealing with so that you’re art deals with those questions.”
Despite creating a film that seems like it must have been made in the height of deep creative fever, Riley is still entrenched in the grassroots levels of community organising. Working with leftist groups such as the Progressive Labor Party has been more than responsible for his approach to creating Sorry To Bother You, as the film itself feels more akin to works by documentary makers and academics such as Naomi Klein and Adam Curtis rather than more commercial directors, despite it being steeped in surrealism. As we go back to back about some of the theories and subtexts of the film he mentions Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, “… [in the book] someone is trying to create an anti-war instillation in the early 2000’s where the idea is you walk in and feel the horror of war. He did that because he thought that would be an effective anti-war piece, but he thought that because he thought that what people needed to do was understand that war is terrible. But if you’re involved in anti-war movement you already understand that, and if you’re involved in trying to get people involved with an anti-war movement on the ground level then you get to understand that people aren’t involved because those demonstrations aren’t gonna do anything. If that’s what you know then your art becomes different, you have a different question to answer.” Sorry To Bother You is certainly different, but it’s a difference thats born out of necessity, out of an urgency that’s needed to answer questions that feel like they have been avoided from filmmakers without such clear goals in their work.
Some of the things in there are speaking to people who will already consider themselves part of a movement, because these are just ideas that I’ve had.
Of course, one of those goals for Riley would be getting a film like this to as many people as possible. Its ideas on collective action suggest strength in numbers is an important aspect not just in organising but in the making of the film. STBY’s stellar casting and uniquely alluring style is sure to draw many people in, even though its subtext has a reputation for being heady or esoteric. Asking him whether he thought making a film as cerebral and downright weird, would work for large audiences he says, “[I tried for] As many people as possible…. cause I think some people are not thinking of themselves as a part of that movement partially because they don’t know how it will win. You know, they’re like “will that work?” And so there’s a lot more people who will join that movement. Some of the things in there are speaking to people who will already consider themselves part of a movement, because these are just ideas that I’ve had.”
Being an organiser has informed so much of Sorry To Bother You, but being an artist is what has gotten the ideas formed through those times to the largest stage yet. It’s a film that’s as relevant to our political climate as it has been to any other under capitalism, and the reason why it’s vocal fanbase claim it as one of the years’ best movies, even if it doesn’t get the awards nominations it deserves. Despite being a product of our time, and fielding a few indictments of modern American politics, capitalism and media – its dreamlike visual style make the film feel like dateless haze that could take place at some point in the near future or in some alternate timeline in America’s past. Despite this, one of the most amazing and terrifying things about the film is it’s root in reality – Riley’s world often feels like a sidestep away from our own, WorryFree CEO and antagonist Steve Lift – played by Armie Hammer – has more than a few similarities to symbols of power such as Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump. Sometimes the differences became ineligible and the similarities terrifyingly close.
“There’s a line i had to take out, that we published in the screenplay in McSweeneys [in 2012], that Omari Hardwick’s character whose name is Mr. _______(Mr. And seven underscores) says, “WorryFree is making America Great Again”. But the point is it’s capitalism, it’s not George Bush, or Barack Obama or Trump, ‘the economic system we’re in, those folks, they’re just the elected officials that function as the puppets of the ruling class.” It’s a bold statement for someone who could possibly leverage the awards chatter surrounding him into a long filmmaking career, but talking to him that part always felt unlikely.
For as much as the past election in the US and the referendum in the UK has brought about greater political apathy, neither of these cases are more than emblematic of the real problem of capitalism. Through STBY, Riley questions power by questioning the systems which give it its power, instead of the expected finger pointing at officials of a system that benefit regardless of who is elected. The reality of operating in a system that profits most from maintaining the power of the ruling classes is enough to turn people away from politics completely, as it did with Cassius at the start of the film but for Riley, as it eventually becomes for Cassius, direct action against this power is the more effective resistance against power; “a lot of the times we think of a movement as exposing the problem, we wanna let folks know that this is a problem, because we’ve left behind class struggle, because we’ve left behind actually organising on the job. If you’re in a capitalist system, its an economic system, it’s not just based on thoughts and ideas.” He continues, “the power comes from the wealth that’s created from people working and creating a profit, and all that profit goes up to the ruling class, so our power comes from the ability to withhold labour. So there’s a hopelessness that comes partly from what we put out there when we have movements that are appealing to the good senses of power, “please stop doing this” or “we’re letting you know that were mad” – what it’s saying is not just a message to the people who are doing the wrong thing, it’s sending a message to everyone else that our pathway is putting pressure on them, and that pressure is only defined as having people in the streets. There was a time in the 20s and 30s in the US where putting people in the streets was very connected to organising labour, if you had 20,000 people in the street it was 20,000 people from this industry or that industry. And the power came from the fact that they can say ‘we don’t like this and were 20,000 people who can shut down your industry’ because we just did it 5 months ago for this other thing – “you will lose X amount of dollars, if you do this”
Towards the end of our brief conversation, it becomes clear the amount of knowledge Riley can synthesise into a few words, and for a writer it’s a valuable skill. The screenplay which has floated on literary publications since the early 2010’s, is filled with ideas on code switching, media and advertising, career activism, socialism, disenfranchisement and art. For every moment that feels absurdist and avant-garde, there’s another that feels strangely ominous, sometimes almost inevitable. It’s a captivating critique of our bleak world through a bonkers alternate universe, but its problems are far from fiction.
“It’s not prophetic, it’s just providing an analysis of capitalism as being about the exploitation of labour, nobody can disagree with that, but because it’s in film it seems like something prophetic, because when you talk about it from that standpoint those truths are gonna be here until we have a movement that confronts that and changes that.”
Sorry To Bother You is in cinemas across the UK now.