- 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.
In a Labor Day special, we air an extended conversation 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.
AMY GOODMAN: We spend the hour with Boots Riley, writer and director of the critically acclaimed film Sorry to Bother You. Best known as the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, Boots is also a poet, a screenwriter and a community activist. Sorry to Bother You is his first film. It’s a 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’s the 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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the trailer to Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I recently sat down with Boots Riley. I began by asking him to talk about his new film.
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.
BOOTS RILEY: 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 exploitation 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.”
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 weird 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?
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: Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We return now to the hip-hop artist and activist Boots Riley, who has just directed his first film, Sorry to Bother You.
AMY GOODMAN: 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—
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 Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we return to the hip-hop artist, activist Boots Riley, who has just directed his first film, Sorry to Bother You.
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: 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: 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.
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.
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: Boots Riley, director of the new film Sorry to Bother You. Boots Riley is also co-founder of the legendary hip-hop group The Coup..