You’ll have to look hard this year to find a stranger movie than Sorry to Bother You. It begins as a parody of bottom-feeding capitalism, following Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green — a down-on-his-luck resident of Oakland — as he takes a job at a telemarketing operation where he succeeds beyond his wildest imagination when he discovers the effectiveness of speaking to his customers in a “white voice” (supplied by David Cross). It ends … actually, it’s probably best not to reveal where it ends, beyond mentioning the final act involves Armie Hammer snorting seemingly lethal amounts of cocaine.
Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You’s writer-director, is a new name to movies but a veteran in several other fields. Riley’s served as a community activist and frequent talk-show guest, but his highest-profile job has been as the front man of the Coup, an Oakland hip-hop group whose history dates back to 1991 and has its origins during Riley’s time as a UPS worker. Since then, the Coup has released six albums, and though the group has evolved musically — from spare, sample-heavy early efforts to live instrumentation — the mission has remained the same. Riley sees music as a way to promote radical politics that challenge the capitalist system and question the power structure that keeps it in place.
If that sounds dreary, the music is anything but. Like Sorry to Bother You, the Coup’s musically inventive songs are stuffed with dark humor, pointed wit, and disarming moments of drama while remaining unerringly on-message. As Riley recently told the New York Times, his ultimate goal is “to help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.” Hence the Coup’s recurring people-have-the-power theme and the labor-stoppage subplot that comes to take center stage in Sorry to Bother You. But his musical career is one of an artist who knows his best shot at changing minds begins with moving bodies.
It’s also one that’s had a visual component long before Riley made his feature-film debut. Riley studied film at San Francisco State in the late ’80s, and music videos have been a part of the Coup’s playbook from the start, an element that helped earn the group a following thanks to plays on BET, MTV, and elsewhere. Collectively, they work both as a primer to the group and a kind of prehistory of Sorry to Bother You.
The opening moments of the Coup’s “Not Yet Free,” a single from the group’s 1993 album Kill My Landlord, double as a kind of mission statement. The beat, by Pam the Funkstress (a.k.a. Pam Warren, who died in 2017 at the age of 51), and the images of Riley slowly rolling through the streets in a Mercedes-Benz, wouldn’t be out of place in any number of early ’90s West Coast hip-hop videos, a point shored up by a vocal sample of Ice Cube. Then the punch line: Riley’s only driving the car because he works at a car wash and Cube’s noting that “Blacks are too f__ing poor to be Republican.” Wandering an Oakland filled with protesters and pawn shops, Riley and E-Roc (who’d leave the Coup in 1997) trade verses about living in a “parasite economy” and dreaming of a revolution.
The Kevin Bray–directed video worked like a Trojan horse, allowing the Coup to slip a leftist message into rotation on BET. Recalling on NPR seeing the video for the first time, novelist and essayist Kiese Laymon wrote, “ I really knew that everything involving hip-hop, black boys, black girls, freedom, capitalism, raced oppression, truth, rap music, violence, white supremacy, honesty and me was about to change forever.” It didn’t, at least not for the world at large. But for those paying attention, it made a deep impression.
Other Kill My Landlord’s videos explored the same vein. “Dig It” finds Riley, E-Roc, and Pam the Funkstress taking public transportation through Oakland streets while dropping references to Che Guevara and H. Rap Brown before ultimately joining other Oakland residents on the unemployment line. “Funk” uses familiar images of domino games and beefing gangstas to accompany a lyric that includes lines about using Uzis to protect the community rather than kill each other.
Videos for the Coup’s sophomore album, 1994’s Genocide & Juice, would be more audacious. Directed by Oakland photographer Andrei Rozen, the striking black-and-white video to “Fat Cats and Bigga Fish” accompanies Riley and E-Roc as they pick the pocket of a passerby and then sweet-talk their way into free fast food before slipping into tuxes to rob a fancy party. It’s there that they realize how petty their crimes really are in the grand scheme of things, when Riley overhears a business executive talking to the mayor (the only black person attending rather than working it) about redeveloping low-income housing into fancy condos. In the clip’s most striking moment, Riley’s verses describing the plan emerge from the mouth of a middle-aged, balding white man. Riley seems to have noted the power of this moment and filed it away for future use, inverting it for Sorry to Bother You’s “white voice” scenes. (The mayor of Oakland didn’t fair well in the album’s other video, either. In “Takin’ These,” the Coup engages in the radical redistribution of wealth by invading an office, a mansion, and tossing the mayor’s body into the Bay.)
The Coup took a four-year break after Genocide & Juice, during which Riley worked as a community organizer, before returning with the remarkable Steal This Album, an album as smart and funky as anything the group had released at that point. But the album’s high point, “Me & Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” throws out the humor and only obliquely brings in politics for an extended narrative in which Riley assumes the voice of a young man who exacts revenge on the one-armed pimp who killed his mother. The narrative is pure pulp, but the song uses carefully chosen details to explore how abusive behavior and destructive attitudes get passed from one generation to another. The moody video, directed by Riley and Chris Wroubel, takes a similarly matter-of-fact approach. To visualize a track designed to a hammer to the myth of the glamorous pimp, Riley and Wroubel opts for heartbreak rather than blaxploitation thrills. (Three years later, it was adapted into the novel Too Beautiful for Words by Monique W. Morris.)
Bad timing brought the Coup some unwanted attention in 2001 thanks the group’s fourth album, Party Music, whose original cover — conceived and created before 9/11 — was to have featured the group using musical tools to blow up the World Trade Center. The only video from the album is for “Ride the Fence,” a catchy song that finds Riley choosing sides, be it “anti-corporate” or “pro-people’s-control-of-the-cash-and-corporations.” The video, featuring graffiti-inspired animation by Haik Hoisington, breaks Riley one step closer to the satirical absurdity of Sorry to Bother You.
The Coup’s 2006 follow-up, Pick a Bigger Weapon, also produced only one video, the relatively straightforward clip for “We Are the Ones,” mostly a mix of concert footage and Bush-era protesters taking to the streets. Six years later, Sorry to Bother You, the album, produced an abundance of clips, several of them pointing the way to the film with which it would share a name.
Directed Beau Patrick Coulon, “The Guillotine” mixes images borrowed from Pussy Riot with scenes from The Wizard of Oz (or maybe The Wiz) and climaxes with, naturally, the revelation that capitalism, in the form of a Rich Uncle Pennybags–like figure, is the man behind the curtain. He doesn’t fare nearly as well as the Wizard, however (see the song title). “Long Island Iced Tea, Neat” uses collage-like stop-motion animation to bring to life a song about drinking after protesting. The kinetic, if less inventive, clip for “Land of 7 Billion Dances” doubles as a reminder that the Coup had become a formidable live band.
Even closer to the inspired madness of Sorry to Bother You, Eat the Fish’s clip for “Your Parents’ Cocaine” matches its kazoo-driven music to some unashamedly low-budget Muppet knockoffs having a debauched drug- and violence-filled party. As in Riley’s film, it’s mayhem in the service of a larger point, balancing cuteness on the edge of a razor.
But it’s Pete Lee’s two clips for “The Magic Clap” that most clearly foreshadow Riley’s film. In the first, Riley finds himself abducted and electrocuted, the streets of Oakland having suddenly revealed a shadowy underworld not visible to those who aren’t looking for it, or unfortunate enough to stumble on it. Fortunately, he escapes (via a child’s bike) to perform again.
In the second, Riley speaks directly to the camera and says he’s bringing in someone who can “translate” the song. Enter Patton Oswalt (later to be another of Sorry to Bother You’s white voices) who, after a “Thanks, Kanye,” interprets the song through an inspired sequence of shots bringing in prop comedy, exaggerated facial expressions, bits of miming … whatever it takes to get the point across. It’s funny and disarming and, with lines like “hand in the air / try to feel for an escape” and “morning prayers for the car to start,” the track makes its point clear. In that sense, it fits snugly between Riley’s music-career past and the filmmaking career then just a couple of years in his future.