Boots Riley Moves From Music To Film With 'Sorry To Bother You'
Rapper's writing-directing debut is audacious and provocative
"Putney Swope" (1969)
“Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” (1971)
"Get Out" (2017)
Boots Riley has had a long successful career as a rapper and music producer. Now he’s poised to conquer the film world with his directorial debut “Sorry to Bother You” which opens in select theaters on July 13.
“Sorry to Bother You” looks to a young man named Cassius Green (say that name out loud to get the point) who is just trying to survive in a not too distant future. Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in a kind of alternate version of present-day Oakland. At the moment, Green lives in his uncle’s garage with his artist-activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He’s desperate for a job and is trying to avoid the last resort of working for WorryFree, a company that offers housing and food for life in exchange for labor.
He eventually lands a job as a telemarketer but finds little success making sales until a fellow worker (Danny Glover in a nice cameo) suggests he use his “white voice.” Not his "Will Smith white voice" but a really white voice, a voice distinguished by a complete lack of care. That proves to be the magical key to success and suddenly Green is riding the private elevator to the top of the corporate ladder. But, as you might expect, things are not perfect at the top when you are required to leave your morals and ideals behind.
Riley, in his writing and directing debut, delivers a film that he describes as “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and sci-fi inspired by the world of telemarketing.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film based on the trailer, which emphasized the humor, energy and popping visual style. But nothing prepared me for just how boldly original the film was.
I recently had the opportunity to see Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” at a full house during the TCM Classic Film Festival. That film’s audacity not just in terms of its story and perspective but also in terms of its artistic style still jolted a contemporary audience. People left the theater talking about how fresh the film still felt and how daring its artistic style still was. I mention this because the feeling that the film generated is the same feeling I had seeing “Sorry to Bother You,” like I was seeing something new, that I was witnessing a fresh, original talent.
“Sorry to Bother You” may be Riley’s first film, but he comes to filmmaking after decades of success as a rapper, music producer, and activist/organizer. Plus he had studied filmmaking back in college but got pulled away from film by music and in 1991, created the political activist hip-hop group The Coup.
His film deals with race, capitalism, workers’ rights, art and activism but in ways that you have not quite seen before. In addition to the genre-bending Riley does, there’s also a different tone to the satire and social commentary. Often times, a filmmaker will condemn and criticize the character that sells out, but Riley tempers his criticism with surprising compassion and without directly faulting Green.
I had a chance to interview Riley by phone while he was in Washington, D.C. doing press for the film. He said there’s a reason his tone is different.
“I think that’s because I have a background as an organizer, which is different than an activist,” Riley said. “Because to be an organizer and doing things like grassroots organizing, you get people in their place of work or place that they live and trying to do thing around those areas. That sort of a thing, doing that makes you approach politics less from a standpoint of you don’t agree with me so, therefore, you are on the other side of the line than trying to figure out, OK, you don’t agree with me, how do I get this person to agree with me? How do I get them on my team? I would be working against my ultimate goal to just try to show that person that they are wrong and smash them down in some way because my goal is to have the working class united.”
But it’s precisely that tone that makes you look at issues with new eyes and with a new sense of how to challenge the things you don’t agree with. “Sorry to Bother You” is art-activism that is not merely critical but which tries to empower you with tools to think of new ways to voice dissent.
The film feels very of the moment in its commentary, but Riley points out that he first started writing the screenplay back in 2011.
“We could have put this film out in 2012 or 1972,” Riley said. “It’s just a movie that has a class analysis and that analysis allows you to understand how the system works and puts all the chaos that we get from the news feed into a working framework and allows you to see ways that we might be able to fight things. But the news and most media usually doesn’t supply that class analysis so all the events we hear usually seem like they are coming out of nowhere or they are crazy or make people shrug their shoulders and walk off into the distance of feeling like they can’t do anything about it.”
That is part of what is compelling about the film, that it reminds us that certain issues may be in bold relief right now but issues of race, class, and workers’ rights have long been troubling America, and we need to find new ways of looking at them and solving them.
“Sorry to Bother You” takes some wild artistic risks and lets the story spin into unexpected territory, but the pay off is rewarding. The film announces a bold new screen talent that also reveals great assurance and maturity from decades of work mixing art and politics in music. Riley not only has something to say, but he has the artistry to say it in a fresh new style that demands attention.