From The Coup To 'Sorry To Bother You': Boots Riley Is Oakland's Undefinable Storyteller [Interview]
“I feel like I’m high, but it’s only because I’m so tired.”
Boots Riley is tired. Outside of his Bowery Hotel room, a thunderstorm has taken over what was a sunny Tuesday in New York City. He could — should — be napping. The weather is ideal. But instead, the 47-year-old is talking about his directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. Not that he’s complaining though — after having the screenplay published in the 48th issue of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, it would take four more years for Sorry to Bother You to hit the big screen.
Since its release, the film has been well-received commercially and critically and has allowed Riley to reintroduce himself to a new generation unaware that he founded and fronts one of ’90s hip-hop’s most fascinating groups: The Coup. But Sorry to Bother You isn’t a divergence from this, it’s a continuation. A testament to Riley’s creative talents as well as his cultural and regional significance to a city that he’s known all his life — Oakland.
Riley is an Oakland scribe; a storyteller. In The Coup, he, E-Roc — in the early stages — and the late Pam the Funkstress made music inspired by the world around them. Drug dealers turned enlightened revolutionaries; prostitute mothers trying to provide for their kids and people fighting against corrupt cops. Activism, communism, capitalism, gentrification, race — The Coup explored these themes through their music with a balance of sardonic humor and unflinching poignancy.
Sorry to Bother You is a continuation of what Riley started through The Coup, offering a commentary on Oakland — what it is and what it is becoming. Although scenes showing tent cities or cars and trailers transformed into mobile homes seem like absurdist touches that add to the film’s satire, it’s arguably some of the movie’s realest moments.
Tent cities — temporary housing facilities made using tents — have become more prominent throughout Oakland in recent years, so much so that the city is trying to combat its homeless crisis by building communities of tiny wooden sheds for people. There is also the “van dweller” epidemic, where everyone from families to tech employees are living their lives out of vans and RVs. Both are the result of rising house costs in Oakland, so much so that it is the fourth most expensive city to live in in the United States.
This reality, as well as Riley’s own life, informs Sorry to Bother You. Inspired by his own work history, the film’s initial screenplay began with a straightforward premise — a man by the name of Cassius Green entering the world of telemarketing.
“I was just going to write something where he had to decide what side of the struggle he was going to be on,” Riley said. “I took the journey with him, and as I wanted to explain some bigger ideas I realized I had to figure out: what is the truth of what I’m writing?”
In Riley’s own words Sorry to Bother You is an “absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing.” The film bends, distorts, and warps reality, the normalization of absurdity just as jarring as it is hilarious. But its satirical approach doesn’t disguise the parallels between its own reality and the reality of the real world — it amplifies them. By the end of the movie, there’s nothing to laugh about, its cynical humor having built up to a plot twist that’s anything but funny. It’s actually really, really fucked up.
Sorry to Bother You‘s reality is seen through the eyes of Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield). Green’s financial problems stop him from living a life of comfort. He owes his uncle Sergio Green (Terry Crews) several months worth of rent and he can only afford to put 40 cents of gas into his car. To make matters worse, his new job as a telemarketer isn’t going well, with potential customers hanging up on him the moment he introduces himself. But his coworker Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a tip that, as ridiculous as it sounds, works to Green’s benefit: “Use your white voice.”
For Riley, employing a white voice is just as much as a commentary on the idea of performance than it is on race dynamics in the United States.
“I needed [the white voice] to be magical and sound like an over-dub because it’s this other thing we’re calling out, that it’s not us,” Riley said. “I think by extension everything that we’re doing is some sort of performance. We’re all behaving in ways that we think help us or how we’re supposed to be. That’s just how our brain works.”
But by exploring this idea through a black character, Riley highlights the synonymity between whiteness and success, and how black people have to assimilate to ideas of whiteness in order to succeed. The white voice is indicative of a linguistic hierarchy and how the black voice is perceived as illegitimate or unprofessional in this country. When watching Green go back and forth between his white and black voice, it’s difficult not to think about African-American Vernacular English (or Ebonics) and the battles to validate its importance (the last notable attempt to do this occurred in Oakland in 1996 when the Oakland Unified School District school board passed a resolution recognizing the legitimacy of AAVE).
Initially, Green’s white voice works in his favor. He becomes an overnight success and amasses riches he’s never had before. But the cost comes at the sacrifice of his sanity, morals, and friendships. Green succumbing to capitalism’s deceiving charm, only to end up fighting against it, is what makes him relatable. Trying to disrupt systems of oppression is difficult to do when you’re just trying to survive. Riley understands the challenges of battling capitalism. He’s been fighting it for most of his life.
“I’m not trying to create new business models with big capitalism,” Riley said. “What I’m trying to do is talk to people about being involved in movements where they can collectively organize to stop the motor of capitalism.”
How Sorry to Bother You was made was through a collective effort. Riley enlisted numerous artists from Oakland for the film. The colorful and vibrant lettering that’s most notably seen on Detroit’s (Tessa Thompson) earrings? Designed by local children’s book illustrator J. Otto Seibold. The soundtrack? Composed by indie pop band tUnE-yArDs. Even hip-hop vet Mistah F.A.B. makes a memorable cameo.
“You want to work with people that you love and will help you create this thing,” Riley said. “I want to make movies in the Bay Area, work with the artists that I know and get along with. That’s the kind of life I want.”
Riley’s role as an organizer has contributed just as much to building this community than his role as The Coup’s frontman has. Born into a family of radical organizers, by his mid-teens he had joined the International Committee Against Racism and the Progressive Labor Party. During the mid-90s Riley even took a break from making music and formed The Young Comrades, an organization made up of other radical black activists who led campaigns through Oakland.
This duality of activist and artist is why Riley is an Oakland Forrest Gump of sorts — why you’ll see him as a guest speaker alongside legendary activist Angela Davis or in this old photo with Bay Area rapper E-40 and the late Tupac, that has gone viral in the Internet age.
That Riley can occupy so many spaces speak to his desire to be undefined. Even as The Coup’s 1993 debut Kill My Landlord and 1998’s critically-acclaimed Steal This Album turn 25 and 20 this year, he’s more focused on reintroducing and reinventing himself for a new generation. But that doesn’t mean he sees his foray into filmmaking as separate from the work he’s already done.
“I feel like it’s just all one, big mess,” Riley said. “For me, it’s all about what I’m doing right now. Obviously, I’m glad for those things and stuff, but I have 20-something years of movie ideas that I want to work on now. I want to remain, in my own head, undefinable and changing.”
Since its release, Sorry to Bother You has become a box office hit. A handful of entertainment figures have even purchased full screenings to support the film including Black Thought, Snoop Dogg, and Jordan Peele. For Riley, the support feels really good and is a reminder of the community he’s built across the country and beyond. But right now he’s focused on Oakland and inciting change.
“I had hoped my first two albums would be platinum and I’d make a whole bunch of money and fund some centers like ‘Revolutionary Headquarters’ or something like that,” Riley said. “Now, I’m hoping that people can use the art that I’m making to help themselves organize. And that organizations can use the excitement that’s coming around this movie to figure out how to recalibrate and work with some folks that they may not have thought they could work with.”