Boots Riley is a filmmaker who made a slight detour into music, where he found great success as lead singer for The Coup and Galactic, and in teaching a high school class called “Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing." His provocative, wildly funny, and remarkably assured first film is Sorry to Bother You, starring LaKeith Stanfield as Cash Green, a telemarketer who achieves great sales numbers by using his “white voice” (provided by David Cross), and Tessa Thompson as his graphic and performance artist girlfriend, Detroit.
In an interview, Riley spoke about what he learned about communication when he was a telemarketer, and when his father asked him what voice he was using after he overheard a phone call with one of Riley’s friends, and why Armie Hammer’s family history played a part in his casting as the corporate CEO.
I have to begin by asking you about Detroit’s wild earrings, like the ones that say in big letters “MURDER MURDER MURDER KILL KILL KILL.” What do we learn about her as an artist from the way she puts herself together?
Detroit is always looking for a way to make a statement, looking for a way to talk about the world. So she uses every wall she can find, every piece of her being to say something to the world. The are earrings are just a part that symbolizes that about her and the words on the earrings are all quotes from songs.
Detroit is much more political than Cash, but she has a job that is just as demeaning and corporatist as his job, standing on a street corner twirling a sign. He is out there selling and he’s out there selling; does that bother her at all?
One of the reasons that she maybe wasn’t all the way against what Cassius was doing or didn’t leave him right away is that she’s not of the mind that the way that we get rid of capitalism is somehow going out into the woods and creating some alternative system. She knows that whatever she’s doing is going to be part of that.
And what did you learn about selling when you were a telemarketer? What was your most effective pitch?
I’ve actually been doing sales sort of stuff forever. There’d always be these 17-year olds who were hired by some company or whatever and they’d go pick up kids like me in the neighborhood when we were around 11. You go knock on doors and sell newspapers. I learned through those sorts of jobs for the wrong reasons how to listen to people and to understand that people may be saying something that the words they’re using aren’t saying. That was for manipulative reasons that I learned that but then that carried over into my style of organizing which is not to be caught up on the linguistics of someone. It wasn’t so much about vocabulary and identifying words as it was about what is the thing that we’re trying to create.
So if you call and somebody says, “I haven’t got time for this?”
You figure out through that some clue of who they are. “I haven’t got time for this” sounds like somebody is really overwhelmed with things that are going on in their life and other things they don’t want to be doing. They’re not saying, “I got all this stuff that I really want to be doing.” They’re saying, “I don’t have time for this,” so you could play off of that.
I’m sold! Do all black people have a white voice they can use?
There are some people that don’t consciously know that they do and maybe don’t have jobs where they have to have that but definitely a lot do.
I guess everybody has to code switch some time in their life.
I know when I was growing up and getting to the age where I got on the phone with my friends, I remember getting off the phone one time and my father being like, “Who was that”? And I was like, “Oh that was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone?” I said, “I told you it was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone here because I didn’t recognize that voice at all.”
In the movie it’s all about performance. We’re all performing in some way even when you don’t do the switching thing it’s sometimes a reaction to who you think you are and all of these things that you will perform or not perform. It might not be switching but I think the more relevant thing is that it’s all a code because we’re made up of all of these influences and all of these ideas. It’s not saying that any of it is bad. I don’t think the goal is to try and figure out how to not do that.
One of the things that I think is important is that what it puts out there is because a lot of times blackness is codified. Like “it comes from this and this and this: and whiteness it ends up because of that being like this pure thing it’s just the thing that is and everything else is a reaction. Danny Glover’s character Langston says that “there are no real white voices.” What their white voices try to convey is the sense that everything’s okay and “I’ve got everything taken care of.” To the extent that that voice does exist, it’s in reaction to the idea the racist tropes of blackness and of people of color. Through all sorts of media and culture we get told that poverty is a fault of the impoverished and that through these bad choices but no one wants to talk about the fact that capitalism demands that there be poverty; it is necessitated. You can’t have full employment under capitalism otherwise everyone would be able to demand every wage they want. You have to have an army of unemployed workers and the only time it gets talked about openly is when the Wall Street Journal is worrying about the unemployment rate going down which causes wages to go up and stocks to plummet.
It would be great if there was an episode of one of those cop shows like CSI where they figure out that they’re not going to stop crime because crime comes from people needing to eat who are unemployed. As long as we have this system we’re going to have unemployed people who need to eat.
And as your wealthy CEO you have Armie Hammer, whose great-grandfather, Armand Hammer, was a famous CEO notorious for his disregard of shareholder interests.
I think it’s really great casting historically and also he’s a really great guy and a guy that people don’t understand how much acting he’s doing because it seems so natural.
He is remarkable in the film, and so is LaKeith Stanfield.
I don’t think this movie would have worked with another kind of actor. I got notes about him which were like, “He needs to be more active,” which means like the blockbuster style of action — “I’m confused now, look at my eyebrow,” that sort of thing. We did pre-preparation so we knew what his posture was going to be like at different points of the story and everything else was more about him feeling whatever it is he supposed to be feeling and not worrying about whether he’d look like he was feeling that.
The movie features a company called WorryFree that promises to give people everything they need — a job, a place to live, food, clothes — but it is clear to us in the audience it is a sort of prison.
The point is I don’t think it’s illegal, I really would like someone to point out whether that company is illegal; if it’s not illegal it’s going to be done. And actually it’s a lot like how many places in other parts of the world that US companies contract out to work. The big thing in the movie is that it’s happening here in the US; that is the big difference.
Which is why those corporate folks are the puppet masters and we only get to vote on the puppets. We get to vote which one will be the puppet that might more resist the pulling of the strings but we know that they’re all still puppets. And so I think that my movie puts forward an idea and approach that has to do with trying to go directly to the puppeteers through withholding of labor and that we need movements.