After his band the Coup released its second album, rapper, filmmaker and socialist activist Boots Riley quit music and got a job in a call centre.
“I had an early midlife crisis,” he tells me on the phone from San Francisco.
He needed the money and was good at the job, but Riley says sales came partly because he used what he calls his “white voice”.
“You don’t just play it down, you try to fool people,” he says. “You try to make people not know you’re black.”
The job involved cold-calling Republican-voting neighbourhoods to extract donations for a homeless shelter in downtown L.A.; his tactic for which was to exploit what he felt were the resident’s racial and class-based fears. Riley made peace with the subterfuge because it was for a good cause – despite the low pay and demoralising conditions. But before long, he was working to bring in better workplace rights and conditions for himself and his workmates.
These experiences are all depicted in Riley’s surreal, satirical and furious dark comedy Sorry to Bother You. Here’s as much as I’ll tell you about it:
In Oakland, California, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) has no cash of his own and is living in his uncle’s garage, much to the annoyance of his activist artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Their world is a few steps ahead, and a caricature, of our own neoliberal society. At the end of the day everyone watches the most popular show on TV, a game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, in which people submit themselves for money and fame. A company called WorryFree offers lifetime labour contracts with housing and food included (you could call it live-in factory work – or indentured servitude) – a dystopian, capitalist-nightmare job that Cash considers before finding employment at a call centre. The job makes ends meet, but it isn’t until he discovers his own “white voice” that the sales start rolling in. His newfound telemarketing success separates him from his girlfriend, his fellow workers and his morals.
But that’s just the first twenty minutes or so of the film. It’s a comedy, but in many ways it’s also very serious. It’s about making ends meet under the tyranny of late capitalism, and throughout Riley intentionally bucks your expectations with a series of sharp – and deeply weird – left turns.
As surreal and fantastical as the film gets, it’s only ever a few steps away from reality.
“It’s just a slight exaggeration,” says Riley. “WorryFree is already happening in many countries, orchestrated by companies in the US.”
I suggest Foxconn – the company that makes our iPhones in China – is similar, but he doesn’t let me get away with that. “It’s interesting how we talk about it [as] ‘the company that makes iPhones’,” he says. “We really should say who it is: Apple. They don’t run it at an arm’s length. They know what’s going on.”
Riley suggests capitalism relies on racist power structures – and he wants to dismantle the whole system.
“They’re inextricably combined,” he says. “You don’t have the capitalist class we have now without them stealing labour. You can’t steal labour without making the white working class think the people they’re stealing it from aren’t people.”
Protest is in Riley’s blood. His father Walter was a civil-rights and criminal-defense lawyer, and by age 14 Riley – then going by the more prosaic Raymond – was helping out an anti-racism movement among farmworkers in the Central Valley, California. He formed the Coup in his twenties, a politically charged rap outfit.
“We’re a punk-funk slash communist-revolution band,” he once told a breakfast news anchor. “Okay,” she said, bemused.
Sorry to Bother You carries that activist lineage under a veneer of comedy. Surprisingly, Riley says it was the film’s surreal aspects that were an impediment to the film getting made rather than its politics – which he’s keen to point out are hard to disagree with. Can someone disagree that people should get paid what they’re worth? That workers are frequently exploited?
“Everyone wishes there was a more just world,” says Riley. “But like the Omari Hardwick character says [Cash’s boss who is also black, but only ever uses his white voice], we’re not thinking about what should be, just thinking about what is.”
Riley’s been working on the film for seven years, but it’s landed at a vital moment for subversive black cinema. Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out it’s about the absurdities, frustrations and discrimination faced by black people living in a white world, and like Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman its spark comes from the moment a person of colour is forced to co-opt whiteness.
In an unforgiving three-page Twitter post Riley took Lee to task on what he saw as BlackKklansman’s failings, saying Lee’s decision to embellish or leave out historical facts in the service of storytelling distorted the realities of the relationship between African Americans and police.
Despite his criticisms, Riley says Lee was the reason he took up filmmaking in the first place. And in many ways Sorry to Bother You feels like the sort of film a young Spike Lee might have made: a brutally honest incendiary device, smuggling its subversions into a stylistic tour de force. In a world that is increasingly satisfied sitting back, sighing and accepting cruelty and inequity, Riley kicks back.
Sorry to Bother You is in cinemas now.
Watch the trailer.