Boots Riley hopes ‘Sorry to Bother You’ will change the world
For first-time movie director and longtime rapper Boots Riley, art is not enough. Neither is straight entertainment. Nor is commercial success. Yet his film “Sorry To Bother You” just might be all three.
“Sorry to Bother You” was a breakout hit at Sundance and this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. Opening in extremely limited release last week, it’s already earned rave reviews and a great per screen average box office for an indie film. It opened nationwide July 13.
Riley stopped by KIRO Radio to talk about his funny, outrageous and politically charged comedy.
After first establishing that he does indeed want to bother people with “Sorry To Bother You,” Riley says his disdain for telemarketing inspired the premise of the film.
“To the person doing it, it can be so killing. I’ve done telemarketing and while I was doing it, I was like ‘OK, I’m going to have my revenge on this industry.’ So this is it.”
In his telemarketing days, Riley admits to some ethically questionable fundraising techniques.
“I was based in Berkeley, but we were raising money for the LA Mission, which is a homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles. We’re calling to Orange County to raise money, which is a very conservative area. So my pitch was like, ‘Hello. We’re taking a poll to see how you’re doing with the rash of break-ins in your neighborhood.’ And they’d be like, ‘What? I didn’t know about that.’ ‘Well, that’s good that it hasn’t touched you yet. Well, maybe our plan is working because what we’re doing is — we know the police aren’t going to solve this. What we want to do is get all of the homeless people out of your neighborhood. Bring them to downtown Los Angeles.”
Riley says telemarketing, even when it’s for a good cause, tends to corrupt you.
In “Sorry to Bother You,” a young black man named Cassius Green is hired to make cold-call pitches for a mysterious business called “Worry-Free.” Riley explains:
“There is this company that offers lifetime guaranteed employment and housing. It’s kind of making a statement on companies that exist that basically — their slogan is — for all intents and purposes the new capitalism is no capitalism. What? This isn’t a company. This is a bean bag sitting place. You know, we’re just hanging out. I’m not your boss. Just the guy that tells you what to do.”
In the movie, Green is having no success with his pitches until an older African-American employee pulls him aside and teaches him to adopt a white voice in order to win people over.
And sure enough, as soon as he masters that voice he rises up the ladder of success.
Riley has a lot more up his sleeve than just a clever satire on how minorities have to navigate a white man’s world. He’s even more interested in class issues, union activities, corporate power structures, and the very foundations of capitalism itself.
Despite his rather heavy duty concerns, a lot of the film is a breezy and accessible comedy – refreshingly imaginative and entirely unpredictable. And when it seemingly goes off the rails (it enters some truly bizarro territory), Riley is clear enough with his wacky metaphors for it all to (mostly) make sense.
Intriguingly, Riley insists that the success of “Sorry To Bother You” should be judged not on its artistic merit nor its commercial appeal but on its ability to effect change. Simply put, art is not enough.
“Does art itself do anything. No, it doesn’t. The only way it does something is if it inspires people to organize themselves affecting material change. Just exposing the way the world is, is not enough.”
In other words, if “Sorry To Bother You” does not move audiences to change the world, he will count it something of a failure. That may seem an impossibly high bar to clear, but Riley is deadly serious. He’s at heart a revolutionary and art is his medium.