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Boots Riley has turned from music to film to raise consciousness of the need for collective struggle against capitalism, as seen in Sorry to Bother You, his satire set in the dispiriting world of telemarketing. “Unless you engage in collective class struggle, you’re not making things better. You’re not making things better by making some art that exposes the way things are. You’re not making things better by not buying Starbucks and buying this other thing instead. The way you make things better is by being involved in class struggle, which is kept out of so many films. Any rebellion, especially class struggle, is just not in that world.”

By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

Boots Riley’s latest coup

Boots Riley.
Credit: Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for MTV

Having a conversation with Boots Riley feels like you’re on a roller-coaster that’s just all drops. Often, he’ll start with a point and then swerve onto a completely unrelated tangent. After one particularly impassioned response, he says, breathless: “I don’t remember if that’s answering your question.” It’s a glimpse into the brilliantly chaotic mind of this activist, filmmaker and musician – it seems sometimes as if he can barely keep up with himself and his bizarre, yet pertinent, even prophetic, considerations.

Riley tells me about how, in 2014, he had a screenplay printed as a small-run book with Dave Eggers’ publishing house, McSweeney’s. In it, a character delivers a single line: “WorryFree is making America great again.” The line didn’t make it into the final version of what became Riley’s debut feature film, Sorry to Bother You, released this year. “I had to take it out because the world has made my script too on the nose,” he deadpans.

More than half a decade in the making, Sorry to Bother You is a bright, scathing and surrealist critique of capitalism in the modern world that captures the disaffected zeitgeist – one that didn’t need much revision, Riley says, to remain relevant in 2018. It’s one of the most overtly anti-capitalist films to have hit the screens in recent years – but given its director, that comes as little surprise.

Raymond Lawrence “Boots” Riley’s political agitation started young. Before he was born in Chicago, his father was involved in the civil rights movement in North Carolina, moving into full-time organising and eventually criminal defence when Riley was a child. At age 14, by then living in Oakland, California, Riley agreed to help his father’s friend out with a rally but was only fully convinced when the friend turned up with a van full of cute girls, heading out to the famous Watsonville canning strike, in which Latina workers held out for 18 months after walking off the job over pay cuts. From there, the teenager became immersed in the world of political organising, helping out with an anti-racist farm workers’ union movement. By 15, he had joined a radical political party and led a walkout at his school, which resulted in a tour around the United States speaking to other teenagers about the importance of activism.

“From that point on, I could see how what I was doing actually had an effect,” says Riley. “It was a one-day thing where we won this struggle, and I was going out and speaking about it and other kids came to the talks, and I got this sense that what I did mattered – that what I did could have a ripple effect.”

It wasn’t just politics that ran in Riley’s blood, though – art and performance did, too. His maternal grandmother ran the Oakland Ensemble Theatre throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and in his youth, Riley became involved in the theatrical scene, joining the Black Repertory Group and writing plays. But his ambition started to outgrow the local stage when the work of a subversive new film director caught his eye. “When Spike Lee started having movies come out, I was like, ‘Okay, maybe theatre is too small and maybe I can make films.’ I was already addicted to TV and movies but hadn’t really seen it as something I could have a way into,” he says. “Spike Lee came along and got me interested in going to film school.”

Riley’s stint as a film student at San Francisco State University was fleeting, as he began to dabble in music around the same time. In the early ’90s, he founded the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, a short-lived cultural organisation that fostered political action through music. He was also working odd jobs – at the United Parcel Service, as a fundraising telemarketer – and left his studies to focus on music when his political hip-hop group, The Coup, landed a record deal.

“Getting funded for the ideas that I had didn’t seem realistic to me,” Riley says. “It was at a time when even short films cost money for a good deal, and at San Francisco State, I didn’t really know anyone who had made their film … So, I went with the music because that was a way I could tell stories in song.”

The Coup’s jazz- and funk-inflected hip-hop was as dance floor-ready as it was a call to arms. With the group Riley – a self-described communist – had a new vehicle through which to communicate his unapologetic messages of anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism and race struggle. “Capitalism is like a spider, the web is getting tighter,” he spits on 1993’s “Not Yet Free”; in 2001, the band released a single entitled “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”. In 2006, Riley formed Street Sweeper Social Club with another politically minded musician, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, with the aim of making “anthems for the revolution”; by the time he was heavily involved in the Occupy Oakland movement in 2011, he was using his by then elevated public profile to draw further attention to social issues.

In a sense, Sorry to Bother You seems the logical next step – an extension of the unrest communicated through Riley’s musical and activist projects, brought to the big screen. The film is an exercise in cinematic whiplash – a wild ride that spins its viewer in unexpected directions. Set in an alternative-reality Oakland, it follows a young black man, Cassius Green, played by the magnetic Lakeith Stanfield, who is hired as a telemarketer at a drab company called RegalView. Thanks to a tip-off from an older black co-worker, played by Danny Glover, Green discovers that he can succeed by code-switching and putting on a “white voice”, overdubbed for the film by David Cross. While his partner and colleagues undertake union action to rise against their poor working conditions, Cassius climbs the corporate ladder and lands a cushy job, with the mysterious title of “Power Caller”, for a controversial company called WorryFree. Soon, though, he finds out that this betrayal comes at a hefty cost as he becomes more deeply entrenched in questions of morality at the hands of his slick and terrifying boss, played by Armie Hammer.

It’s a strange beast: a film that heavily critiques class and race struggle through the lens of magical realism, creating a fantastical dystopia that manages to feel both hyperreal and unimaginable. It’s as if Michel Gondry directed a film adaptation of The Communist Manifesto.

“With this, I could have made a union struggle movie that followed the pattern of a Rocky movie or something,” says Riley. “I could have done that, and then the only thing that would be different about my movie is that it’s against the status quo, but everything else about it would be following whatever cutout pattern had already been made by folks. As an artist, I don’t want to do that – I have more respect for my viewers than to do that. I wanted to take the viewer through a visceral experience.”

Sorry to Bother You is strongly of the moment. There’s a subplot involving a viral video, which recalls Kendall Jenner’s ill-advised Pepsi advertisement, and a reality TV show called I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me, in which the contestants are beaten up for cash. Since premiering at Sundance in January, the film has become one of the year’s sleeper hits, recently earning Riley two nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards – for best screenplay and best first feature.

Drawing on his own time as a telemarketer, Riley’s depiction of the job’s inherently deceitful nature creates a perfect mirror for the capitalist system and highlights the plight of the creatives who are forced into undesirable positions to make ends meet. “It made me feel like I was selling my soul all the time,” Riley says. “I was good at it, and the way I was good at it was misleading people in different ways. It was me using my creativity for bullshit. Maybe the greatest artist of our time is somewhere in some room figuring out the font for cereal packs, and that’s because that’s how this system works. So much of humanity is held back [by] the way our system is set up.”

The film’s heavy reliance on the aesthetic emphasises Riley’s view of the commodification of political resistance. Played by Tessa Thompson, Cassius’s artist girlfriend, Detroit – criticised online as a manic pixie dream girl archetype, a claim Riley disputes – communicates her politics in the film through her wardrobe: striking pieces adorned with snappy catchphrases. Tell homeland security we are the bomb, a pair of earrings screams. The future is female ejaculation, a T-shirt declares.

“The whole thing that the film talks about is rebellion as aesthetic – if we make rebellion be just aesthetics, then everything that we think is rebellion is co-opted,” he says. “The problem comes up with the idea that there is an aesthetic of rebellion. There was a time when people thought that punk rock belts meant that you were anti-authoritarian. I wouldn’t doubt that you could find a picture of Melania Trump with a punk rock belt on. The mistake is attaching any of these ideas to an aesthetic. All those aesthetics change – with the film I’m using aesthetics to get a point across, but those things change with time.”

To the elephant-in-the-room question of how to fight against capitalism and consumerism with a film produced by an industry driven by capital – a complex balancing act for the political artist who still has bills to pay – Riley has a ready answer.

“Some people mistake fighting capitalism with being anti-consumerist. Being anti-consumerism is not fighting capitalism at all, it’s just directing it to the tiny capitalists who want to be large capitalists anyway. Fighting capitalism needs the working class struggling against the ruling class, and hopefully fighting for a system in which the people democratically control the wealth that we create with our labour. What’s fighting against capitalism is getting people to organise collectively, so they can withhold labour in strategic and tactical ways that can advance a class struggle. Knowing that, the question is: What are the ways that someone can be against capitalism? The only way is helping that to be organised, so therefore if I make a movie that helps make that happen, then it really doesn’t even matter – it’s not a contradiction at all.”

Although Riley has always sought to make a point with his art, to him, that alone is not enough to create change. By centring the class struggle in Sorry to Bother You, he’s hoping to create a view of a world that is often omitted from the glitz and glamour of film – and encourage people to join that world in their real lives. “Unless you engage in collective class struggle, you’re not making things better. You’re not making things better by making some art that exposes the way things are. You’re not making things better by not buying Starbucks and buying this other thing instead. The way you make things better is by being involved in class struggle, which is kept out of so many films. Any rebellion, especially class struggle, is just not in that world.”

Sorry to Bother You sits alongside films such as Get Out in the new class of politically motivated cinema giving a voice to black America and its struggles. Riley isn’t afraid to speak up, though, about what he sees as problems in this movement. In August, he made headlines for criticising his filmmaking hero, Spike Lee, over BlacKkKlansman’s revisionist version of black history. “If you’re going to tell a story where the cops are the protagonists against racism, you’re going to have to lie because they never have been,” Riley says. “It was important for me to call this out right now at a time where, especially in the US, there are all sorts of movements trying to figure out what we’re going to do next.”

And, with that, our time is up. Riley is not one for empty pleasantries, and it’s on to the next interview. A certainty: this is a man who’s here to get shit done. He said it best himself in 1993 on The Coup’s self-titled song: “All we need is satisfaction, we don’t want just a fraction / and we’ve come to a conclusion: revolution is the solution.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "Telemarket forces". Subscribe here.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
is a Vietnamese–Australian writer based in Melbourne.