In 1996, Boots Riley’s music career was sputtering. The catalog of his revolutionary g-funk group The Coup was stranded amid record label mergers, and he contemplated retiring from rap. Instead, he took an unlikely part-time job: tele-fundraising.
The multi-hyphenate artist and activist donned a headset at Stephen Dunn & Associates, a call-center in downtown Berkeley. A punk manager with an anarchy tattoo enticed workers with cash bonuses to “make the grid,” office parlance for raising money. “Overhearing Boots on calls was a trip,” said Eric Arnold, one of Riley’s coworkers. “He had albums out, so it was the same gravely, raspy voice I knew from Genocide & Juice going, ‘Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but…'”
Riley, once a newspaper salesman, calibrated his pitch for each project: Raising money for a local PBS affiliate, he’d call people and ask what they thought of the new Coca-Cola commercial programmed during NewsHour, saying budget constraints meant more to come. (There was no Coca-Cola commercial.) For a Los Angeles homeless shelter, he called people in Orange County and asked if they’d notice the uptick in car break-ins.
“They’d go, ‘Huh, no, I didn’t know,'” Riley said, slipping into a conspiratorial tone as he sat outside a diner in West Oakland recently. “I’d go, ‘Well we’re an organization that understands this is something the police can’t solve, so we’re taking things into our own hands. We’re going to move all of the homeless people from Orange County to downtown LA, teach them how to dress, how to bathe, and how to read the Bible.'”
Riley has been a cashier, a printer, a dishwasher, and a door-to-door salesman, but he invoked his time as a telemarketer to make Sorry to Bother You — his electric, hallucinatory writer-director debut film about an Oakland telemarketer torn between unionizing peers and the “power caller” suite — because it’s a workplace suffused with competition and myths of mobility, and it tempts artists to use their skills for deceit. “It was me using my creativity for manipulative purposes,” he said of his call-center stint. “Like an artist who could make a cultural imprint instead figures out what font makes you buy cereal.”
Riley is a keen observer of how market forces undercut radical messages. Early Coup albums lacked printed lyrics due to budget constraints, so critics often neglected Riley’s point of view, even erroneously describing him as another pimp-rapper à la Too Short. At the same time, he finds the aesthetic conventions of radical art unimaginative and, in terms of reaching people, self-defeating. Sorry to Bother You, then, might be the true coup of his career: poising Riley to speak, on his own terms, to the largest audience of his life.
The years-long effort to make Sorry to Bother You is a story of Riley, in a mid- to late-career reinvention with little precedent, risking self-sabotage in his refusal to cede creative control. It is a deeply anti-capitalist film portraying labor organizing tactics including work stoppages, walkouts, and strikes. It is set and shot in Oakland. It has an ensemble cast. And it’s backed by esteemed movie house Annapurna Pictures. It is also a comedy, inspired by magical realism, with jokes centered on horse dicks and a mansion full of white techies screaming the n-word after goading a Black man to reluctantly rap.
Sorry to Bother You explores the central tension of Riley’s career, his perennial concern about artists’ role in racial justice and building working-class power. “You have to have something that you’re more passionate about than your art,” he told San Francisco State University students at a May screening. “There’s no reason to do art for art’s sake.” Hence his eagerness to ascribe a point to the film: “There’s a way to look at how fucked up things are through the lens of ‘how can we leverage our economic power for change?'” He added, “That’s what Detroit deals with — is just exposing the problem enough?”
Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a sign-twirler and an artist who moonlights with something called Left Eye while creating an exhibition about the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. Her boyfriend, Cassius Greene (Lakeith Stanfield), doubts its efficacy; she in turn questions his ascent on the call-center corporate ladder, imploring him not to use his new “white voice” at home. Also skeptical of Detroit’s art and its political export is Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a traveling labor organizer with visions of a broader rebellion.
“The conflict between Detroit and Cassius and Squeeze is very much like the conflict within myself,” Riley said. “Whether my art is effective or if it even changes things.”
Riley, 47, was outside Pretty Lady, a modest diner near his longtime home. (He now lives in East Oakland.) When he arrived, in a battered Mercedes Turbodiesel from the 1980s, a friend with her young daughter greeted him and said, in one breath, that she’s excited to attend the movie premiere and that they were at breakfast because, that morning, there was a shooting on her block. Riley was preparing for photographs with the help of a groomer hired by Annapurna. When she offered him a handheld mirror, he turned instead toward his reflection in the diner window and pulled an Afro-pick from his back pocket.
Technically, Sorry to Bother You is set in an “alternate present-day in Oakland,” a device for dramatizing recognizable features in absurd ways, but spending time in Oakland with Riley is itself a little surreal. When I interviewed him in 2014 at Brown Sugar Kitchen, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, now a mentor, introduced himself. The next year we spoke at his former downtown office, a room outfitted in comically spartan fashion with one tiny school desk. Outside the Pretty Lady, he offhandedly referenced working at UPS in the early 1990s. Minutes later, a UPS truck slowed on Peralta Street to honk. Riley returned a familiar wave and then looked me in the eye, as if he was about to wink.
At the May screening for SFSU students, Boots Riley’s father, Walter Riley, wore a denim jacket and a fedora. It was his third time seeing the movie. He was reading an article on his phone published two days before in North Carolina newspaper The Herald-Sun about the time, 55 years ago, when he moderated a debate between a local activist and Malcolm X. Walter, an attorney and storied civil-rights organizer, proceeded to outline his path to Oakland. “We moved to E. 33rd Street — that’s ‘the origin of the flow, 94610,'” he said, quoting a Coup song from 1993 album Kill My Landlord. “You know that line?”
As the theater lights dimmed, Walter insisted, “The politics of this movie are different than anything out there. It is race and class conscious — and it has a systemic analysis.”
Walter largely raised Boots, whom he calls Raymond, as a single parent. They lived in Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Stockton, and Pasadena while Walter studied to segue from professional activist to professional activist-attorney. They settled in Oakland in 1984, when Boots was 13. Boots remembered Walter’s combination party-meetings from their time in Detroit in an interview at a socialist conference in 2012: “That glimpse of organizing in Detroit gave me a vision that it’s going to have to be more social. … So when I became an organizer, I felt like the landscape of organizing looked pretty boring.”
Another incident, as he recounted at the 2012 conference, cemented this sense of culture animating activism. It was 1989 in the San Francisco public-housing project known as Double Rock. Police were beating up two young kids, prompting neighbors to spill into the streets. When someone started chanting, “Fight the power,” the hook from Public Enemy’s new song that summer, the crowd surged and expelled the cops from the area. That day, he said, “I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.”
If not for hip-hop, Riley might be an actor. He worked with the Black Repertory Group, then run out of a Berkeley storefront next to the studio where, on New Year’s Day in 1991, he recorded his first song. He helped unionize farmworkers, who used to write and stage skits. As a high-school senior, he wrote a play set in Oakland called East Side Story. Already, he valued the creative medium with the furthest reach. “It was clear to me that you could do theater and if you did really well, you could talk to 300 people a night,” he said. “It was also the time of Spike Lee. All of that made me feel like I could do film.”
Riley did study film at San Francisco State University, but he dropped out in favor of throwing parties in Oakland. “Me and this other dude were making like $1,200 a week — in 1989,” he said. Once the cops caught on, he started working at UPS, where he conscripted coworker Eric Davis (E-Roc) to start The Coup. Pizo the Beat Fixer, Too Short’s DJ, helped place the first Coup song on a compilation after hearing Riley rap at a rally. Boots’ dad, Walter, underwrote The Coup’s self-released cassette debut, The EP.
The Coup, which signed to Wild Pitch on the strength of local buzz, scrambles the conscious/street binary often used to organize 1990s hip-hop: Like many artists, Riley foregrounded racial and class inequality, but he critiqued the bootstraps-style, entrepreneurial individualism rappers often proffer as a solution. Likewise, he was too materialist, in the Marxist sense, for the Afro-futurist spirituality of “conscious” cliché. At the same time, The Coup honed the slow-rolling, funk-inflected “mobb” sound of early local gangsta rap, and Riley collaborated with figureheads such as Tupac and E-40.
Riley felt that music videos by early Oakland rappers anonymized the city. Early Coup videos, by contrast, anticipate the hyper-localism of Sorry to Bother You; they’re the earliest examples of his thinking about representing the streetscape on screen. Hustler odyssey “Fat Cats and Bigga Fish,” for example, shares with the movie an unassuming fixture of local cultural life: Giant Burger. Riley remembers driving around with video directors, trying to alert them to Town features such as the “architectural rhythm of East Oakland.”
Riley also complicated the pimp themes in local rap: “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” from 1998, follows the son of a slain sex-worker — which helped attract turntablist Pam Warren, or Pam the Funkstress. (He asked her to join The Coup while she DJed Tupac’s record release party in 1992.) Warren, who died last year, repeatedly cited Riley’s politics as the appeal. “I could never DJ for Spice 1, Too Short, or NWA, calling women bitches and hoes,” she says in the book Check the Technique. “I listen to their music, but as a female I couldn’t let myself be involved with that.”
The Coup never landed a commercial breakthrough. The group swapped the instability of 1990s hip-hop labels for the high-profile indies Epitaph and Anti. In Riley’s telling, it took a few albums before critics even took his lyricism seriously. He tends to discuss his music career self-deprecatingly, critiquing early material as agitprop and later, more literary songs as “masturbatory.” Sorry to Bother You conveys similar tension, prodding viewers to wonder if art and style compromises, instead of complements, political messaging. Every character is performing, he said. They all risk humiliation or hypocrisy.
In one unnerving scene, Detroit appears on stage at her art opening clad in undergarments made of black gloves, as if she’s being groped by her own outfit. Then she urges gallery-goers to hurl cellphones and viscous oil at herself. She means it as commentary on the plunder of African resources and Black bodies, but Cassius and Squeeze question its political potency. The attendees comply too eagerly. She gets hurt. “There’s a question in her performance, and I don’t think there’s an answer,” Riley said. “Does she accomplish what she wants, or does she become one of the things she hates about Cassius?”
Riley said he is every character in Sorry to Bother You, likening the script to a chess match between him and himself. In Cassius and Detroit’s relationship, neither holds the moral high ground; they call each other out, hold each other accountable. A younger Riley might’ve been less generous. “I’ve become someone who tries to understand that everyone is doing what they think is the right thing,” he said, citing the lack of good and evil people, despite a lot of heinous deeds, in Toni Morrison’s fiction. “You know a character who’s all the way right is boring because they don’t exist.”
Riley finished writing the initial script of Sorry to Bother You in 2012. At first, he thought he could shoot it with $50,000 from Epitaph Records, which signed The Coup in 2004, essentially using the promotional budget for a soundtrack album of the same name. The label balked, so he got more ambitious: The liner notes to Sorry to Bother You the album, which was released in 2012, promise a forthcoming movie of the same name directed by Alex Rivera, a New York filmmaker who’s used sci-fi to examine immigration policy.
Riley didn’t think the movie would be funded with him at the helm. But Rivera, who Riley met through mutual friends, didn’t work out. Richard Ayoade, the British actor and director, also showed interest, but ended up urging Riley to direct it himself. Riley said Dave Eggers, who published the screenplay through McSweeney’s in 2014, argued that he could write four other movies in the time it took to direct one. “He was right,” Riley said. “But I came to realize that it’s not just about writing, it’s about how it hits people.”
The McSweeney’s publication, which followed Riley meeting Eggers through their mutual friend J. Otto Seibold one day on Valencia Street, opened doors: In 2015, following in the footsteps of Coogler, Riley landed a residency with the San Francisco Film Society and participated in two Sundance programs for emerging filmmakers. From the first, for screenwriters, he took away that no one agrees about what makes a good script. The second, the Catalyst Program for directors, opened industry coffers.
“That’s where I met everyone,” he said, crediting the program with connecting him to Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, which put up the “lion’s share” of the funding for the film. Backers including MACRO and Cinereach followed the lead of Significant. (Riley declined to share the budget.) Riley quit touring to focus on the movie.
Supporting Sorry to Bother You the album in 2013, The Coup had toured Europe. Composer and Coup keyboardist Kev Choice remembers Riley discussing the movie on the road, but he said that, at that point, he was gently bemused by the project. “Even us, we’d be like, ‘Wow, you’re gonna make a whimsical fantasy movie about a telemarketer in the Town? Call us when that happens,'” he recalled. “At the time, it was another one of his wild ideas. Then he started talking about getting the funding and getting the actors.”
As actors such as Donald Glover signed on and backed out (he did Star Wars instead), as the possibility of filming in Cleveland was considered and rejected (quickly), Riley grew accustomed to even his friends greeting the project with slight incredulity. Seibold, who designed many of the props, called it an “Oakland miracle.” Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards described Riley recruiting her to write the film score. “We’d meet every few months, and every few months the cast, the location, the funding — everything would change,” she said. “He’d always try to convince me the film was still going to get made.”
Riley filmed most of Sorry to Bother You last summer: 61 locations in 28 days, often soliciting extras with personal posts on Facebook. For the exterior of the call center where Cassius works, he used the exterior of the Kaiser Permanente building on Franklin Street, and the interior is the Mayway building on Mandela Parkway. Workers scheme and decompress inside The Layover and Bissap Baobab. Detroit spins signs in the Temescal and Hoover-Foster neighborhoods. Cassius drives a bucket around the Lower Bottoms; later, he rents a lux apartment in the Cathedral Building above Latham Square Plaza. Riley, calling in favors, secured many of the locations for free.
As a director, Riley oversaw cast and crew with vastly more filmmaking experience than himself, a position akin to his role orchestrating seasoned musicians as bandleader of The Coup. “A trained musician understands something one way, but Boots doesn’t do charts,” said Choice. “He’ll say it with his body, the expression on his face.” Likewise, Riley invoked music to describe his mix of deference and instruction on set. “You have to know when that lick the bass player is playing is better than what you have,” he said. “Some people call this being humble but, no, it’s attaching your ego to the final product.”
It’s important to Riley that Sorry to Bother You feels fanciful but familiar: Viewers may recognize the techies’ n-word sing-along from music festivals, the microdorm-bound workers of WorryFree from startup culture, and the debasement-as-entertainment conceit of a game show from reality television. (One creative liberty seems aspirational: The Oakland Post is a broadsheet daily.) Riley cited Star Wars‘ undetectable anti-imperialist origins as a cautionary tale. “The world became so out of touch that it didn’t matter how radical the idea was,” he said. “I wanted this grounded in the world we actually live in.”
Pre-release press indicates Sorry to Bother You‘s politics aren’t smothered by its dalliances with science fiction and magical realism. In fact, some reviewers appear to find it more radical than it’s intended: You’d be forgiven, reading headlines such as “Boots Riley Wants to Burn It All Down,” for thinking the film advocates insurrection instead of organized labor. Riley credits this aspect of the reception to cinema’s lack of everyday workplaces and union activities; there’s plenty of individual struggle and mass misery on screen, but not a lot of unglamorous workers rallying to demand fair pay.
“What that tells you is there’s a whole piece of life that Hollywood, writers, whatever — that’s been censored out of film,” he said. “That’s one reason people are interested in the movie: The same way people in Oakland recognize their town, people all over the world recognize what they go through at work. I think it hasn’t been talked about on purpose.”[pullquote-1]
While Boots is amused by the bombastic reception of his movie’s politics, Walter is nervous. Boots likes the headline of a recent New York Times profile: “How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood.” Walter called it “McCarthy language.” Talking in a downtown cafe in May, Walter challenged my reference to a clash in the film between strikers and police as a “riot” in what felt like an effort to preempt more media overstatement. “Riots are events organized by the state to control the actions of people who are demonstrating for their own interests,” he said. “They are not things people do to defend themselves.”
Walter went on to describe his fondness for Squeeze, a traveling organizer who starts working at the call center to agitate for unionization. (To research the part, Boots introduced Yeun to an organizer with the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union, who participated in a historic port shutdown Boots helped orchestrate during Occupy Oakland.) Walter was analyzing Squeeze’s skepticism of Detroit’s art, suggesting the organizer considers mere creative reflection on life ineffectual, when we were interrupted by Matt Nelson, executive director of Latinx organizing group Presente.
“If the movie does really well, Boots might be as recognizable around here as his father,” said Nelson. They chatted about recent reviews, and then talk turned to movies lately mentioned in the same breath: Get Out, which Walter said is simply about racism existing among a predictable class of white people; and Black Panther, which prompted Walter to recall his disappointment with its comic-book inspiration in the 1960s. In an only-among-Boots’-friends-and-family-in-Oakland sort of flourish, they also discussed which labor unions should publicly support the film. “I think the nurses should get behind it,” said Nelson, referring to the locally headquartered California Nurses Association.
Boots, relayed the anecdote later, said he liked the idea, but emphasized his delicate dual goal for the movie: to appeal to broad swathes of people on artistic merit, and then to attune them to the possibilities of collective political action. “I wanted to champion the idea that there’s a way to change things,” he said. But he doesn’t want to market it with the latter part, lest the thought of a “message movie” repels viewers who consider themselves apolitical or who avoid that category of entertainment.
To illustrate the point, Riley recalled an early magazine review dubbing The Coup “more gangsta rap from Oakland.” “At first I was offended,” he said. “But I realized years later that a lot of people read that and said, ‘More gangsta rap from Oakland? Hell yeah.’ So I’m not keen to make this movie feel like vegetables, because it’s really ice cream.”
Does Sorry to Bother You advocate a “militant” unionization effort? “Some of what Squeeze talks about, like, ‘to all floors and beyond,’ speaks to a more militant and radical tradition that has to do with solidarity strikes,” he said, referring to a union striking in support of one with a different employer. “Solidarity strikes are actually illegal in the United States through the Taft-Hartley law, which is exactly the law that has to be defied in order to make a real, effective labor movement.”
Riley had left Stephen Dunn & Associates well before 1999, when an employee at the Berkeley call center named Harlan Cross rallied his coworkers to unionize in affiliation with ILWU Local 6. Management, using tactics later deemed illegal, launched an aggressive anti-union campaign: They held compulsory meetings in which employees were threatened with onerous conditions if they voted to unionize, and impliedly promised incentives should they decline. They hired more workers to dilute the pro-union majority. They provided long-demanded ergonomic chairs the day of the union vote.
When a majority of the workers nevertheless voted in favor, management contested the validity of the union cards and refused to collectively bargain. Next began a protracted legal battle, culminating with a federal appellate court’s 2001 order compelling SD&A to recognize the union pending the resolution of a case before the National Labor Relations Board. Ultimately, though, management relocated the facility to Los Angeles in 2003. As an SD&A spokesperson wrote to the Express in an email, “We were able to consolidate some positions as well as reduce infrastructure costs to make us more competitive.”
When I told the story to Riley, he started strategizing. “Well, as you see, like the scenario in the movie, had they really shut it down, maybe there wouldn’t have been time for the company to gather resources and move,” he said. “Had they done something that would’ve been illegal, such as blocking every way in and making the bosses choose between less money and no money, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.”