By Pat Mullen
VANCOUVER – Boots Riley might be best known as the frontman for the Oakland-based hip hop group The Coup, but he breaks new ground as an artist with his feature directorial debut Sorry to Bother You. The film stars Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius, who succeeds in his menial telemarketing job when a co-worker (Danny Glover) advises him to woo customers with his “white voice.” The zany political satire was a breakout at Sundance and invites comparison to last year’s Get Out with its genre-bending social commentary. Riley introduces himself as a filmmaker with a fierce counter-cultural punch.
Riley, who studied film at San Francisco State University before his recording career, relates to Cassius’s experience working the phones, having been a telemarketer himself. Riley says no particular episode from his telemarking days inspired the film. It was “just being there in the cubicle, feeling the soul-killing feeling that comes from that, and vowing revenge,” he laughs.
The film drops Cassius down a rabbit hole throughout his rise up the corporate ladder that includes Armie Hammer as a coke-snorting CEO who mutates African Americans into workhorses complete with snouts and swaying foot-long cocks. It defiantly spits in the face of corporate America.
“My success as a hip hop artist has not been a financial one,” admits Riley when asked how his work helps him keep his views on capitalism in check. “It’s been successful in the sense that I’ve been able to keep pushing it out, keep making music, and have people listening to my music.” Riley adds that success can seem relative, since only last year he had his power cut off and could relate to Cassius’s experience being months behind on rent.
With that being said, he acknowledges that the system can be advantageous for making music and films like Sorry to Bother You that challenge the status quo.
“I don’t think the answer to what this system has wrong with it is something that is changed by individual action,” says Riley. “I don’t have qualms about using the system that exists to get messages to people to organize against it.”
Despite being years in the making, Sorry to Bother You is very timely with its anti-capitalist message. Tessa Thompson stars alongside Stanfield as Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit, who moonlights as a human billboard to fund her anti-establishment performance art. Cassius’s success strains their relationship as she tries to open his eyes to the fact that capitalism is just another form of anti-black oppression. The script, written in 2012 and published in 2014, resonates with Trump’s America as the film opens amidst brewing international trade wars.
“It would have been relevant in 1986 and, unfortunately, will keep being relevant as long as we have capitalism,” observes Riley.
Audiences get a wakeup call as Riley’s hip hop roots inject fiery urban musicality into Cassius’s odyssey. Nothing about the film follows Hollywood convention, least of all the trippy soundtrack by The Coup. The film adds to the conversation for diverse representation as one of two Oakland-shot films to be released this summer. The other, the spoken-word urban musical Blindspotting starring Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, had a friendly rivalry with Riley’s production competing for personnel and equipment.
Riley says it feels good to see the films put Oakland on the world’s screens.
“It reminds me of the early nineties when a lot of groups from Oakland were coming out,” he says. “There’s a lot of creative people in that area that need to get a chance to do their thing.”