emma mcintyre/getty images
emma mcintyre/getty images
Boots Riley, the longtime radical activist and frontman of the rap group Coup, makes his auspicious film directing debut with Sorry to Bother You, a trenchant send-up of the often unspoken undercurrents of race and class in American society, which opened at Sundance and has been called many things, from “bonkers” to “bizarre,” and labeled both a “comedy” and “satire”. “I don’t like the word satire, because what does satire actually mean?” says Boots Riley. “I would describe it as an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing.” The title of the film refers to the line that telemarketers say when they have a potential new customer on the line, but it also refers to the filmmaker’s intentions with the audience of his film. “When you bring up something that is different from how people are currently viewing things, it can seem like a bother or an annoyance,” says Boots Riley.” “The movie shakes the perception of reality or points out something that makes you uncomfortable.”
Sorry to Bother You’s main character, Cassius Green, works at a telemarketing company and quickly progresses to become one of the top salesmen in the company and a very rich man. He literally moves to the top floor where everything seems bright and shiny. However, it turns out that everything is not as bright as it seems and the management of the company does not have an ethical agenda. “I knew that I wanted to tell a story that happened in a telemarketing place and I knew that there was going to be a labor struggle and that the lead character had to figure out which side he was on.” Riley wrote the script in 2012 and made an album based on the mainly political, social and racial themes in the film. It comes out on Interscope Records this July. “The themes in the movie have to do with the themes in all my albums. But I made a whole new album which appears in the movie and which is the soundtrack of the movie.”
In the film, telemarketing work, with the mindless repetition of contemporary “gig” economy, stands in as a new kind of slave labor. As a phone salesman Cassius Green, the protagonist, becomes successful by using his “white voice,” something Riley is familiar with. “I am doing it now. I speak English. Like I said, I have done telemarketing so I have definitely done that or when I have tried to get my electricity turned back on. Because if your water or electricity is turned off and you are calling them to turn it back on and they think you are black – even if they are black on the other line, there is always this perception of irresponsibility. Like, ‘You dug yourself your own hole and you should learn…’ But when you talk with a tone, where you can cover up that you are black, you might be able to show an aloofness and innocence to the world that maybe you just accidentally misplaced the checkbook and you don’t know where it is and maybe they can relate to you enough to turn the electricity back on.”
Atlanta’s 26-year-old Lakeith Stanfield plays the lead character. But the 47-year old director considered playing the role himself for a while. “When I first was going to meet with him, I was skeptical because he looked too young. I had only seen him clean shaven, so I thought he looked like a 17-year old high school student, but when I met with him, he looked older because he had a beard and he has a very old soul and is very thoughtful. His brain is older than the rest of his body.” “He was crazy and hungry to learn. And he was hungry to get better at his craft and there are a lot of actors who have a certain amount of fame and they rest on that and want to be more famous. But it was obvious that he wanted to get better.”
Riley points out that not only Cassius Green – but all the characters are somehow part of himself as an artist and as a man. “Every character in this movie is kind of me,” he says. “The artist is definitely a big part of me. The organizer is definitely a big part of me and the funny person (…), and the guy trying to find his place and make his life mean something. They are all in me – it is just that I choose Cassius to be the main character.”
The movie starts out like an ordinary comedy like Office Space but then a rather surprising turn of events take place when Cassius goes to the CEO of Worry Free, Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer. “Steve Lift represents the new way capitalism is being pitched to people – that the new capitalism is not capitalism” Riley concludes.
“It is capitalism, not just America. Unfortunately, capitalism does not have any borders at this point.