Boots Riley, the prolific singer, songwriter, screenwriter, director, activist and author behind the new movie “Sorry to Bother You,” is full of radical ideas.
You might even say he’s not sorry if he bothers you.
The movie, so named for a frequently reiterated line of dialogue, follows a black telemarketer in present day Oakland as he discovers a knack for sounding white over the phone. That enables him to become a rabid social climber, mingling with scummy business executives. It’s a scathing critique of class structure, race and the exploitation of labor under capitalism.
And despite its status as one of a great many fiery, politically-charged films to release in the midst of the Trump era, it’s also not about Trump.
“Right now, people see it and think that it’s making a comment specifically about Trump,” Riley said in a lecture Friday evening at the IU Cinema. “You could’ve made this at any era of capitalism and it would have rung true. It’s not about the tech era, it’s about capitalism, and capitalism is always rebranding itself as not capitalism.”
Riley’s talk was a part of IU Cinema’s ongoing Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series, and he came to the Cinema for its film series, Boots Riley: Radical Agent. The series featured screenings of Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” Emir Kusturica’s 1998 comedy “Black Cat, White Cat” and Paul Schrader’s 1985 drama “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.”
Riley said it would have had the same resonance during the Obama era, but because Trump has blown the nation’s political sanctity wide-open Riley thinks mainstream audiences are more open to the movie’s ideas.
He hopes it will put them on to something new. Speaking about the many meanings behind the movie’s title, Riley said it’s an acknowledgement of how difficult it can be to cope with new, reality-shaking realizations about class and social structures.
“I’m aware of the fact that often when we hear new ideas — or ideas that change our view of the world around us, or change our idea of what the world around us is — it can kind of feel like a bother, like something annoying,” he said. “Hopefully, it also eventually feels freeing.”
Riley made his directorial debut with “Sorry to Bother You,” which premiered to rave reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, but he’s no stranger to creating art that promotes radical ideas. He’s the lead vocalist for the musical groups The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, and the author of the 2012 book “Tell Homeland Security – We Are the Bomb.”
As he made his transition to film, Riley said he was only sure of a few aspects of his vision: that it would be about telemarketing, drawing from his own life experience, and that it would depict workplace struggles.
“Other than that, I kinda just took the journey, and all of these things, all the crazy stuff happened because I needed it to happen to put the idea of what was physically happening there in context or even explain something more,” he said.
The film’s perverse politics and magical realism were a means to an end: rendering Riley’s own complex and radical ideas into a scathing piece of black comedy.
His talk delved into a number of those ideals.
“The real cause of poverty is capitalism itself,” he said. “Capitalism cannot exist without unemployment, it has to have an army of unemployed workers to threaten the jobs of people that are employed.”
He also spoke about other recent politically charged films, like Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” a movie he felt dishonestly portrayed a true story to paint cops as heroic.
“If you’re gonna make cops the heroes, you’re gonna have to lie,” he said. “A lot.”
Applause erupted from the audience.
At a reception before his lecture, Riley explained the choices behind the other films in the series, movies whose directors and storytelling facets he deeply admires. For “Black Cat, White Cat” it’s all about the energy. In “Mishima,” he admires Shrader’s formal structure.
But his inspirations range much farther. He loves Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate.” He loves “The Color of Pomegranates” and he admires the Coen brothers for their humor. Especially of note are “A Serious Man,” “Raising Arizona,” “Burn After Reading,” “Hail Caesar” and others.
He said he also admires Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. Riley’s well versed in film, and has a deep admiration for the art and all that goes into. It might be unexpected of someone so new to film, yet he knows its ins and outs.
At the reception, he interacted with students, cinema staff, faculty and community members. He signed a student’s “Sorry to Bother You” poster: “To Sohile, Fight Back.” He talked to other students about their own inspirations. He answered plenty of questions about his movie, and he hardly seemed tired of hearing the same ones twice.
The decision to dive head-first into a new art form with “Sorry to Bother You” came from a desire to express his political sentiments, and he drew predominantly from his own experiences and ideals.
“I knew the first scene, and so that was what I wrote first, and then I took the journey with Cassius,” Riley told the IDS.
It is a journey that took him through the bizarre, the surreal and even the sublime. He says he was excited to to develop the more fantastical elements of the screenplay because they could be tailored to explore the concepts he wanted the movie to explore.
“It’s really just getting around talking about the basic idea of how does power work under capitalism, who are we within that framework, where does our power lie,” he said. “Those are the basic questions, everything else is worked out while and after you figure that out.”
Despite the radical nature of some of the ideals that emerge throughout that journey, Riley said he was never concerned about alienating viewers.
“I didn’t think it would,” he said. “I think the world is way more to the left than the media lets us believe, and I think that whether people consider themselves that way or not, they understand these truths.”
Riley said he has a few projects in development, both in film and television. One is an episode of Guillermo del Toro’s forthcoming Netflix anthology series, "10 After Midnight." Another is for the company that brought “Game of Thrones” to HBO. He said he couldn't say anything about the feature film.
His favorite movie of the year, though it changes often, is currently somewhere between “First Reformed” and “Mandy.” The is by the same filmmaker as “Mishima.” The latter features Nicolas Cage as a chainsaw-wielding madman.