An Interview With Boots Riley: “In the World of Film, We’ve Edited out All Rebellion”
“I think the movement needs to organize the 93 percent of the work force that is not organized.”
As both a longtime activist and the lead vocalist for the hip-hop group The Coup, Boots Riley is no stranger to politically charged art. But with Sorry to Bother You, Riley has made his first foray into film.
The movie — which Riley both wrote and directed — follows Cassius “Cash” Green, a young black man who makes his way up the ladder at a telemarketing firm by using his “white voice.” At the same time Green is ascending, his fellow telemarketers, fed up with low pay and no benefits, are organizing a union — creating an explosion of collective labor action rarely shown on the silver screen.
While the world of Sorry to Bother You is similar to the one we inhabit, it contains elements of magical realism. In the movie, the company Worry Free promises workers freedom from the worries of unemployment or want of food and shelter by allowing them to sign a lifetime contract. They’re then housed in a prison and receive no wages for their work. In short, slavery. As Riley explains in the following interview, this bending of reality shows “how we will accept anything if it’s packaged in the right way and we don’t think we can do anything about it.”
Sorry to Bother You isn’t just an entertaining, mind-bending film. It’s also one of the best anticapitalist films in recent memory. It’s one of the rare films that meaningfully depicts collective labor struggles. And it doesn’t merely show us what we’ll accept when we think we can’t do anything — it shows us just what we can do to fight capitalist exploitation.
Jacobin recently sat down with Riley in Washington, DC before a screening of Sorry to Bother You to discuss his widely acclaimed film, the role of art in anticapitalist struggles, and what kind of political action the current moment calls for. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve been outspoken in all of your interviews that you are a communist. When Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! referred to you as an “anticapitalist,” you responded, “I’m a communist.” What do you mean when you say you’re a communist, and how is that different from your garden-variety anticapitalist?
BR: In actuality, it’s not. Most people that are seriously calling themselves anticapitalist are usually doing that as some version of anarchist, or something like that. I feel like a lot of the anarchists that would call themselves anticapitalist also might call themselves anarcho-socialist and anarcho-syndicalist. When you talk about what they’re actually saying, the kind of world they want to make [is a communist world].
What is that world, though?
BR: That world, how I’ve come to describe it, is one where the people democratically control the wealth that they create with their labor. What does that mean? Does that mean democracy like you vote on things? Are there meetings? Those are things that will be figured out along the way.
I say communist because that’s really what all those folks are talking about. It’s really a result of anticommunism that people sometimes call themselves anarchists. A lot of people will hear this and be like, “That’s not true.” But it’s a way to say, “I’m not part of those mistakes that happened before.” In reality, we all are part of those mistakes that happened before.
Whether you call yourself a child of that legacy or not, you are. We have to look at those things. So that is why I say “communist,” because the world that even anarchists are saying they want to create is a communist world.
Sorry To Bother You is an unabashedly radical, anticapitalist film. Yet it’s also enjoyed widespread critical acclaim, including from some rather unlikely sources. Politico called it “2018’s sharpest political satire.” Are you surprised by the reception?
BR: I’m surprised at the amount of publicity it’s getting. I’m not surprised by the sentiment. I wasn’t ready for the volume of them.
Going beyond critics, how do you think the film resonates with audiences?
BR: Because I happen to be very involved in the promotion of it, I end up on social media a lot. I’m not only tweeting, but I’m reading. Maybe it’s obsessive, but it’s part of the experience for me. Also, I probably have screened the movie with audiences about forty-five times. So I have a sense of what’s out there.
I would say 85 percent to 90 percent of the people really like it or love it, or maybe 80 percent love it and 10 percent really like it. They might have different problems with it, but, hey, what movies don’t you have problems with?
Do you think they see something in their lives reflected in the film?
BR: Yeah. In the world of film we’ve edited out all rebellion. We’re supposed to be showing representations of life, and whether the main characters in those worlds agree with it or not, there’s rebellion that’s happening in the world. It’s edited out. It’s replaced by other mundane things that aren’t really in our world, like noontime café dates.
There is also a group of people, like 10 percent, that don’t like [the movie]. Here’s the thing — they don’t hate it because of the politics, they hate it because of the twist in it.
I’m sure that maybe some of those 10 percent are saying they hate it because they politically disagree, but nobody’s walking out saying, “You know, I disagree with that strike stuff.”
I actually want to talk about the strike, because you mentioned that rebellion’s been edited out of films. We do occasionally see films that are social satires, but very few films in recent memory really center labor struggles or collective action by workers. Why did you choose to center these types of collective labor struggles in your film?
BR: It has to do with my analysis of what the problem is.
What is capitalism? It’s the exploitation of labor and everything that grows out from that point. That is the fulcrum point of capitalism. That is also the part that we could have control of collectively.
When the story of Cuba gets told it’s always about Fidel going to Mexico, and Che was up there, and then they came in and rode on a horse. But there were strikes happening already, general strikes happening. The people were ready. They wouldn’t have been able to do that with just an army.
What is it about strikes that make them such a powerful point of leverage?
BR: Because that is where the wealth is created. It is also not just a point of leverage. It is those kinds of actions that teach the people involved and the onlookers how capitalism works. To the extent that there is a spectacle in it, it’s a much clearer spectacle than going out on the street and just saying, “This is all fucked up” or saying, “We’re against this one thing.” It’s a spectacle that teaches. It is also one that has the potential for exacting compromise from power. It can grow and people can duplicate it.
There’s a documentary called Rocking the Foundations about the Building Labourers Federation in Australia in the 1970s. When the union started out, in the 1950s, it was run by gangsters — people that worked with the bosses. They got the gangsters out, and in the 1960s they became a very militant union. Not necessarily a radical union, but a militant union. They just shut down places. They were able to win the things that they wanted.
They got so powerful, and their leadership was actually radical, that they started striking on behalf of community organizations. If a developer had some money in a different development company that was moving people out of a certain neighborhood and gentrifying it, they shut down all his buildings and won. They got so effective the developers started kidnapping people.
If we want to have a radical movement that also is clear on how capitalism works, we’re going to have to be involved with people where they work and in the struggles that everyone’s involved with. We need to collectivize that struggle.
Your film is a searing indictment of both capitalism and racism in the US. How do racism and capitalism play together in your film? How do you see them interacting in the world outside of your film?
BR: I’ll start with the second one first.
Racism, or the creation of the idea of race and the racist ideas that formed around it, was necessary for the creation of capitalism. Slavery was necessary. Before that you always had groups of people that didn’t like each other, but it was around nations. There was no one who thought that the people from Ireland somehow because they looked the same were similar to the people from France.
It was easier to justify that these darker-skinned people were different than the rest of the European working class, and that it was okay, by saying, “This is a different race.” This is a different species, basically, is what they were saying. “You don’t have to worry, white working class” — that was how they ensured capitalism was able to work.
It’s something that still has utility to this day, in the same way.
Racist ideas about people of color are how poverty is now explained: that there are cultural deficiencies people of color have, such as families not being together, or even just outwardly racist ideas like we’re stupid or savage or we have this aggressiveness that we need to learn away.
All of that explains poverty as [a product of] bad choices. It gives an explanation for all of capitalism that even the white working class looks at. In believing that, the white working class believes wherever they are has to do with what they choose to do or don’t choose to do. So, it has that utility.
In the film, [capitalism intersects with racism] — black folks deal with it on a day-to-day basis as an obstacle to survival. It’s something that you’ve got to figure out. It’s not always this theoretical thing of, “How does this work?” It’s, “I’ve got to get this money.” You are seeing me in this way, I need to disguise myself so I can get this money.
Is that where the white voice comes into play?
BR: Yes. It’s using the same language that you’re using, but it gives the other person some buy-in, like, “Oh, you’re safe, you didn’t grow up in these areas, you aren’t like this other racist idea I have. Oh, okay, cool.”
You made the point in another interview that the white voice itself doesn’t actually exist — that there’s an element of class to it.
BR: Yeah, that’s that same utility. The opposite of those racist tropes about people of color is then how do you not exemplify them? If you feel like poverty comes from these bad choices that people make, how do you fit yourself within that? You’re not a person that makes these bad choices. Even though you might only be making $22,000 a year, you’re middle class.
There’s a performance — all of this is performance, everything that we do. It’s not something I’m saying that people can’t get away from, but the question is which performance do you choose, and some of that has to do with this idea that everything’s okay.
You’ve got your bills paid, as Danny Glover says.
BR: Yeah, Danny Glover’s character says, “You’ve got your bills paid. You don’t need this money.” It says that there is no real white voice, that it’s what white people think they’re supposed to sound like, what they wished they sounded like.
A white guy, for them to be thought of as poor, there have to be a lot of indicators. They have to almost be dressed like they’re homeless. For someone black, they have to indicate the other way in order for you to not think that.
Race and class are inextricably tied, but we are often looking at race separate from class. Which one is more important? Well, because we have a class system, racism is necessary to uphold it. You’re not going to get rid of racism without getting rid of capitalism. On the other hand, you’re not going to be able to have a movement that gets rid of capitalism without also working to get rid of racism at the same time.
You’ve pushed back against people who have tried to claim that Sorry To Bother You is about the Trump era. You’ve pointed out that the script was completed in 2012, which was right after Occupy. Like you, I was involved in Occupy. When I was watching the film, it struck me how easily it could have come out in that time period and been perceived as an Occupy moment film. I also get why people watch it and think of it as a Trump moment film. What do you think it is about the film that makes it seem so salient and relatable in two seemingly different political moments?
BR: Capitalism. It’s still here. I don’t know when it wouldn’t seem salient.
I think there may have been times when it wouldn’t have been as accepted.
It’s funny, because I was talking to Jordan [Peele, director of Get Out] when he was deciding to change the ending of his movie. They had shot it one way, where the main character goes to prison. He wrote that in the Obama era, when they were saying, “We’re post-racial.” It had a different point that he was trying to make with that, which was, “We’re not post-racial.” So then because by the time it came out, everybody agreed that we’re not post-racial, he wanted a victory point in there instead. Similarly with this, I think maybe there are times that it could have come out where people were drinking the Kool-Aid a little bit more.
But I think what this film is doing is it can re-center the actual critique instead of just being about Trump.
I know you’ve talked about how Regal View came from your experiences in telemarketing, but what’s the impetus for Worry Free? Worry Free has a particular business model. They’re basically bringing back slavery. Do you see us headed in that direction?
BR: I wasn’t as much trying to say that I’m predicting something as I was trying to show how we will accept anything if it’s packaged in the right way and we don’t think we can do anything about it.
But what I will say about that is it already exists in other countries. And I don’t want to give anybody an out by saying it exists in other countries — it’s funded by US companies in other countries. The real big exaggeration in the movie is that it’s happening in the US.
Sorry to Bother You has been described as surreal, magical realist, even science fiction. Was there something about those types of genres, where there’s a break with reality as we know it, that was particularly conducive to your political message?
BR: Actually, I didn’t go into it like that. I have a big critique of a lot of science fiction films — I think that’s where leftist writers go to hide.
Sometimes you can have science fiction where you create a whole other world, like Star Wars. The genesis was Apocalypse Now. It was supposed to be George Lucas’s movie at first. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, they came up from LA to the Bay Area because it was the hotbed of radicalism. They wanted to make a radical film collective. And they didn’t. But after Lucas did American Graffiti, he was like, “Cool, I have a hit. Now I’m doing my Apocalypse Now,” which was his movie based on Heart of Darkness.
The protagonists were [supposed to be] the Vietcong — we were following them, going into enemy territory, into the US’s conquered territory, and finding their Kurtz, which was someone who had come from the Vietcong, joined up with the US, risen in the ranks because of everything he knew and how murderous he was against his own people, and they were going to go get him.
He couldn’t get it funded. He was like, “What? I just made all this money? What’s going on?” They were like, “It’s too radical. You’re not going to get this funded. Leave it alone.” He was like, “Okay, I’ll take the same story and I’ll put it in space.” The Rebels were the Vietcong, the Empire was the US, and Darth Vader was their Kurtz.
But here’s my point. It’s the biggest piece of culture maybe in the last century. Does it matter even that it had some radical idea? That story’s so far removed from anything, we have to think that it made no difference. Even if 1 percent of the people had seen something in that and been inspired, it would be a whole country worth of people. But because science fiction is so allegorical it pushes to where that’s all you have —allegory that can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. I didn’t want to make worlds that were so far out there.
I needed the world [of Sorry to Bother You]. When I started writing it, there was no fantastical element in it. I only did that because it was necessary to the characters’ development. It was necessary to contextualize things without having somebody say it in the dialog.
How do I get these larger philosophical ideas and context in there without having one of the people say, “Well, you know, this is how it goes.” My way of doing it was to bend reality. So I started doing that. The first time I actually stated doing that was with the Danny Glover speech.
Everything in that movie, for all the weirdness that everybody says is in there, every single weird crazy thing is something that we ended up needing, that we couldn’t do without.
What types of political organizing or movements do you think the current moment needs?
BR: I believe that what we need is a radical-led movement that uses the withholding of labor to win struggles. That means it’s going to have to start with wage struggles, but it’s going to have to be radical in vision and be clear that this is not the only thing that it’s about. I believe that will make it win more because nobody only wants their job to only be about right then; they want to be connected to something else. They also want to believe that the folks that are organizing are actually going to fight to win.
I think that the movement needs to organize not just in the unions that exist. It needs to organize the rest of the 93 percent of the work force that is not organized.
What do you think is the role of artists like yourself in the anticapitalist struggle?
BR: I think the role of this film, for instance, is getting a lot of people talking about it, and unfortunately, a lot of those people talking about these ideas, our movement isn’t big enough to get to them. But it’s making opportunities.
Opportunities to build the movement?
BR: It takes organizations to build the movement, but it’s making opportunities for organizations to have campaigns that touch people, and then to think about it in a different way.
This article previously appeared in Catalyst, the Newsletter of Jacobin.
About the author:
Boots Riley is the writer and director of Sorry to Bother You as well as the lead vocalist of The Coup.
About the interviewer:
Chip Gibbons is a journalist, whose work has been featured in Jacobin and the Nation. He is also the policy and legislative counsel for Defending Rights and Dissent, but the views expressed here are his own.