- Boots Rileywriter and director of the critically acclaimed film Sorry to Bother You. He is also a poet, rapper and songwriter, best known as the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. He is the author of Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security–We Are the Bomb.
We continue our interview with Boots Riley, writer and director of “Sorry to Bother You,” his new film about an evil telemarketing company, a corporation making millions off of slave labor, and one Oakland man at the center of it all who discovers a secret that threatens all of humankind. His dystopian social satire is being hailed as one of the best movies of the summer. Riley is a poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter, humorist, political organizer, community activist, lecturer and public speaker—best known as the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. Click here to see Part 1 of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Sorry to Bother You is a blockbuster film. It’s out now in over 800 theaters, going to expand to like over a thousand theaters. We saw it first at Sundance in January. It is an astounding film, at so many different levels. Actually, Boots, if you can talk about why you chose the title?
BOOTS RILEY: Well, it’s a—you know, just as an artist, I’m really into titles and sometimes doing strange things with it, sometimes doing—so, that’s part of the fun, to me. And this is one—it’s a catchy title, because it’s one that we use, and it is something that telemarketers use all the time. However, the other side of it is, is that often when you’re telling someone something that is different from how they view things, different from how they view the world, it feels like an annoyance or a bother. And that’s where that comes from.
AMY GOODMAN: You have this amazing—I don’t know if you use the term “device” or whatever, that you use in the film, where the telemarketer crashes into the home of each person they call. Talk about that.
BOOTS RILEY: Well, I wanted to—you know, in this film, I wanted not only to—for us to see Cassius going through things and for us to empathize with him, because there’s a way to do that, and an actor can do that, but I wanted for the audience to feel like they were going through it with him, and—because so much of this film is about having that revelatory experience, having this visceral experience that mimics what happens when you discover new ideas that change your view of the world. And so this is an early-on device that I use, one also just to signal people just that this is not a normal film, so they don’t get too worried as it goes on, but also just so that people feel how that—so that I could show that uncomfortableness, that awkwardness, that intrusion that happens with a call.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I thought it was fascinating, because, obviously, as—every American can identify with being harassed by telemarketers—
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and hanging up the phone—
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on somebody who calls you. And you do it so well in terms of him coming into the living room, and then suddenly, boom, the phone hung out.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But it’s almost—I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but I believe that in the Republican administrations, it seems that telemarketing increases, right? The Democrats try to curb it a little bit. They never end it. But I’ve noticed an increase in the telemarketing just in the last two years.
BOOTS RILEY: I haven’t researched it, honestly. But I don’t answer.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, but I thought you did a fantastic job of that. And really, it’s something that everyone can identify with, yeah.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, yeah. I think—I think we can all—I mean, what this film does talk about, which is also kind of related to telemarketing, is just us being marketed to and what we’re being sold, other than the product that is being sold to us, you know, what ideas, you know, through this thing. In the movie, there’s all sorts of advertisements and billboards, and they all have to do with things that we’re—ideas that we’re being sold that aren’t just products.
AMY GOODMAN: In Part 1 of this discussion, we talked about the white voice. So, I wanted to turn right now to Cassius Green, your protagonist in the film, who uses a white voice in Sorry to Bother You to rise in the ranks of telemarketers. Actors Patton Oswalt and David Cross, the comedians, play the white voices in the film, or at least they’re two of them. Here, they talk about their role in the film.
PATTON OSWALT: Finding my white voice, well, you know, it was—it was a difficult process. You know, I have a very, very, you know, street, urban accent.
DAVID CROSS: If you could put a Brooks Brothers jacket and a pair of Dockers on a voice, well, that’s—that’s what we got.
PATTON OSWALT: How much white is too white for this voice? I would say, if you’re pronouncing the letter H in the word “white,” you’ve gone too white.
MR. _______: [played by Omari Hardwick] White voice at all times here.
CASSIUS GREEN: [played by Lakeith Stanfield] I, uh, almost forgot!
DAVID CROSS: A lot of people were adamant that I not do this.
PATTON OSWALT: They were anxious for me to fail.
DAVID CROSS: The guy from The Hollywood Reporter.
PATTON OSWALT: Sean Hannity.
DAVID CROSS: Guy from The Telegraph.
PATTON OSWALT: Bokeem Woodbine.
DAVID CROSS: Your young daughter who was just born.
PATTON OSWALT: Every shift manager at every Bennigan’s I’ve ever either eaten in or worked in. … This was definitely one of the harder things I’ve done—this and then also when I played the lead role in Veronica Mars.
DAVID CROSS: Practicing repeatedly. Every day, I would set the alarm, 6:15, and I would do a classic “We’re going to be late for soccer.”
PATTON OSWALT: We’re going to be late for soccer. We’re going to be late for soccer. Yeah, that’s kind of—yeah, I got it.
DAVID CROSS: Patton Oswalt did the “We’re all—we’re going to be late for”—
INTERVIEWER: He stole that bit from you.
DAVID CROSS: [bleep] It’s a 3-hour time difference. I’m in New York, he’s in L.A. He’s probably still [bleep].
PATTON OSWALT: A lot of people talk about a cultural appropriation. I had to culturally disappropriate.
DAVID CROSS: They’ve already given me a number of awards that aren’t necessarily associated with this kind of thing. I’ve gotten a Peabody, a Booker Award, Caldecott, you know, which is an award for illustrating children’s books.
PATTON OSWALT: Come time for the white voice Oscars, I think a lot of people are going to be eating some crow.
CASSIUS GREEN: Some for the homies, and some for me!
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the comedians Patton Oswalt and David Cross, talking about playing these white voices in the film.
BOOTS RILEY: And I’d like to say, Patton Oswalt and David Cross, they were the first ones to sign on to this movie, when there was no money, no producers, just me with a script and an email, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about that. Talk about the film, because while it seems like such an amazing commentary on, well, this era under Trump, you wrote this long before that.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote this during the Obama years.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. And I finished it in 2012 and kind of—and I always bring this up, because, as proof, we published it on McSweeney’s as its own paperback book in 2014. And it’s interesting, because people are like, “What did you change to fit the era?” Nothing, except for a couple lines, because things—the world had made my script too on the nose. There was a line from Omari Hardwick’s character, who’s Mr. _______, which is just Mr. with seven underscores. His character originally, in the 2014 version, says, “Worry Free is making America great again.” And, you know, I’ll feel very guilty if somebody read that McSweeney’s thing that was on the Trump campaign. But, you know—and then, you know, there’s a thing that happens with a cola ad, that is somewhat—well, anyway, I don’t want to talk about it, but it kind of paid tribute [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s always hard, when you have so many sort of groundbreaking moments, to know what one is a spoiler and what isn’t, so I’m not really in that world where you’re supposed to know what you’re supposed to say and not. But I did want to ask you about Armie Hammer, even his own background, who’s very interesting.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But, you know, this is a searing anti-capitalist film. One of the most striking characters is Armie Hammer, who is the—he plays a kind of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos character, a mastermind behind Worry Free, that profits off of slave labor. Talk about his character, how you chose Armie Hammer—comes from the Arm & Hammer family.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. His name is Armand Hammer. Let’s put it like this: Armie Hammer is a wonderful person, and he gave so much to making this film happen. I mean, even—I mean, let’s talk—before we talk about his skill level and mastery of his craft, I mean, he was on a tour for Pixar because he’s the voice in one of the Cars movies. And he was—he wanted to go over the lines with Lakeith, and he made Pixar fly him from London, where they were promoting the movie, on his day off, flew him from London for a day to Oakland and then back, just to make—you know, because he wanted to give the film his all.
And I chose him because Armie Hammer is such a lovable dude, that—and it really represents where the idea of capitalism is right now. The new capitalism is “There is no capitalism here. What are you talking about?” You know, it’s like “This is—this is not a workplace, this is a bean bag room. And I’m not your boss, I’m your friend who tells you what to do.” And so, as opposed to the oil baron idea, you know, these are the cool people that everyone loves and, you know—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The sharing economy.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. And so, Armie was perfect for that. And also, he’s, you know, very into research. And I feel like he really nailed this character and gave it a psychosis that is very, very friendly to the media, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: You retweeted an Onion piece, “Jeff Bezos Tables Latest Breakthrough Cost-Cutting Idea After Realizing It’s Just Slaves.”
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And they write, “SEATTLE—Deciding at the last minute to hold off due to ethical concerns, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly set aside his latest cost-cutting initiative Wednesday after realizing it was actually human slavery. 'On the surface, it seemed plausible—owning our employees' bodies, implementing a mandatory 18-hour workday, restricting their movements, and not compensating them with anything besides minimal food and shelter—but then it started to sound really familiar in a bad way,’ said Bezos, who acknowledged his fears were confirmed when Amazon’s general counsel kept reporting back that such labor arrangements had been illegal throughout the United States since 1865.” Now, again, that’s an Onion piece, folks—
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —for people who don’t know the satirical newspaper.
BOOTS RILEY: It’s not true, meaning. Yeah, yeah. And I—yeah, I think—and although the way they lay it out there is illegal, there are so many things—so, the Worry Free in our piece, the real exaggeration is just that it’s happening in the U.S. as opposed to where it already is happening, in other countries, and that U.S. corporations are knowingly involved in the production that comes out of this kind of labor. I mean, it’s not exactly what’s happening, but it’s pretty close.
You know, it’s interesting, like a lot of people talk about labor conditions in China, and—but which were spurred on by the U.S. As a matter of fact, what the students were fighting for in Tiananmen Square was the right to become management at these companies—the idea that they should let capitalism in more, so they could become the management at these companies right there. So, when we talk about all the symbols of fighting for our style of democracy, it ends up with Worry Free-like work centers. So…
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you know, I had my students at Rutgers University doing investigations of Amazon, and one of the things they—Amazon, at one point, was requiring their employees to line up and be searched on the way out. And, of course, they operate in these huge warehouses, so that it would take the workers sometimes half an hour to get out of work, while they waited on line to be searched on the way out the door.
BOOTS RILEY: Wow.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: They went to court, and the Supreme Court upheld, in a decision, that—because the workers wanted to be paid. They said, “If you’re requiring us to wait on line to be searched on the way out, pay us for that time.” Supreme Court said no, that you’re not required to pay an employee once they’re off, even if it’s a requirement to search them. So, I mean, you’ve got this situation of this—it is virtual slavery in a lot of these huge warehouses, that people never see, because we just get our Amazon Prime, and we don’t care how it comes to us, unless we open up what’s going on in a lot of these places.
BOOTS RILEY: Wow. Yeah, I think—I guess this is what the film kind of addresses, is that we might know something, like we’ll hear that piece of information. But we hear that piece of information—what can we do with it? Right? And we are like, “OK, that’s something I can’t do anything about.” And we file it away. And it’s not apathy. You know, it’s the fact that we don’t have the movements that are able to—we don’t have them big enough yet, the movements that are able to address this, movements that are actually confronting capital by withholding labor. Those are the things that we need.
And for too long, the left has gone away from class struggle. Right? We’ve gone away from class struggle in favor of spectacle, and hidden in the arts and academia. So, a lot of our biggest fights are sometimes about not what we’re saying, but how we’re saying it. And I agree how we’re saying things are important. It means, though, that we have to look at how the working class is talking and what they really mean, as opposed to just trying to adjust how people are talking, and making a movement around things that we can do something about, because then people have a real choice of what they want to get involved in. You know, it’s not that people don’t hear that story, for instance, and think it’s ridiculous, but, even me, I’m sitting here like, “OK, how do I—is this something I can do? Let me move on from this. Like, what”—you know, throwing up my hands.
And so, I think that it’s—people are looking for new ways to do things. And I think that it’s time for us to have new—and I’ve been on this show saying this before, so—new, radical, militant, in the sense that they keep out scabs, radical and militant in the sense that they break the existing labor laws, and have these new, radical and militant labor movements. And, you know, that doesn’t necessarily mean the existing unions, but if they want to come along and up the ante, that’s great, but there’s only 7 percent of—something like 7 percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized.
And some of that has to do with some of the laws that have been enacted since the '40s, and also some of the anti-communist stuff. But, you know, the Taft-Hartley laws make it so you can't do solidarity strikes. And the reason why they make it so you can’t do solidarity strikes is because they’re effective. And so, we need a labor movement that’s going to break those laws, because, as we see, the laws that are existing are going to make the current ways of organizing unions much harder. So, you know—and this is almost also a call out to folks that consider theirself radicals, like we’re willing to go to jail for statements sometimes, for demonstrations, and which is good, but maybe if we were part of leading this kind of new radical labor movement, we’d go to jail for breaking the laws that bring people hikes in wages, that then also make for a movement that could handle other social justice issues with strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: How does Sorry to Bother You fit into that picture of organizing? I mean, it must be very interesting for you, as a well-known anti-capitalist artist and organizer, to now—
BOOTS RILEY: Communist.
AMY GOODMAN: Communist Marxist, to—
BOOTS RILEY: I don’t know. Marx, didn’t he say something like, “I, myself, am not a Marxist”? So, no, but yes.
AMY GOODMAN: To now you have Sorry to Bother You, which is, you know, this breakout film, to navigate this world of a film that is a work of art, a political statement, but also a—almost a consumer product. And you must be negotiating nonstop, dealing with this very successful film in a capitalist world.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. I mean, it’s never been my mission to create a separate, safer capitalist model, because that’s what it would be doing, you know, is like “Let’s create this other distribution network,” whatever, which, if you’re operating under capitalism, ends up being just a baby capitalist model that is maybe not as effective as the ones that exist. So, it is—I mean, I wasn’t there, but I believe how even The Communist Manifesto got out was that the books were distributed, that these books are sold. So, even Marx sold books, right? So, and it wasn’t because he was like, “I need to create something inside of capitalism that shows this model.” I mean we’ve been seeing that for a long time. I mean, the U.S. has had socialist communes since the 1800s. And as artists, too, we give ourselves that out, like, “I’m creating a model, you know, that other people can emulate.” And it’s really just a cop-out, because it’s harder to organize people and get them to get involved in a movement. It’s easier to find other people that already agree with you, and then do that thing. And—
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like working with the Oakland cops? You’re a fierce critic of police officers.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But in your film, you must have had to do a lot of—
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, you have to—well, there was a lot of degrees of separation, but so that I didn’t actually have to. And I think they know who I am, so they’re just kind of like not talking to me. But yeah, you have to—you have to get a permit—right?—in order to do that. So, we have locations managers for that and stuff like that. So, yeah, that’s—that’s the thing. Like, even if you were to create a collective bakery, you’re going to have to get a permit and all sorts of things with the cops. So, it’s—you know, that’s just a level of operation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, in terms of both spectacle and also the movement figuring out ways to move forward—a lot of the folks who have been involved in activist movement over the years, then ended up going into, especially after the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, electoral politics. We’re seeing many more, quote, “progressives” or radicals getting elected into office. What do you think about that route as a means of being able to effect social change?
BOOTS RILEY: Well, here’s what I think. I think, inarguably, the two biggest reforms under capitalism in the 20th century might be the New Deal and the civil rights bill, right? And how did we get either of them? Was it by electing the right person? Or was it by having a movement that was able to disrupt?
And let me be very clear about what I mean by “disrupt.” In the '20s and ’30s in the United States, it's been said that there were a million card-carrying communists. And at the same time, we had places like Alabama, Utah, Montana, Oklahoma, where there were, for instance, mining strikes, where—that were going on. And in places like Alabama, there were even like conflicts, armed conflicts, with the miners and private security. In the Midwest, at that same—during that same era, you had people occupying and shutting down factories. On the West Coast, during that same era, you had the longshoremen creating their union, and of a bunch of workers that were thought of as like lower skill than we think of fast-food workers right now, who fought against, you know, militias, state militias, in order to create their union. And that’s happening at the same time. During that same time, somewhat unrelated—I mean, pretty unrelated—there was a thing called the Bonus March, where World War I veterans marched on the White House for their bonus checks, in large numbers, and many thought to be carrying arms. Revolutions happening around the world. In that milieu is where we got the New Deal. It wasn’t because the radicals and progressives band together and were like, “We need to be putting all our energy into electing FDR.” They made that happen.
Now, so, that’s not to say don’t get somebody in office. But what that does do, though, when you’re doing that, it’s a question of where are we putting our resources, where are we putting our time, where we put—you know, what happens is movements get subverted, because, right now, there’s only so much time and energy, and the first people to act are going to be the ones that we need. And if everybody’s putting their time into the electoral side, we’re going to get caught in this loop, where you get an elected official in there, and they’re not able to do much, because there’s not the movement to do things. You need—you need to be—we need to get to the level where we can shut down industry, and that we can go straight to the puppet masters. Now, if we have that going on and somebody wants to get in office that can better aid those movements, but even the—any progressive or candidate out there will tell you that if you don’t have a movement going on, there’s not a lot they could do, you know? I mean, even on a low level like Oakland politics, you had like Dellums, Ron Dellums, get elected mayor. Great dude. I don’t—didn’t really do much at all. And what he kept saying was, “I can’t do anything if there’s not a movement that allows it to happen.”
And so, I think that electoral politics is the easy way out. And I think it’s because—and I think it’s part of—I think it’s part of the sidetracking that we’ve been having by not—the left has not been willing to engage in class struggle for a long time, and we’ve left it up to liberals. We’ve left union organizing up to liberals. And we’ve made—not just union organizers, but we’ve left—we’ve made our movements devoid of the analysis that says that—that shows where the power point in capitalism for us is. And so, for me, it’s not a matter of—it’s not a matter of can that work. Maybe it could, but it’s not going to work if we don’t have a real movement. And it’s going to get us sucked into the war of inches.
I mean, think about it like this. Really, you know, you end up talking about getting folks to vote. And right now, because of everything that we’ve gotten into, we get focused on the Trump era, and we’ve got the Democrats going way to the right, because of figuring out how do we get Trump out. So people are like supporting the CIA, supporting the FBI, and doing it fervently. Right? So, where does—and they’re like, “Well, that’s just because we need to get Trump out.” But then, where does that leave you afterward? And it’s just—it’s part of this game. It’s part of this thing. I mean, where we are with immigration—I mean, immigration rights activists were complaining way before Trump was in about the policies that the Obama administration put in. But many—
AMY GOODMAN: They called him the “deporter-in-chief.”
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He deported millions and millions and millions or people.
BOOTS RILEY: And so, where we are with Trump is part of just that—it’s another few steps on the staircase that has been being built the whole time by playing this game of inches. I think that things are so drastic right now that we got to—you know, we got to reset.
And, you know—and it’s only since the '60s that, you know, radicals have been thinking about like elections as the way. And it's very connected, you know, with the New Left stopping organizing labor and focusing on students. All the sudden in the '60s, you heard the students are the revolution. It was not historically accurate. It's not based on any other revolutions, except for maybe there was, at the same time, the Cultural Revolution in China. But other than that, wasn’t historically accurate. And it was a focus on students and spectacle that has led—and has led to like people not knowing what to do and basically saying, “Well, all I’m going to do is electoral politics.”
AMY GOODMAN: Boots, you’re going to have to go in a few minutes.
BOOTS RILEY: Sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: The success of your film requires you traipsing off here and there.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But before you go, especially for young people to hear about your life and the life decisions you’ve made that have brought you to this point, can you talk about, you know, rapping, doing music, being an artist, being a radical organizer and then deciding to make this film? You went to film school?
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. So, I mean, even to back it up earlier than that, because there’s so many things. My grandmother ran the Oakland Ensemble Theatre in the '70s and ’80s. I was involved in theater in high school. I wrote a school play. I was also involved in a thing called the Black Repertory Group, which was—which is in Berkeley now, in a big theater, but at the time it was a storefront theater that like fit about 40 people. At the same time, I became involved in organizing in the Central Valley, supporting folks making what's called the Anti-Racist Farm Workers’ Union, in McFarland and Delano. But there, there was also this history that they talked about, about Teatro Campesino. And, you know, so I would hear all these stories. And we’d try to do things like it, but it wasn’t very organized. And then, so I wanted to take it bigger, and went to—went to San Francisco State for film.
But at the same time, I was doing music. We got a record deal, because we just happened to be—because—the reason we got a record deal is because many—most record companies don’t like music, and they don’t know what’s out there. So, if somebody has a hit that has—you know, if they have a green jacket on, they’re like, “We need more people with green jackets!” They don’t listen to the music. So, it just happened to be that there were people with hits from Oakland, and record labels were like, “We need groups from Oakland.” We were there. We got a deal. And we ran with it. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, just for a second—it’s a detour, but after the attacks, the CD that you had—
BOOTS RILEY: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —a major controversy around it.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. In 2001, we were putting out a CD—a CD, an album, whatever—called Party Music, and with a kind of double entendre—party, part, political party, blah blah blah. Anyway, and I wanted to show that our music had—was meant to destroy capitalism. So, on the cover, I’m holding a bass tuner, and Pam is holding conductor’s wands. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Pam the Funkstress, who you devote the film—
BOOTS RILEY: Pam the Funkstress, who just—
AMY GOODMAN: —who you dedicate the film to.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. Yeah, she just died last year. And she’s holding conductor’s wands, conducting the music that is making the buildings behind us explode, which are the World—which is the World Trade Center.
AMY GOODMAN: And this was when in 2001?
BOOTS RILEY: We shot it in May 2001. We sent it around to all the publications in August 2001—or, no, we sent it around to them in July 2001. They printed it in August 2001, the ads. And as a matter of fact, most magazines, when you send it, you give them a lot of choices of what to—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the FBI visited you when? In September?
BOOTS RILEY: No, that’s—yeah, exactly. They didn’t, because Bill Clinton had already made it OK for our phones to be tapped. So they didn’t need to visit me—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.
BOOTS RILEY: —because they probably have been. And—
AMY GOODMAN: So this is August, early September, before the attacks. There’s this CD cover.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, that’s being advertised. And matter of fact, many magazines were like, “This is the best album cover of the year,” you know. And then, 2001—
AMY GOODMAN: September 11th.
BOOTS RILEY: I mean, September 11th happened. And yeah, and I think what the—the best thing I made of it was that at the time, many people were scared to say anything about what the U.S. was getting into, which was automatically, that day—it’s weird that some of the listeners might be too young to really remember it.
AMY GOODMAN: Might not even have been born.
BOOTS RILEY: But, you know, that day, they’re already putting the American flag. And that wasn’t really a thing yet, at that time. They’d already just been putting American flags on there, and it was clear that they were building up for war. And people were scared of doing—of saying something. And I was part of—I tried to call around and get artists to make a statement against the U.S. bombing Afghanistan, and many artists said that they had already been told by their record label that, “Look, if you do this, you’re going to get boycotted, so, therefore, if you say that, as soon as you do, we’re not putting your album out.” Right? So, saying that it was a protective measure, right? And so people were afraid to speak.
AMY GOODMAN: So what happened with your album cover?
BOOTS RILEY: So, it got—so, we changed it to something else, holding a martini glass with gasoline in it, with a gasoline can behind it, and the martini glass is on fire. And so, a more of a sophisticated Molotov cocktail. And I was able to use it to be all over the news, being, you know, one of the few—maybe with you—but few artists that were speaking out against the war. You know who else deserves credit for speaking out against the war, that is not thought of in this way, is—Lord of the Rings was coming out then. Viggo Mortensen was going on—went on a talk show with something like against the bombing of Afghanistan. If you noticed, he wasn’t—if you looked through, I didn’t see him again promoting—he’s the star of Lord of the Rings.
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
BOOTS RILEY: And he wasn’t promoting it.
AMY GOODMAN: Long been outspoken on—
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, yeah. And yeah, so it allowed me to put—you know, I put out this—this whatever you call it—press release, because our publicists at the time—friends with them, they’re cool—but at the time they were like, “Look”–you know, I put out this press release that said, you know, the U.S. had just been found guilty of—I forget now, but of aiding in the deaths—in deaths of folks in Nicaragua, I believe. They’ve been found guilty by the World Court. And they thumbed their nose at the World Court, saying, “We won’t adhere to these findings.” It was to do with their role in the deaths of 19,000 people. And so, I put out a press release saying, “Look, this was an atrocity. And—but it’s in the context of U.S.’s atrocities, and this has—this just happened. And so, we should not use this as a reason to bomb Afghanistan.” My publicist wouldn’t put it out. They were like, “If we put out this press release”—you know, I mean, not as an organization, but actual publicists themselves, they were like, “I might not be able to work in New York again.” So, that’s the—that’s where we were at, at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I interrupted you. But as you wrap up and as you have to go, you go to film school.
BOOTS RILEY: I could talk—I can talk for another hour.
AMY GOODMAN: You drop out of film school to do your music. You’re doing your music. What did that open up for you, and why did you then choose to go back to theater?
BOOTS RILEY: Well, for me—well, to film, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Film.
BOOTS RILEY: —well, we have done theater stuff. But, for me, it’s all one big mess of ideas. And, you know, this is part of it, you know, music, any way that I can put out my ideas and talk to people. And I like music. I like film. You know, it’s better than moving boxes. So, in a way, the critique that I have of the left, I very much embody that. You know.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s better than working at Worry Free.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, although maybe some radicals need to go into Worry Free and organize in there and get that going.
AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you about this incident that took place last month in Oakland, California, and the barbecue story, in which, well, you had a white woman who harassed and called the police on two African-American men for grilling at Lake Merritt, the incident sparking massive outrage in the city, where gentrification had displaced many longtime African-American residents. A few weeks later, hundreds of people turned out at the same location for a massive picnic and protest celebration dubbed “BBQing While Black.” And I bring that up now just in its own right, but also, in your film, Sorry to Bother You, you have Kamau Bell making an appearance, who also was thrown out of a—or asked to leave a Berkeley restaurant when he went in a few years ago.
BOOTS RILEY: You know, we’ve got thousands of—hundreds of people of color in this movie, and I bet you they all have incidents similar to that that have happened to them in their life. And yeah, and it’s—what’s interesting, in Part 1, I think I talked about having quit—or maybe that was this part—having quit doing music after our second album to start an organization called the Young Comrades. And one of our big campaigns was that at the lake in California—in Oakland—
AMY GOODMAN: Lake Merritt.
BOOTS RILEY: Lake Merritt, people had started—people of color had started hanging around at the lake, and it always has been this. But I think sometimes when people—when people buy or rent near a place like Lake Merritt or some other public park, they feel like it’s theirs. And they feel like they’ve paid more money to have it. And so, folks that lived around the lake went lodging complaints with the City Council, complaints that actually literally said, “I walked out of my house, and there were four black men leaning on their car. And I felt endangered.” And this was allowed to be like a registered complaint—right?—that grew into the City Council in the '90s and the police instituting a no-cruising zone, in a place that's considered a scenic route, and stopping every car and saying, “You can only drive by once.”
Anyway, we had—long story short, we had a campaign, that because the police were coming around harassing people, pouring out their drinks, trampling over their picnics and saying, “You’ve got to leave,” although—or, like, “You must have alcohol, and it’s illegal,” all this stuff. They they first banned barbecues at the lake, to try to—to try to get black folks to not hang out there. And then, when that didn’t happen, then they did the no-cruising ordinance, which really did work, because they were towing people’s cars. You know, people have something wrong, you know, all those sorts of things. And we did that, and we followed it up with whoride at the City Council. But the point—my point is, is that this is something that’s been happening for a long time. There’s this documentary called Claiming Open Spaces, that was filmed in the ’70s and ’80s, that has to do with this idea of who owns these public places. So, this is more of the same right there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, finally, what do you hope will happen with Sorry to Bother You? What do you hope comes out of this? And what are you working on next, Boots?
BOOTS RILEY: I hope that organizations that exist see the—I mean, because it’s doing well at the box office. And that’s because people are interested in these ideas. Nobody—so, there are some people that don’t like this movie, honestly. But it’s only because of some of the weird things in it. Nobody has said, “I really disagree with this movie.” And I’m saying, you know, tens of thousands of people, like randomly picked, people just moviegoers, are going and like agree with the ideas in this movie.
And we need to be organizing those folks. We’re not providing a clear analysis or a clear path for those folks. And I think what people like in the movie has to do with the optimism that comes from that analysis and the path that’s presented. So, I’m hoping organizations step up. I’m hoping that people don’t just come out and then look around, and there’s nothing for them to grab on to, no campaign, no—because then it’ll just become a thing. It will become part of culture. It’ll become a Che T-shirt, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: Are you working on another film?
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, I have two deals right now. One is to do a TV show, whatever I want to do, and that’s with Michael Ellenberg company, Media Res. He’s one of the people that brought Game of Thrones to HBO. And then I have a feature deal, and that I can’t really talk more about yet. But so, I’ve got two scripts to turn in in the next 12 months. So if people see this and they can’t get in touch with me, that’s why.
AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, thank you so much for spending this time with us.
BOOTS RILEY: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Thanks a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Great to have you back in the studio.
BOOTS RILEY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, writer, director. The film is critically acclaimed. It’s out now in theaters around the country and going even bigger. Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s first feature film. Oh, Boots is also a poet, rapper, songwriter, best known as the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. He’s the author of Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb. In a sentence, can you tell us about that book?
BOOTS RILEY: It’s a book of lyrics and anecdotes. Some of the anecdotes are about writing. Some of the anecdotes are just about things that have happened to me in my life. And it’s done kind of in a poetry-art-collage sort of way.
AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley. Go back to democracynow.org for Part 1. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is Democracy Now!