Boots Riley’s Dystopian Satire “Sorry to Bother You” Is an Anti-Capitalist Rallying Cry for Workers

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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. Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is the dystopian social satire being hailed as one of the best movies of the summer. The film’s stars include Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews and Danny Glover. We speak with Boots Riley, writer and director of the critically acclaimed film. He 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. To see Part 2 of this interview, click here.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Pimps (Free Stylin’ at the Fortune 500 Club)” performed by The Coup and produced by Boots Riley. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour with Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, the dystopian social satire that follows one Oakland man’s rise to the upper echelons of an evil telemarketing company, only to discover a secret that threatens all of humankind. Here is the critically acclaimed film’s trailer.

SERGIO: [played by Terry Crews] Hey, Cash. How much longer I got to wait for my money?

CASSIUS GREEN: [played by Lakeith Stanfield] God made this land for all of us. Greedy people like you want to hog it to yourself and your family and—

SERGIO: Me and my family?

CASSIUS GREEN: Yeah.

SERGIO: Cassius, I’m your [bleep] uncle.

CASSIUS GREEN: I just really need a job.

Forty on two.

ANDERSON: [played by Robert Longstreet] This is telemarketing. Stick to the script.

CASSIUS GREEN: Hello, Mr. Davidson, Cassius Green here. Sorry to bother—

LANGSTON: [played by Danny Glover] Let me give you a tip. You want to make some money here? Use your white voice.

CASSIUS GREEN: My white voice.

LANGSTON: I’m not talking about Will Smith white. Like this, young blood: “Hey, Mr. Kramer, this is Langston from RegalView.”

CASSIUS GREEN: As always, we’ll be getting that out to you right away.

JOHNNY: [played by Michael X. Sommers] You’re doing so good with the voice thing.

CASSIUS GREEN: Holla! Holla! Holla! Holla! Holla!

ANDERSON: You’re going upstairs, power caller. They even have their own elevator.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sorry to Bother You premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The film’s stars include Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews and Danny Glover. The film received rave reviews and is being hailed as one of the best movies of the summer.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined in studio by Boots Riley. He’s the writer, he’s the director of the critically acclaimed film Sorry to Bother You, poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter, humorist, political organizer, community activist, lecturer, public speaker, best known as the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, author of Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb. Sorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s first feature film.

Boots, welcome back to Democracy Now!

BOOTS RILEY: Thanks for—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

BOOTS RILEY: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: And with this astounding accomplishment. Describe it for us.

BOOTS RILEY: This is an absurdist dark comedy, with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing. In it, Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a black telemarketer with self-esteem issues and existential angst, who discovers a magical way to make his voice sound like it’s overdubbed by a white actor. That white actor is played by David Cross. Hilarity ensues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why telemarketing?

BOOTS RILEY: I actually did telemarketing a couple times, one time in school while I was actually going to film school and then another time. After our second album, I had kind of a 24-year-old midlife crisis, where I decided I had been an artist too long, and I quit, and me and some friends created an organization called the Young Comrades. And I needed money to do that, and I was good at sales, so I did telemarketing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talked about the white voice. I want to turn to a clip from Sorry to Bother You. Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, has just started his job as a telemarketer, when an older employee, played by none other than your friend Danny Glover, gives him some advice.

LANGSTON: [played by Danny Glover] Hey, young blood, let me give you a tip: Use your white voice.

CASSIUS GREEN: [played by Lakeith Stanfield] Man, I ain’t got no white voice.

LANGSTON: Oh, come on. You know what I mean. You have a white voice in there. You can use it. It’s like being pulled over by the police.

CASSIUS GREEN: Oh, no. I just use my regular voice when that happens. I just say, “Back the [bleep] up off the car, and don’t nobody get hurt.”

LANGSTON: All right, man. I’m just trying to give you some game. You want to make some money here? Then read the script with a white voice.

CASSIUS GREEN: Well, people say I talk with a white voice anyway, so why ain’t it helping me out?

LANGSTON: Well, you don’t talk white enough. I’m not talking about Will Smith white. I’m talking about the real deal. Like this, young blood: “Hey, Mr. Kramer, this is Langston from RegalView. I didn’t catch you at the wrong time, did I?”

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who are listening on the radio, that was actually Danny Glover who’s voicing that.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the white voice and what that means, Boots.

BOOTS RILEY: Well, so, in the film, Danny Glover’s character Langston—actually, that’s an edited piece that we just played, but in the full piece he explains that the white voice doesn’t really exist. White people don’t even have it. They use it, and it’s a performance. There’s a performance of whiteness that is all about saying that everything is OK, you’ve got your bills paid, and that—and, you know, this kind of smooth and easy thing. And it’s, at the very least, the idea of what black folks have to do in order to hide their identity sometime over the phone or to say that they’re safe. It’s like the opposite of the racist black tropes that are out there, which are there, that they say, “OK, black folks and people of color are savage, or somehow their culture is insufficient, and that’s why they’re poor.” And these racist black tropes, these racist tropes of people of color, have a utility, because we live in a system that necessitates poverty. It must have a certain number of unemployed people to exist. And there’s an—but the explanation is that it’s nothing to do the economic system, it’s everything to do with poor people, and these racist tropes come. So the white voice is almost a reaction to that.

And, anyway, so—and there’s all sorts of levels in there, too. What’s also left out is, just so people know, the full-line is “I’m not talking about Will Smith white. That’s not white. That’s just proper.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, as Cassius masters the white voice, he rockets up the chain to success, and then the conflict begins with his girlfriend.

BOOTS RILEY: I don’t know. There’s conflict all through the movie. I don’t know when it begins.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah.

BOOTS RILEY: But, yeah. Yeah, it’s—yeah, yeah, definitely. Tessa Thompson plays—her name is Detroit. Her character’s name is Detroit, who’s an artist in the Bay Area that is also—that is trying to use her art to expose a lot of the injustices. And kind of what this film deals with is, you know, her character is probably the closest to me, you know, and deals with the questions of what art can actually do, if anything.

AMY GOODMAN: So, expand on that. And Tessa Thompson, her job in life is dancing with signs in front of stores.

BOOTS RILEY: Well, I don’t think—I don’t think her character would say that’s her job in life. That’s how she gets some money to pay the bills. But yeah, she’s a sign twirler. And she—for money. But she’s a gallery artist and also part of a—I don’t know—a agitprop arts group that does things somewhat clandestinely. And, yeah, I think her character—well, I know—her character is always—her character and the character played by Steven Yeun have somewhat of a conflict and an alliance, because Steven Yeun plays a union organizer.

AMY GOODMAN: And that goes to the issue of what’s happening, where they work, at RegalView. I want to turn back to the film, Sorry to Bother You, when Cassius Green is promoted to be a power caller at the telemarketing company where he works in Oakland. Well, things take a dark turn.

CASSIUS GREEN: [played by Lakeith Stanfield] I got promoted. I’m a power caller!

DETROIT: [played by Tessa Thompson] What do they sell?

LANGSTON: [played by Danny Glover] They’re not selling it. We’re selling.

CASSIUS GREEN: No, there’s no amount of money that’d make me do that.

MR. _______: [played by Omari Hardwick] Here’s the starting salary.

CASSIUS GREEN: And I’m going to have to get me some new suits!

DETROIT: It is morally emaciated. I can’t ride with you.

CASSIUS GREEN: I’m doing something I’m really good at.

STEVE LIFT: [played by Armie Hammer] Cash, I’m going to make you a proposal. I can see that you’d want to say no, but I wouldn’t do that before you see what I’m offering. Cash, you are awesome.

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry to Bother You. That’s part of the trailer. Boots Riley, so, he is pushed upstairs as the people at RegalView, the evil telemarketing firm, are starting to organize. You have this big Norma Rae moment in the film. But talk about that. And we’re talking about this as, well, just today, Amazon Prime Day, there are people who are protesting—where?—in Poland and Spain and Germany, to protest working conditions at Amazon workplaces. And interestingly, this morning, I don’t know if you did this deliberately, but you were on CBS This Morning—that was deliberate—but they tweeted out their schedule for the morning, and so you retweeted it, because right there at the end—

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —it says, “Boots Riley discusses Sorry to Bother You.” But right before it, they were discussing Amazon’s best Prime Day.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. And, of course, I didn’t pay attention to that 'til afterward. But, yeah, it's—so I didn’t do that on purpose. But I will say what is happening on purpose is the confluence of what’s being talked about in this film and the movements that are growing. And am I my wrong to say that the protests are taking the place of—taking the form of work stoppages?

AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm.

BOOTS RILEY: And I think that’s something that’s put forward in my film as a tool that we need to use. I believe that since the beginning of the New Left, progressives and radicals have turned more to spectacle and gone away from actually organizing at the actual point of contradiction in capitalism, which is the explication of labor, which is also where the working class has its power. And we’ve gone in favor of demonstrations, that don’t necessarily have teeth, but they show where our head is at. And I feel like we have to put—give these demonstrations more teeth, by being able to affect the bottom line and say, you know—and say, “You can make no money today, or you can make less money and give us what we want.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you set the film in Oakland, obviously, where you grew up in. And the importance of Oakland? Because it’s always been a hotbed of radical politics and radical organizing. How you featured the city in the film?

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, I’m sorry, could you rephrase the question?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. How you—why you decided so much to feature Oakland in the film?

BOOTS RILEY: Oh, you know, I think that’s just a great byproduct of wanting to make a good film. You know, I come from Oakland, so I’m going to write about what I know. And I believe my ways of storytelling or making art have a lot to do with the details that make people up, and those are the details that surround us. And then I also just happen to—you know, living in a place, you have great ideas of what you want to shoot. I also know so many people in Oakland and the Bay Area, that we could get some of the locations for free. So, it’s just a—all of my art has to do with where I am, and so—which is one reason like I never moved to L.A. or New York, because it’s just part of what makes me.

AMY GOODMAN: Boots, we’ve been doing a lot this year on the 50th anniversary of all the various events of 1968, like Juan deeply involved with the Columbia student strike in April of 1968. So, you have Danny Glover. He is teaching young blood a few things at the telemarketing firm—

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —another telemarketer in your film. But he was one of those 50 years ago protesting at San Francisco State, as was your dad.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, yeah. That’s where they—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that history.

BOOTS RILEY: So, Danny Glover and my father, Walter Riley, met at San Francisco State, agitating and organizing the San Francisco—being organizers of the San Francisco State strike—not the organizers, but some of them. And so, that strike created the first ethnic studies program, now school, in the United States. And, you know, so we didn’t get it because people passed the right—they did pass the right measures, but they were forced to. And so, it’s a great, I don’t know, 360 spiral—

AMY GOODMAN: Using something other than the white voice to get what they wanted.

BOOTS RILEY: Yes, exactly. You know, maybe someone did use that along the way, but they had the backup of shutting down the school in order to force the hand.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the company—you have RegalView. This is the evil telemarketer. And then you’ve got Worry Free. Talk about Worry Free, and then go on to talk about labor struggles.

BOOTS RILEY: It’s interesting, because—so, in the film, there’s a company called Worry Free that guarantees you housing and employment for life. And they house their workers in the same places—one way they save money is they house their workers in the same places that they produce whatever they produce. And so—and it’s a lifetime contract. So, in all extents and purposes, it’s slavery. But what’s is, I don’t know if that company is illegal right now. It would be an interesting research topic to see if the company Worry Free that’s in Sorry to Bother You is actually legal. However, what I’m a little scared of is that then somebody will try it. You know?

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for a second, with your own music. Boots Riley is with us, writer and director of the critically acclaimed new film, out around the country, Sorry to Bother You.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: The Coup, ”OYAHYTT,” featuring Lakeith Stanfield, from the soundtrack to Sorry to Bother You. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Boots Riley. “OY”—explain.

BOOTS RILEY: It stands for “Oh, yeah, alright, hell yeah, that’s tight.”

AMY GOODMAN: Today is the fourth anniversary of the police killing of Eric Garner. And the New York Police Department that killed Eric Garner is issuing an ultimatum to the Justice Department, saying this is way too long to decide whether you’re bringing federal charges against their own officers, like Daniel Pantaleo, who put Eric Garner in a chokehold, strangled him to death. Your thoughts? This is an issue, police brutality, that you have taken on for many, many years.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. So, just personally, I still help out campaigns against police brutality. I am a little personally burnt out on them, because I don’t know where we can go with it, you know? Like, what happens after you get a whole community to spend a year of their lives, coming together, you know, sometimes in great numbers, to get a officer fired, and then they get transferred to some other department and get pats on the back? And I don’t know. This is not some well-thought-out thing, but I just know, like, I feel like there are, I think—feel like campaigns against police brutality may become more effective once other parts of our movement also grow and where, as I say, we have some leverage. Like, for instance, maybe the Mike Brown killing, if we had had a—if radicals and progressives had been organizing labor—and what I mean, I don’t mean the existing labor organizations. That’s fine, but I’m talking about the rest of the working class, the 93 percent that’s not organized. If we had a way to say, “OK, we’re shutting down the city. We’re going on—having a general strike until this guy gets indicted,” you know, maybe that would have been a shorter campaign. I don’t know, but I feel like we are operating right now from a place where we are not—we’re not putting out a clear analysis of how power works. And so, I don’t know, it’s little frustrating to me. But I feel like something has to be said about it. However, I think we need to tie it in with other movements, so that we have some leverage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s the big thing you’re hoping folks will take away from your movie, in terms of some of this issue of capitalism and the way—

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, I think—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —it continues to have a hold on us?

BOOTS RILEY: I think what I’m—OK, one, there are a lot of things that I want people to take away from this movie. I tried to do something that, in my mind, was more akin to literature, where there is—there are a lot of ideas. Like, I mean, if you take any piece of literature that you love, and you say, “What’s the one thing about it?” you’d be lying by, you know, omission.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, right.

BOOTS RILEY: You know. And so, I wanted that to feel like that, like, you know, there are all these things. But I would say overarching is, I wanted there to be a sense of optimism, that although things are messed up and all these things are going on, if there’s a fight with a clear way to win, if there’s a fight going on, then that’s the optimism, the hope, right there. So, I don’t want to give it away too much of what happens in the movie, but, you know, it is a strange odyssey.

AMY GOODMAN: It certainly is. Sorry to bother you, but we have to end. Boots Riley, writer and director of the acclaimed film Sorry to Bother You. Check it out. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Part 2 coming at democracynow.org.

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