Boots Riley Wants You to Strike

On a list of places I imagined I would someday meet Boots Riley — wielding a bullhorn on a picket line, maybe, or hollering amid riot shields and flashbang grenades — Tribeca’s high-end Italian restaurant, Locanda Verde, would have ranked extremely low. And yet, here we are. It’s 11 a.m., and there’s nobody waiting for him but me.

The leftist firebrand, community organizer, card-carrying Communist, and leader of the radical rap group the Coup greets me gravely, his hand emerging from the wizard sleeve of a loose, drapey one-piece, an intrepid sartorial choice somewhere south of kimono and just north of bathrobe. It’s made by the designer Abasi Rosborough, he tells me when I compliment him on it. “I usually dress pretty well, I think, and then I started showing up to events with Tessa [Thompson] and Lakeith [Stanfield]. I got crushed a few times. So I made some calls.”

Thompson and Stanfield are the leads in Riley’s first feature film, a dystopian sci-fi comedy called Sorry to Bother You that opens July 6 to massive buzz and widespread acclaim. Annapurna, the production company responsible for powerhouses like Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, and Phantom Thread, picked up Sorry to Bother You for distribution after Riley collected the Sundance Vanguard Award. Riley wrote the screenplay around 2012, with the vague hope he might make it with friends on a shoestring budget of around $50,000. The night before our meeting, he attended its screening party; in attendance were Thompson and Stanfield, along with co-stars Armie Hammer and Terry Crews.

Today, he sits across from me like a man who has arrived here via catapult, gazing at me plaintively from beneath a hangover I can nearly hear. Riley scans the menu, full of decadent items that cost $22 or more. “Can I just get … yogurt and blueberries?” he asks the waiter, gazing at him as if squinting into a floodlight.

This is all pretty new territory for Riley.  And yet the movie he has made — a wild, escalating riff on the ravages of late-stage capitalism — is a direct extension of the quick-witted, dry, and deadly earnest rap music he has made for decades as a member of the Coup. As it opens, Cassius Green (Stanfield) is so desperate to move out of his uncle’s garage that he forges achievement trophies and diplomas for a job interview. It is a soul-sucking, boiler-room-style telemarketing call center and lucky him: He gets it.

What happens after this — Green discovers magical selling powers in his ability to adopt a “white” voice and is promoted by his seedy bosses to the company’s upper tiers, where even shadier transactions abound, alienating his radical artist girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) and childhood friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler) in the process — is only a prologue to the movie’s headier provocations, which keep coming until the movie’s final frame.

“I was talking to Chris Rock last night,” Riley tells me, before making a wry face and mimicking a name falling out of his mouth and landing with a clunk on the floor. “And he said, ‘Your movie is like your albums.’ Which only makes sense to me. Because it’s the same way that I make choices, the same way I take notes, the same thing that I’m going for. What this movie talks about, what that album talks about, what all my other albums talk about — they are the same thing.” He pauses: “I dunno, he may have just said that because he knew I would like that.”

The Coup’s first album, Kill My Landlord, was released in 1993. It mixed live funk and obscure samples with Marxist sloganeering — in fact, the Communist Manifesto was name-checked 12 seconds into the first song, followed immediately by Che Guevara. Riley, still figuring out his approach, crammed unwieldy phrases like “dialectical analysis” into his rhymes. But even then, his antic eye and quick tongue were clear: In the same song, he threatened to overturn the world order “like Bush did a boatload of Haitians.”

Over the years, his sense of humor sharpened, as did his writerly instincts. Unlike many other revolutionary rap acts, from Public Enemy to Dead Prez, the Coup were as funny as they were stern, as humane as they were steely, and Riley’s perspective undergirded it all — absurdist, self-deprecating, and focused on the sorts of mundane details that suggest the bigger picture. Among hip-hop cognoscenti, his story raps became the stuff of legend: For a particularly vivid example, see the devastating seven-minute “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ‘79 Granada Last Night.” On 1994’s “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish,” he tells the story of a small-time hustler who stumbles into a scene of “snobby old ladies drinkin’ champagne with rich white men” and realizes he is “getting hustled, only knowing half the game.”

Over the years, Riley released new Coup records at irregular intervals that swerved wildly in sound and style, touring endlessly and throwing his weight behind local movements around the country aimed at empowering workers. He was a cult figure; he had a small and fervent following; and, save for the unfortunate and spooky coincidence that saw the Coup’s Party Music released on September 11 with a cover of the Twin Towers exploding (Riley swiftly pulled the cover), he was neither famous nor notorious.

In the wake of Sorry to Bother You, that seems like it might change. The Coup has been picked up by Interscope, a deal long courted but inked just weeks ago. He has already been given a deal to produce another feature film — whatever he wants — and a television show. He is conscious of the inflection point before him. “Even if [the movie] hadn’t been picked up by Annapurna, and was some limited-distribution thing or direct to streaming, there would still be a lot more eyes on this than there have been ears on the Coup albums,” he says. “So there’s some pressure there.”

Six years ago, in 2012, the Coup released an album. It was called, not coincidentally, Sorry to Bother You. Among its tracks was a song called “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green.” That song title is a line from the screenplay itself. There are other links too, observable only in retrospect: The opening track “The Magic Clap” contains the line “Tell Homeland Security we are the bomb” — a direct reference, Riley says, to the radical activities cooked up by the movie’s fictional left-wing agitators Left Eye.

To hear him tell it, that album was intended to pave the way for his screenplay. “I started writing the album and the screenplay around the same time; I got done with the screenplay a lot faster,” he remembers. “The idea was the album would cause a little buzz to happen, and we would attract investors,” he says. “My whole pitch then was, ‘Hey we can do this movie and we can do a 40-city tour; what independent movies have that?’” He looks at me, deadpan: “But that wasn’t enough to get people excited.”

In fact, Riley shopped the thing around fruitlessly for six years, hoping it would fire someone’s imagination. He found no investors, but plenty of enthusiastic readers. One such early reader was David Cross, who provides Cassius’s overdubbed “white voice” in the final film. Fittingly, the two first met as performers at a Palestinian fundraiser. “That was the first time that we met, at 1st Avenue in Minneapolis,” Cross remembers. “The people who put the benefit together were way more radical than I anticipated, I recall. They weren’t Hamas, but philosophically, they were probably 12 degrees away. So that was kinda funny, I was unprepared for that. But I enjoyed the show a lot, and Boots and I kept in touch.”

Soon after, “he called and asked me if it was cool to send me this script, and he was conscious of how that can be annoying sometimes,” Cross says. “I’m not somebody who can pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s get this funded,’ but I said sure, send it over. I don’t even remember what he told me about it — just that it was supposed to be funny. I really, truly wasn’t expecting that much. But it was one the funniest scripts I have ever read. I was just laughing out loud immediately. His ear for dialogue and his story — it was just really well done. I don’t know if that was the first, second, or 20th draft, but it was so imaginative and smart and funny, and never pandering. It was better than 95 percent of all the other comedies out there, which have elements of complete garbage. It was just so impressive.”

It was word-of-mouth buzz like this, built in maddeningly slow increments — Dave Eggers published the screenplay as a book in 2014 — that kept Riley from giving up. When funding came, various names floated around the project — for a while Jordan Peele was reportedly interested in the Cassius Green role. By the time Stanfield signed on for good, fresh off his buzz from Atlanta and Get Out, the Coup album sharing the film’s name was a distant memory.

But now, ironically, there’s a new Coup album on the way, in July. The music from the new album wallpapers the film; it is the “diegetic” material, or the music the characters themselves appear to be listening to. When Cassius, Detroit, Squeeze, and Sal pile into a car together, they are bumping a new Coup album. “They just live in a world where there’s this one new Coup album, and everybody only listens to that album,” Riley says. He grins, presumably at the creator’s hubris of it — concoct a world where everyone only speaks your lines, and then in their free time only listens to your music.

“I wanted to call the album The Sun Exploding” — a reference to one of Cassius Green’s lines in the film — “but Interscope was like, ‘No, we gotta call it the soundtrack.’ I’m like, ‘But we already have an album called Sorry to Bother You; this is supposed to be another Coup album called Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack?” I hesitate, wanting to point out to him, delicately, that an album released on Interscope in the wake of his hit movie will probably eclipse the audience of his 2012 album by an order of magnitude.

Then he makes the point for me: “Weirdly enough, it will probably be the most-heard Coup album in our career. And it’s the one that we made while I was editing ten hours a day.”

Like his best records with the Coup, the movie is sharp and poignant in its depiction of the brutal seductions of capitalism. For Cassius, his girlfriend Detroit, and his friends, life is a series of meaningless levels, existing only to isolate them in their ambitions. Nowhere is this idea expressed more clearly than in the movie’s Golden Elevator — the special entry point to the highest echelons of Cassius’s employers, the status symbol for all of the privileges that the powerful enjoy. Riley treats the allure of the golden elevator with empathy, not derision: When Cassius gazes at it, you understand his longing. The scene is so potent that it leads me to ask him: As the leader of a scrappy cult band for two decades, working on shoestrings and touring endlessly, when has he, himself, felt the pull of the golden elevator?

“So many times in my life I can’t pinpoint,” he answers. “In some ways, this is the golden elevator. Because I do want to not be on the road for 50 shows a year when I’m 60, you know? I’ve gone all this time without health care. I’ve been to the dentist for the first time in 20 years about a year ago.”

The pitiful fact that a dentist visit and health care could represent “the golden elevator” for Boots Riley only adds to the movie’s political charge. At one point, a character sternly tells Cassius, “We don’t sit around and cry about what should be; we thrive in what is.” The line rings so true that I ask him if he’s heard those exact words. “I mean, I hear that all the time,” he answers. “That’s why we all do what we do, you know? I think most people would love for us to be a socialist society. But they don’t feel like they actually can change that part of it.”

The character who speaks that line to Cassius — a fellow African-American who indoctrinates Cassius into the corrupt culture of higher management and serves as his mentor — “in some ways sees himself as a black nationalist leader,” Riley says. “Someone that was doing more effectively what these people out in the street are supposedly trying to do — getting close to power.”

It’s the difference again between the capitalism-as-subversion practiced and preached by the Carters, who recently bragged about putting “a lot of brown children on your Forbes list” — and what Riley espouses, which is something a lot more old-fashioned. This is when Riley warms up, and when Sorry to Bother You’s socialist-pamphleteer spirit starts to shine through its four-color comic-book surface. It’s the earnest tug beneath the movie’s pinwheeling mania, a plea for something so simple and sober it almost demands to be dressed up in cartoon sci-fi dystopia threads: Work Stoppages Matter.

Mainstream culture, Riley contends, has largely forgotten the power of withholding labor. “Even among most supposedly radical factions of the left, the tactics are the same — ‘Let your voice be heard’; let’s get out into the street and bust some windows because it makes a statement,” he says. His hangover has vanished; he is fixing me with his eyes to ensure that I am paying attention; his yogurt and blueberries are forgotten, save for a few spoonfuls. This, I see, is the lifelong community organizer and theorist, seeing his opening and seizing it clearly.

“But before that, in the ’20s and ’30s, there were strikes going on all across the United States — Utah, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana, Alabama. Those were called ‘hotbeds of communist’ activity by J. Edgar Hoover. They were ‘red’ then, and now they’re red in a different way, because the left left them there.

“During all this time, across the Midwest, there were people occupying factories; on the West Coast, longshoremen were battling state militias with tanks. And in that milieu, that’s when we got the New Deal. Not because we elected the right person. You would have demonstrations of 50,000 people in the streets that could shut down your industry,” he says emphatically. “It was a demonstration of power. And the power part came from the leverage of being able to withhold labor. The crux of our power isn’t only in our voice. It is in our economic function in society.”

It doesn’t take a genius to connect Riley’s message with the headlines, particularly the teachers’ strikes that roiled five states. In West Virginia, teachers shut down every public school in the state, with 34,000 workers out. They won concessions from the governor on every platform: health benefits and wages, yes, but also curtailed expansion of charter schools and a commitment to veto all anti-union legislation. Tellingly, collective bargaining laws were so weak in the state that striking was actually illegal.

This is another message undergirding Sorry to Bother You: Everyone is a potential revolutionary, one step removed from rushing the riot police. Cassius is no one’s idea of a radical, on purpose: When the strike breaks out among his office’s employees, he is the most reluctant participant and the first to break rank when he is offered a promotion. “I am doing something important,” he barks at his friends as he crosses the picket line.

“The thing that relates me to Cassius is wanting your life to mean something,” Riley says. “Which is combined with the me that is in Detroit, which is ‘Does my art really do anything?’” I ask him if putting Cassius and Detroit together is him making this movie and selling this movie. “Cassius, Detroit, and Squeeze,” he corrects me. Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun, is the fiery organizer of the film, the one who organizes the work stoppage that for the first time makes a real difference in the hopeless position of the lowly callers.

Tellingly, even Detroit, who stands as its righteous proxy and moral backbone, degrades herself willingly at her own art opening, allowing gallery attendees to pelt her with broken electronics and blood-filled balloons. It is a personal abasement disguised as hokey performance art, and for Detroit, it is all part of the larger hustle. “You should understand better than anyone,” she snaps at a horrified Cassius when he tries to intervene on her behalf.

Curious, I ask him if this hungover breakfast, expounding on the splintering of the left with a journalist over a bowl of nearly untouched yogurt and berries, is his own private version of being pelted with pig-blood balloons. He laughs and wipes his mouth.

“I’d have to think about that,” he says. “I don’t know that this specific breakfast is that moment, but it definitely happens.” Back in 2001, when the exploding Twin Towers of Party Music was fomenting conservative outrage, Riley made the talking-head rounds, appearing on camera debating noted pig-blood hurlers such as Sean Hannity. As in his lyrics and his movies, the broad gesture — the agitprop cover, the jokes, the ingratiating live funk and chanted hooks — is a Trojan horse for a precision-targeted, bald political appeal. It’s a timeworn technique, and Riley knows that he relies on it: “Detroit is part of my critique of myself as an artist.”

Riley seems very comfortable critiquing himself as an artist. When I start to ask him how it felt to start over in a new medium after having “honed his craft” in another, he grins and stops me. “That’s the thing: I never did. The reason why our albums changed so much from one to the next, sometimes to the chagrin of our fans, was that I could never feel like, ‘I got it right! Let’s do that again.’”

To hear him tell it, he has been bewildered, lost, and fumbling in the dark with all his creative endeavors, so feeling that way on a film set was just like being home. The only difference between making a movie and making a Coup album, in his eyes: “If I’m coming to the studio and my ears are blown out, I can say, ‘You know what? Come back tomorrow. I gotta go home.’ Can’t do that making a movie! This is it.”

“I think that the people who say they know what they’re doing don’t,” he says bluntly. “I never bought into that in the first place.” The difference was he felt comfortable admitting that out loud, to the entire cast and crew. “I would ask for suggestions. For me, the only authority comes from the final product, I have to be the one with the vision to follow, but that doesn’t mean I know exactly how to get us there. Because I didn’t even have to put on airs, it made me open to figuring things out.”

Our time together is running out. The publicist, at the table behind us, has alerted Riley that he has five minutes to get from here to a panel discussion next door. It is time to deliver the pull quote, he senses, and Riley is not going to miss his mark. So before he gets up, he leans forward one more time.

“I know that nobody knows what the fuck they are doing in art,” he says. “Nobody. Might as well be me fucking shit up instead of them.”

Boots Riley Wants You to Strike