All riled up

Rap­per, pro­ducer, screen­writer and di­rec­tor Boots Ri­ley has been po­lit­i­cally ac­tive since the age of 14, and now he’s made the most im­por­tant and en­ter­tain­ing film of the year

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY TARA BRADY

Boots Ri­ley makes an im­pres­sive leap from hip-hop to film­mak­ing

Last Au­gust, a mi­nor ker­fuf­fle broke out around the re­lease of Spike Lee’s

BlacKKKlans­man, when rap­per and film­maker Boots Ri­ley posted a three-page es­say on Twit­ter. While Ri­ley was care­ful to ac­knowl­edge Lee’s in­flu­ence, he took is­sue with BlacKKKlans­man’s heroic de­pic­tion of Ron Stall­worth’s ac­tiv­i­ties as part of the FBI Counter In­tel­li­gence Pro­gram (Coin­tel­pro).

“Coin­tel­pro’s ob­jec­tives were to de­stroy rad­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions, es­pe­cially Black rad­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions,” Ri­ley wrote. “Coin­tel­pro pa­pers also show us that when White Su­prem­a­cist or­ga­ni­za­tions were in­fil­trated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to dis­rupt them. They weren’t dis­rupted. It was to use them to threaten and/or phys­i­cally at­tack rad­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions.”

Those ob­jec­tions seemed to have worked out well for all par­ties. BlacKKKlans­man went on to gross more than $87 mil­lion at the box of­fice, mak­ing it the se­cond big­gest film of Lee’s ca­reer. Ri­ley’s de­but fea­ture, mean­while, was fi­nally picked up by Uni­ver­sal for in­ter­na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion.

Watch­ing Sorry to Bother You, you won­der what took them so long. A hit in the US with a starry cast at­tached - in­clud­ing Thor Rag­narok’s Tessa Thomp­son, Ar­mie Ham­mer, and Danny Glover – at one time it looked as though Ri­ley’s film was about to fall vic­tim to the out­moded Hol­ly­wood ax­iom that “black films don’t travel”.

“Even tho we’re out­per­form­ing a gang of other movies,” Ri­ley tweeted last sum­mer. “Distrib­u­tors r claim­ing “Black movies” dont do well in­ter­na­tion­ally and r treat­ing it as such. There’r films that bombed here, that theyr dis­tribut­ing.”

That would have been noth­ing short of a tragedy. Sorry to Bother You is not just the most im­por­tant fea­ture of the year, it’s also the most en­ter­tain­ing. A mad­cap satire with racism and cap­i­tal­ism firmly in its sights, Ri­ley’s au­da­cious com­edy con­cerns Cas­sius (Lakeith Stan­field), a broke tele­mar­keter strug­gling with cold-calls and in­stant hang-ups. An older, more ex­pe­ri­enced col­league played by Danny Glover of­fers a hot tip: use your white voice. When Cas­sius starts to sound like David Crane on the phone, he be­comes a huge suc­cess, mov­ing out of the garage owned by his un­cle (Terry Crews) and into a swish apart­ment with his artist-ac­tivist girl­friend, Detroit (Tessa Thomp­son), He also comes to the at­ten­tion of the top floor ex­ec­u­tives, in­clud­ing the com­pany’s sin­is­ter, swing­ing CEO, Steve Lift (Ar­mie Ham­mer), just as his co-work­ers are at­tempt­ing to unionise. And that’s when things get re­ally weird. It’s hard to think what the el­e­va­tor pitch might have sounded like.

‘Mag­i­cal re­al­ism’

“I would just say this movie is an ab­sur­dist dark com­edy with mag­i­cal re­al­ism and science fic­tion in­spired by the world of tele­mar­ket­ing,” smiles Ri­ley from un­der his in­stantly recog­nis­able afro. “Then I’d come in with the ti­tle and that sounds funny, and peo­ple want to hear more about it and I’d just tell the story in a con­cise way, and talk about some of the aes­thetic ref­er­ences and things like that.”

Sorry to Bother You rep­re­sents years of toil for the front­man of the fierce and frank hip-hop col­lec­tive, The Coup. The project has found many ad­mir­ers and cham­pi­ons since Ri­ley com­pleted the first draft in 2012. The author Dave Eg­gers was an early fan. In 2014, an early ver­sion of the un­pro­duced screen­play was pub­lished in McSweeney’s. Through Eg­gers, Ri­ley met Spike Jonze who talked him through the mak­ing of Be­ing John Malkovich. Hav­ing con­nected with pro­ducer Ge­orge Rush, Ri­ley landed a year-long film res­i­dency at San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val’s (SFFILM) FilmHouse fol­lowed by a stint at the Sun­dance In­sti­tute’s Fea­ture Film Pro­gram.

“I got it first to David Cross and Pat­ton Oswalt, and they im­me­di­ately said: yeah use our names but that wasn’t enough to get a movie funded back then,” re­calls Ri­ley. “Dave Eg­gers told me: ‘Don’t di­rect this; you don’t want to di­rect. You want to write movies. You can write four movies be­fore you get this made’. But what I did as a di­rec­tor was as im­por­tant to me as the writ­ing. I got ad­vice from Ted Hope who is now head of Ama­zon Stu­dios. I ran into Guillermo del Toro and pitched him the movie, and he shows me all his se­cret draw­ings of like The Hob­bit. He didn’t

It doesn’t mat­ter who gets in. You could elect some­one who does have rev­o­lu­tion­ary poli­cies and ei­ther they’re go­ing to get kicked out of that of­fice or they’ll do most of the stuff that Ge­orge W Bush and Obama and Trump have done

have the time to men­tor me but he an­swered my ques­tions and emails, and helped me find dif­fer­ent ef­fects com­pa­nies. I reached out to Ava DuVer­nay on Twit­ter. At the writ­ers’ lab at Sun­dance I met peo­ple like Wal­ter Mosley and Cather­ine Hard­wicke, who let me use her guest house when I was in LA try­ing to get fund­ing. David Gor­don Green had me shadow on his projects. He was an ad­viser at Sun­dance and when he got there we were play­ing the stuff I was work­ing on the week be­fore. I met him be­cause he yelled out in the theatre: ‘Boots Ri­ley, you’re a crazy moth­erf***er’.”

Ray­mond Lawrence Ri­ley, or Boots to his friends, was born into a po­lit­i­cally ac­tive fam­ily in Chicago in 1971. His fa­ther, the so­cial jus­tice at­tor­ney Wal­ter, has worked for the NAACP, the United Auto Work­ers, and Black Lives Mat­ter. His grand­mother, Anita, ran the Oak­land Ensem­ble Theatre and a po­etry fes­ti­val. At high school, he rewrote West Side

Story in rap. He was at­tend­ing film school in San Fran­cisco State when he was of­fered a record deal with EMI. His work with the Oak­land-based hip hop group The Coup is as funny as it is aware. Side projects in­clude the Mau Mau Rhythm Col­lec­tive and Street Sweeper So­cial Club, the band he formed with Rage Against the Ma­chine’s Tom Morello. Like Morello, Ri­ley has long been po­lit­i­cally ac­tive: at 14, he joined the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee Against Racism; at 15, he joined the Pro­gres­sive La­bor Party. He’s worked along­side such com­mu­nity-based or­gan­i­sa­tions as the Women’s Eco­nomic Agenda Project (WEAP), Cop­watch, and the Black Pan­ther Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion. In 2003, he ap­peared with Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, and Naomi Klein on the ‘Tell Us the Truth Tour’.

Screwy sci-fi hymn

He’s re­luc­tant, how­ever, to use c words – com­mu­nism, cap­i­tal­ism – in his work.: “I haven’t in my songs be­cause I want to talk about how things are as op­posed to like be like, hey, I know this word, you know? It’s more likely to lead some­one to in­ves­ti­gate how things work.” Sorry to Bother You is a screwy sci-fi hymn to the power of a union and civil protest. But watch­ing the film’s damn­ing (and scar­ily ac­cu­rate) rep­re­sen­ta­tion of low-waged, zero-con­tract em­ploy­ment, one can’t help but won­der if it can be re­formed.

“Well, if some­one said I want to make a movie that says this shit is not re­formable but needs to be dis­man­tled, that wouldn’t get me ex­cited,” says Ri­ley. “Yeah, I’ll be like, okay, I agree with that. But I could just talk about it in speeches or what­ever. I feel that rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments have to have re­form strug­gles as part of that move­ment. I mean they al­ways have. The ques­tion is how does the strug­gle en­gage peo­ple? It wasn’t just Ho Chi Minh. It was a mas­sive move­ment. If you think about Cuba, they they were hav­ing gen­eral strikes at the same time that Che was com­ing over the wa­ter. That’s the ro­man­tic part. The part that peo­ple talk about. But some­body had to or­gan­ise and get all of these work­ers to be shut­ting shit down. Now they are looked at as dif­fer­ent move­ments. But those are the peo­ple that be­came the rev­o­lu­tion, not just what­ever num­ber of folks came over in the boat with with Fidel.”

To­day, Ri­ley is in Lon­don for the UK pre­miere of his de­but fea­ture which, in­evitably, is the hottest ticket in town: “They wear their im­pe­ri­al­ism on their jacket here,” he laughs. “I can’t say if that’s worse or bet­ter. In the US peo­ple are al­ways sur­prised by it: what, like, we own Guam?”

Ri­ley is un­der­stand­ably cyn­i­cal about US pol­i­tics, in par­tic­u­lar, the top job: “Obama was a les­son in elec­toral pol­i­tics be­cause the folks that con­vinced him to run would def­i­nitely be thought of as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. You know, Bernar­dine Dohrn and the Weather Un­der­ground. That’s the fal­lacy of the pres­i­den­tial po­si­tion, be­cause it doesn’t mat­ter even what was in his head. The func­tion of that of­fice is to be a pup­pet for the rul­ing class. It doesn’t mat­ter who gets in. You could elect some­one who does have rev­o­lu­tion­ary poli­cies and ei­ther they’re go­ing to get kicked out of that of­fice or they’ll do most of the stuff that Ge­orge W Bush and Obama and Trump have done.” No won­der that ev­ery last cen­time­tre of

Sorry to Bother You is fes­tooned in in­cen­di­ary yet hi­lar­i­ous slo­gans, right down to Tessa Thomp­son’s ear­rings. It’s a tone that won’t sur­prise fans of The Coup’s bril­liantly satir­i­cal sto­ry­telling skills.

“I tried to make an im­por­tant film,” says Ri­ley. “I mean that was one of the ways that I brought peo­ple in. I’d say you can make all these other things or what­ever but here’s some­thing. Who knows? It’s for his­tory to tell but that’s what I aimed to do. I want my art to have an im­pact in some way.”

Mis­sion ac­com­plished.

Sorry to Bother You open son De­cem­ber 7 th

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: EMMA MCIN­TYRE/ GETTY IM­AGES; PE­TER PRATO/ANNAPURNA PIC­TURES

Clock­wise from far left: Di­rec­tor Boots Ri­ley at the 2018 MTV Movie And TV Awards in June; on the set of Sorry to Bother You with Jer­maine Fowler and Steven Yeun; Tessa Thomp­son; Lakeith Stan­field and Ar­mie Ham­mer.

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