Di­rec­tor Boots Ri­ley on the lim­its of art as class strug­gle

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Hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with Boots Ri­ley feels like you’re on a roller-coaster that’s just all drops. Of­ten, he’ll start with a point and then swerve onto a com­pletely un­re­lated tan­gent. After one par­tic­u­larly im­pas­sioned re­sponse, he says, breath­less: “I don’t re­mem­ber if that’s an­swer­ing your ques­tion.” It’s a glimpse into the bril­liantly chaotic mind of this ac­tivist, film­maker and mu­si­cian – it seems some­times as if he can barely keep up with him­self and his bizarre, yet per­ti­nent, even prophetic, con­sid­er­a­tions.

Ri­ley tells me about how, in 2014, he had a screen­play printed as a small-run book with Dave

Eg­gers’ pub­lish­ing house, McSweeney’s. In it, a char­ac­ter de­liv­ers a sin­gle line: “Wor­ryFree is mak­ing Amer­ica great again.” The line didn’t make it into the fi­nal ver­sion of what be­came Ri­ley’s de­but fea­ture film, Sorry to Bother You, re­leased this year. “I had to take it out be­cause the world has made my script too on the nose,” he dead­pans.

More than half a decade in the mak­ing, Sorry to Bother You is a bright, scathing and sur­re­al­ist cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism in the mod­ern world that cap­tures the dis­af­fected zeit­geist – one that didn’t need much re­vi­sion, Ri­ley says, to re­main rel­e­vant in 2018. It’s one of the most overtly anti-cap­i­tal­ist films to have hit the screens in re­cent years – but given its di­rec­tor, that comes as lit­tle sur­prise.

Ray­mond Lawrence “Boots” Ri­ley’s po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tion started young. Be­fore he was born in Chicago, his fa­ther was in­volved in the civil rights move­ment in North Carolina, mov­ing into full-time or­gan­is­ing and even­tu­ally crim­i­nal de­fence when Ri­ley was a child. At age 14, by then liv­ing in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, Ri­ley agreed to help his fa­ther’s friend out with a rally but was only fully con­vinced when the friend turned up with a van full of cute girls, head­ing out to the fa­mous Wat­sonville can­ning strike, in which Latina work­ers held out for 18 months after walk­ing off the job over pay cuts. From there, the teenager be­came im­mersed in the world of po­lit­i­cal or­gan­is­ing, help­ing out with an anti-racist farm work­ers’ union move­ment. By 15, he had joined a rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal party and led a walk­out at his school, which re­sulted in a tour around the United States speak­ing to other teenagers about the im­por­tance of ac­tivism.

“From that point on, I could see how what I was do­ing ac­tu­ally had an ef­fect,” says Ri­ley. “It was a one-day thing where we won this strug­gle, and I was go­ing out and speak­ing about it and other kids came to the talks, and I got this sense that what I did mat­tered – that what I did could have a rip­ple ef­fect.”

It wasn’t just pol­i­tics that ran in Ri­ley’s blood, though – art and per­for­mance did, too. His ma­ter­nal grand­mother ran the Oak­land Ensem­ble Theatre through­out the ’70s and ’80s, and in his youth, Ri­ley be­came in­volved in the the­atri­cal scene, join­ing the

Black Reper­tory Group and writ­ing plays. But his am­bi­tion started to out­grow the lo­cal stage when the work of a sub­ver­sive new film di­rec­tor caught his eye. “When Spike Lee started hav­ing movies come out, I was like, ‘Okay, maybe theatre is too small and maybe I can make films.’ I was al­ready ad­dicted to TV and movies but hadn’t re­ally seen it as some­thing I could have a way into,” he says. “Spike Lee came along and got me in­ter­ested in go­ing to film school.”

Ri­ley’s stint as a film stu­dent at San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity was fleet­ing, as he be­gan to dab­ble in mu­sic around the same time. In the early ’90s, he founded the Mau Mau Rhythm Col­lec­tive, a short-lived cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion that fos­tered po­lit­i­cal ac­tion through mu­sic. He was also work­ing odd jobs – at the United Par­cel Ser­vice, as a fundrais­ing tele­mar­keter – and left his stud­ies to fo­cus on mu­sic when his po­lit­i­cal hip-hop group, The Coup, landed a record deal.

“Get­ting funded for the ideas that I had didn’t seem re­al­is­tic to me,” Ri­ley says. “It was at a time when even short films cost money for a good deal, and at San Fran­cisco State, I didn’t re­ally know any­one who had made their film … So, I went with the mu­sic be­cause that was a way I could tell sto­ries in song.”

The Coup’s jazz- and funk-in­flected hip-hop was as dance floor-ready as it was a call to arms. With the group Ri­ley – a self-de­scribed com­mu­nist – had a new ve­hi­cle through which to com­mu­ni­cate his un­apolo­getic mes­sages of anti-au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, anti-cap­i­tal­ism and race strug­gle. “Cap­i­tal­ism is like a spi­der, the web is get­ting tighter,” he spits on 1993’s “Not Yet Free”; in 2001, the band re­leased a sin­gle en­ti­tled “5 Mil­lion Ways to Kill a CEO”. In 2006, Ri­ley formed Street Sweeper So­cial Club with an­other po­lit­i­cally minded mu­si­cian, Rage Against the Ma­chine’s Tom Morello, with the aim of mak­ing “an­thems for the rev­o­lu­tion”; by the time he was heav­ily in­volved in the Oc­cupy Oak­land move­ment in 2011, he was us­ing his by then el­e­vated pub­lic pro­file to draw fur­ther at­ten­tion to so­cial is­sues.

In a sense, Sorry to Bother You seems the log­i­cal next step – an ex­ten­sion of the un­rest com­mu­ni­cated through Ri­ley’s mu­si­cal and ac­tivist projects, brought to the big screen. The film is an ex­er­cise in cin­e­matic whiplash – a wild ride that spins its viewer in un­ex­pected di­rec­tions. Set in an al­ter­na­tive-re­al­ity Oak­land, it fol­lows a young black man, Cas­sius Green, played by the mag­netic Lakeith Stan­field, who is hired as a tele­mar­keter at a drab com­pany called Re­galView. Thanks to a tip-off from an older black co-worker, played by Danny Glover, Green dis­cov­ers that he can suc­ceed by code-switch­ing and putting on a “white voice”, over­dubbed for the film by David Cross. While his part­ner and col­leagues un­der­take union ac­tion to rise against their poor work­ing con­di­tions, Cas­sius climbs the cor­po­rate lad­der and lands a cushy job, with the mys­te­ri­ous ti­tle of “Power Caller”, for a con­tro­ver­sial com­pany called Wor­ryFree. Soon, though, he finds out that this be­trayal comes at a hefty cost as he be­comes more deeply en­trenched in ques­tions of moral­ity at the hands of his slick and ter­ri­fy­ing boss, played by Armie Ham­mer.

It’s a strange beast: a film that heav­ily cri­tiques class and race strug­gle through the lens of mag­i­cal real­ism, cre­at­ing a fan­tas­ti­cal dystopia that man­ages to feel both hy­per­real and unimag­in­able. It’s as if Michel Gondry di­rected a film adap­ta­tion of The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo.

“With this, I could have made a union strug­gle movie that fol­lowed the pat­tern of a Rocky movie or some­thing,” says Ri­ley. “I could have done that, and then the only thing that would be dif­fer­ent about my movie is that it’s against the sta­tus quo, but ev­ery­thing else about it would be fol­low­ing what­ever cutout pat­tern had al­ready been made by folks. As an artist, I don’t want to do that – I have more re­spect for my view­ers than to do that. I wanted to take the viewer through a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Sorry to Bother You is strongly of the mo­ment. There’s a sub­plot in­volv­ing a vi­ral video, which re­calls Ken­dall Jen­ner’s ill-ad­vised Pepsi ad­ver­tise­ment, and a re­al­ity TV show called I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me, in which the con­tes­tants are beaten up for cash. Since pre­mier­ing at Sun­dance in Jan­uary, the film has be­come one of the year’s sleeper hits, re­cently earn­ing Ri­ley two nom­i­na­tions at the In­de­pen­dent Spirit Awards – for best screen­play and best first fea­ture.

Draw­ing on his own time as a tele­mar­keter,

Ri­ley’s de­pic­tion of the job’s in­her­ently de­ceit­ful na­ture cre­ates a per­fect mir­ror for the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and high­lights the plight of the cre­atives who are forced into un­de­sir­able po­si­tions to make ends meet. “It made me feel like I was sell­ing my soul all the time,” Ri­ley says. “I was good at it, and the way I was good at it was mis­lead­ing peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ways. It was me us­ing my cre­ativ­ity for bull­shit. Maybe the great­est artist of our time is some­where in some room fig­ur­ing out the font for ce­real packs, and that’s be­cause that’s how this sys­tem works. So much of hu­man­ity is held back [by] the way our sys­tem is set up.”

The film’s heavy re­liance on the aes­thetic em­pha­sises Ri­ley’s view of the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance. Played by Tessa Thomp­son,

Cas­sius’s artist girl­friend, Detroit – crit­i­cised on­line as a manic pixie dream girl archetype, a claim Ri­ley dis­putes – com­mu­ni­cates her pol­i­tics in the film through her wardrobe: strik­ing pieces adorned with snappy catch­phrases. Tell home­land se­cu­rity we are the bomb, a pair of ear­rings screams. The fu­ture is fe­male ejac­u­la­tion, a T-shirt de­clares.

“The whole thing that the film talks about is re­bel­lion as aes­thetic – if we make re­bel­lion be just aes­thet­ics, then ev­ery­thing that we think is re­bel­lion is co-opted,” he says. “The prob­lem comes up with the idea that there is an aes­thetic of re­bel­lion. There was a time when peo­ple thought that punk rock belts meant that you were anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian. I wouldn’t doubt that you could find a pic­ture of Me­la­nia Trump with a punk rock belt on. The mis­take is at­tach­ing any of these ideas to an aes­thetic. All those aes­thet­ics change – with the film I’m us­ing aes­thet­ics to get a point across, but those things change with time.”

To the ele­phant-in-the-room ques­tion of how to fight against cap­i­tal­ism and con­sumerism with a film pro­duced by an in­dus­try driven by cap­i­tal – a com­plex bal­anc­ing act for the po­lit­i­cal artist who still has bills to pay – Ri­ley has a ready an­swer.

“Some peo­ple mis­take fight­ing cap­i­tal­ism with be­ing anti-con­sumerist. Be­ing anti-con­sumerism is not fight­ing cap­i­tal­ism at all, it’s just di­rect­ing it to the tiny cap­i­tal­ists who want to be large cap­i­tal­ists any­way. Fight­ing cap­i­tal­ism needs the work­ing class strug­gling against the rul­ing class, and hope­fully fight­ing for a sys­tem in which the peo­ple demo­crat­i­cally con­trol the wealth that we cre­ate with our labour. What’s fight­ing against cap­i­tal­ism is get­ting peo­ple to or­gan­ise col­lec­tively, so they can with­hold labour in strate­gic and tac­ti­cal ways that can ad­vance a class strug­gle. Know­ing that, the ques­tion is: What are the ways that some­one can be against cap­i­tal­ism? The only way is help­ing that to be or­gan­ised, so there­fore if I make a movie that helps make that hap­pen, then it re­ally doesn’t even mat­ter – it’s not a con­tra­dic­tion at all.”

Although Ri­ley has al­ways sought to make a point with his art, to him, that alone is not enough to cre­ate change. By cen­tring the class strug­gle in Sorry to Bother You, he’s hop­ing to cre­ate a view of a world that is of­ten omit­ted from the glitz and glam­our of film – and en­cour­age peo­ple to join that world in their real lives. “Un­less you en­gage in col­lec­tive class strug­gle, you’re not mak­ing things bet­ter. You’re not mak­ing things bet­ter by mak­ing some art that ex­poses the way things are. You’re not mak­ing things bet­ter by not buy­ing Star­bucks and buy­ing this other thing in­stead. The way you make things bet­ter is by be­ing in­volved in class strug­gle, which is kept out of so many films. Any re­bel­lion, es­pe­cially class strug­gle, is just not in that world.”

Sorry to Bother You sits along­side films such as

Get Out in the new class of po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated cin­ema giv­ing a voice to black Amer­ica and its strug­gles. Ri­ley isn’t afraid to speak up, though, about what he sees as prob­lems in this move­ment. In Au­gust, he made head­lines for crit­i­cis­ing his film­mak­ing hero, Spike Lee, over BlacKkKlans­man’s re­vi­sion­ist ver­sion of black his­tory. “If you’re go­ing to tell a story where the cops are the pro­tag­o­nists against racism, you’re go­ing to have to lie be­cause they never have been,” Ri­ley says. “It was im­por­tant for me to call this out right now at a time where, es­pe­cially in the US, there are all sorts of move­ments try­ing to fig­ure out what we’re go­ing to do next.”

And, with that, our time is up. Ri­ley is not one for empty pleas­antries, and it’s on to the next in­ter­view. A cer­tainty: this is a man who’s here to get shit done. He said it best him­self in 1993 on The Coup’s self-ti­tled song: “All we need is sat­is­fac­tion, we don’t want just a frac­tion / and we’ve come to a con­clu­sion: rev­o­lu­tion is the so­lu­tion.”

Boots Ri­ley has turned from mu­sic to film to raise con­scious­ness of the need for col­lec­tive strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ism, as seen in Sorry to Bother You, his satire set in the dispir­it­ing world of tele­mar­ket­ing.

GISELLE AU-NHIEN NGUYEN is a Viet­namese– Aus­tralian writer based in Mel­bourne.

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