You may have heard that Sorry to Bother You, the debut film from writer/director Boots Riley, is nuts. And it is: Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green (say it out loud), a young man living with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s garage in Oakland, California. Cassius finds work as a telemarketer at a shoddy call center, until he’s promoted — and realizes he’s now being tasked with selling contracts for Worry Free, a company that employs people for life, offering prison-chic accommodations and meals in place of wages. Meanwhile, Cassius’ former co-workers are planning a strike, Detroit is roaming the streets at night, vandalizing Worry Free signs with guerilla activists, and the most popular thing on TV is a game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!
There are more twists and turns in this gloriously shambolic movie, which has a jumbled aesthetic that recalls Michel Gondry (who gets an ironic shout-out midway through the film). But Sorry to Bother You sings in a voice all its own, thanks to the righteous vision of Riley, known for his 1990s hip-hop group The Coup and his vocal support for labor rights. In this interview, the 47-year-old director talks about Sorry to Bother You’s anachronistic look and its engagement with the politics of class.
The movie looks like it takes place in the present, but I noticed a lot of ‘70s signifiers — like really wide ties and big collars or the fluorescent, yellow-ish lighting of the office Cassius works in.
It was supposed to be like an alternative present. The aesthetic that I wanted, not only visually but just the way the whole thing felt, was what I call a beautiful clutter. So that had to do with not only the production design but the story.
Right, the movie has a very tactile look.
I’ve seen some indie films try to do that, but it’s [usually] too, like, production-designed. There’s this extra kitschy thing that’s done, where it’s cute. I think the way we got around that was by having stuff that meant things to people — something that could, in my mind, grow from someone’s life. His bedroom was modeled after Bob Marley’s bedroom. I had seen a picture a long time ago of his bedroom and I was like, whoa, that’s Cassius’ bedroom.
The whole Worry Free concept, that feels scarily of-the-moment. Was there anything in particular that inspired that, like Foxconn?
Definitely, I mean even before that — you have sweatshops where people live and that’s before Foxconn. I think the difference here is it’s happening in the United States, where people are like, “Well, that’s only able to happen in other countries and to people who are less empowered than we are.”
People don’t have a sense of their collective power as workers in a way that they used to. That’s like this nostalgic idea from the 1960s and another time.
It takes more than an idea or more than one person, it takes actual organization. That’s one of the things that [in] the past few decades the left has been scared of — actual organizations where you work with people and get things done. Or not scared of, but acting like it’s not necessary. I think, really, in the ’60s was when people had stepped away from actual labor organizing. In the ’20s and ’30s, you had a million card-carrying Communists. You had strikes going on all the time in mining places like Alabama, Utah, Montana, Colorado. You had in the Midwest people occupying factories and taking them over. On the West Coast, you had longshoremen who were making their union and battling tanks. You had the Bonus March, somewhat separate from this movement but happening at the same time, where World War I veterans marched on the White House, many of them armed, wanting their bonus checks that they had been promised and getting met by tanks.
Obviously, revolution’s happening all over the world. That milieu is where we got the New Deal. It wasn’t because people were, like, let’s all petition and get people to vote for FDR. What made [the government] do that was, they were scared of a revolutionary movement growing. We’ve got 50,000 people on the street that will shut down this industry. We’re not just saying we’re upset with this — we’re saying we’re gonna shut you down if you do this, and you have X amount of time to remedy it.
Your main character in this movie is somebody who at one point turns his back on his fellow workers and takes a better deal at the expense of their collective action. You seem to want the audience to sympathize with his position, too.
What’s termed activism is now not about building a solidarity to get rid of the system. It’s about saying that you’re right and showing that you’re right. It’s focused on, “Here’s my analysis and this is the right analysis and you have the wrong analysis.” It’s about winning the debate as opposed to making a movement. And a lot of that comes from the left hiding in art and academia.
Then do you believe a movie like this can have an impact in the real world?
I hope that it talks to people. It has different things to say to different people, and it definitely has something to say to people that consider themselves on the left and consider themselves wanting to make social change. It has some suggestions. Through the character of Cassius, one of the suggestions is that maybe it’s not time to be drawing lines yet.
What do you mean by that?
I mean a lot of times we are deciding that people are our enemies because they don’t agree with us. We forget our historical development in our own lives. This person is wrong — we’re not trying to win them, we’re just trying to define them as being against what we are. I wrote Cassius as myself making choices without my experiences of organizing. We see the human side of those choices. I believe everybody in that movie is trying to make their life mean something, and trying to engage with the world. They all do it in different ways, and that’s kind of key to understanding it.
It seemed like a big point the movie makes is that you’re going to have to get in the way, physically, to enact change. What worries me about activism today is that we’re too used to being comfortable.
Longshoremen are some of the best paid of what I guess would be called blue-collar labor. The reason they make $110,000 a year: Try to cross their picket line when they’re on strike. Nobody gets through. And the boss knows that. For other unions, they know that they can get people through, and that is really the crux of withholding labor. You can’t withhold labor if you let them replace you. Some of that is more metaphorical in the movie. But it’s also just a practical thing of showing people what a work stoppage, what a strike is. We have all these movies that show us what a dope deal is. There’s all sorts of struggle and rebellion going on in the world and in our lives all the time that not only does the news media not show it very much, it’s also being kept out of fiction.
Right. I mean, I hope people see this and think, oh, you can do that? But a cynical part of me feels like more are gonna see it and go buy a pair of earrings.
That’s part of what will happen. But also part of it is, look, just a few years ago, Wal-Mart workers went on strike and the military came out to fight them. They didn’t run away right away. Just a few years ago, all around the country, fast-food workers were trying to organize a union. Occupy called for a general strike — 50,000 people showed up. We’ve lived in a world where although there’s rebellion happening all over the place and even in the United States, the narrative films that we’ve watched all our lives have edited out any rebellion. And it guides what we feel humanity is about. An example that I’ve used before is Never Let Me Go. The movie is about people who are in a school, and they realize that they’re being raised to be food. And then they heard a rumor that if you’re in love, they don’t eat you. So they try to prove they’re in love the whole time, and then they still get eaten anyway. In that whole world, nobody’s fighting back. Nobody’s making a movement.
As a filmmaker, you’re part of a bigger system — you need a lot of people to make a movie and distribute it and get it out there. But then it becomes harder to critique something that you’re a part of. I noticed the distributor tweeting out links to a website where you can buy swag from the movie, and that felt counter to the movie’s message. At the same time, I understand you want your stuff to get out there, and you can’t just retreat from the world. How do you reconcile all that?
I’ve never been somebody that preaches that people go out in the woods and start a commune, because I think that actually helps the system. Even that little commune is still governed by whatever system they’re trying to get away from, and you’ve left everybody else. I think that idea is not necessarily from the tradition of people trying to make revolution or change the system or engage in class struggle in reformative ways. It’s more of a punk aesthetic. And it also is about making yourself feel good, that you’re not part of it.
The struggle that I think needs to be waged is one in which the working class is able to withhold labor. That doesn’t have to do with whether or not people buy stuff. Karl Marx sold books. That’s how we know about him.
Well, according to Elon Musk, Karl Marx was a capitalist.
I don’t know what joke he — he might have been saying that because [Marx] sold books. But the point is to get people to engage in class struggle. The little capitalist that has the T-shirt company that employs five people, they’re not better than the big capitalist, they’re just smaller. I got ripped off just as much on indie labels — they weren’t better, they just dressed differently. The whole point is to build a movement that is not about don’t buy this or don’t buy that, but it’s about people organizing at their place of work. And we can’t do that by simply choosing what we buy and choosing what we don’t buy. These are my opinions. Take everything with a grain of salt.