Just a Few Minutes of Your Time: An Interview with Boots Riley

Kaleem Aftab talks face to face (not over the phone) with Boots Riley, writer and director of one of the year’s most urgent, wild and ambitious films, Sorry To Bother You.

Boot’s Riley’s debut extravaganza Sorry To Bother You is the grandchild we never knew Billy Wilder’s The Apartment had. Both films are absurdist comedies that use ambition at the workplace to highlight the social malaise of capitalism. Greed is definitely not good. 

Jack Lemmon’s C.C. “Bud” Baxter and Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green are the American everyman of their times. Bud, the white insurance clerk at the bottom of the ladder but with the keys to an apartment on New York Upper West Side with a smooth elevator operator and Cassius, an African-American Oakland based telemarketer who lives in his uncle’s garage with his on-off girlfriend Detroit, the name of America’s most iconic dead town where the Sorry To Bother You director spent some of his childhood years. 

Lakeith Stanfield in  Sorry To Bother You  (2018)

Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Almost 6 decades in time separate Bud and Cassius, but the vast distance between the East and West Coast doesn’t come close to explaining how far apart their worlds are. What’s most evident is the gap between rich and poor, and how today social climbing is no longer just an elevator ride away. In Sorry To Bother Youemployees no longer mingle with the rich, and in the modern world jobs are won by lying about your experience and ability rather than nomenclature. 

Jack Lemmon in  The Apartment  (1960)

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960)

Green has what economist David Graeber refers to as a “Bullshit job.” That’s a role where even the person doing it thinks their job has no social worth and that the world might even be a better place were the job not to exist. According to surveys in America around 40% of the population feels like this. 

Jack Lemmon in  The Apartment  (1960)

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960)

“I knew that I wanted to make a movie that took place in the telemarketing world,” Riley tells me in a London hotel. “And that the main character would have a job struggle where they had to decide who’s team they wanted to be on.” 

From an early age Riley knew his team. Born in Oakland in 1971 and at the age of 11, “I wanted to be Prince, without practicing as much as Prince did.” By the time he was 15 he had joined the radical communist organisation called the Progressive Labour Party. “We were all told we aren’t important and we can’t be important and who we see who are important are the people on television and you want your life to be about something,” Riley states. He called for a walk out in his school to complain about a system that surreptitiously tracked students from a young age. Boom! The institution backed down and Riley was drunk on power and a committed revolution. 

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in  Sorry To Bother You  (2018)

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You (2018)

His life ever since has been a mix of activism and entertainment. Spike Lee happened and he enrolled in film school in 1989 at San Francisco State. Working as production assistant on film sets he met E-Roc (Eric Davies) and together they formed the band Coup, and in 1993 hip-hop welcomed them following the release of their debut album Kill My Landlord.  

That though was the ‘80s and early ‘90s. In the warped present-day reality of Sorry To Bother You, Green is given the choice of joining his co-workers in action or trying to find a way to climb up the ladder and that involves prostituting himself and losing his ‘blackness’. 

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson in  Sorry To Bother You  (2018)

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson in Sorry To Bother You (2018)

“The racist tropes about black people for instance are they have a culture which is insufficient for surviving in this system, or they’re savage, they’re lazy, their family structure is messed up. And what that is attempting to do is say that poverty is the fault of the impoverished.”

Green learns how to channel his white voice when making calls, a voice full of confidence that lands him on a fast track upstairs. It seems that once you’re willing to acquiesce and give up on your true self, doors open, but the pact with the devil has been made. 

“So when they’re talking about the white voice, for instance, Danny Glover’s character Langston says ‘there is no white voice, it’s what white people wish they sounded like, what they think they’re supposed to sound like’. That whole thing goes towards the idea that there is a performance of whiteness,” says Riley.

And that’s a realisation that Bud Baxter makes in The Apartment. He may be white, but he’s sold his own soul in aspiring to be like his own bosses. It’s the way toxic masculinity keeps on self-perpetuating before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ became everyday parlance. 

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in  The Apartment  (1960)

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment (1960)

Sorry To Bother You adds into the mix a look at the techno-scientific progress that has transformed the workplace and our world. In Slavoj Ziżek’s Like A Thief In Broad Daylight, the philosopher shows how the world is fulfilling Marx’s prediction that ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ If one looks at the big difference between The Apartment and Sorry To Bother Youit has nothing to do with race, but that Riley has pushed Wilder’s thesis away from any sense of realism and embraced the fact that more than anything else in the world movies are like reveries. 

When trying to raise finance, Riley’s elevator pitch would say, ‘It’s an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.’ All this is true, but the final cut infuses it with a myriad of political ideas, legendary mythological figures and laugh out loud comedy, to name just a few. To describe Sorry To Bother You in one track would be like saying Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitute is about the formation of an idyll town. 

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in  Sorry To Bother You  (2018)

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You (2018)

“I’m tired of the movie that says one thing and it’s funny and we stretch it out to 80 minutes,” says Riley. “I wanted Sorry To Bother You to feel more like literature, and if you can tell me the whole story by telling me one thing about it, then it’s probably not a great piece of literature.” 

And in recognising this, Riley has made one of the great films of the year. 

[Words by Kaleem Aftab]

Sorry to Bother You

In his anarchic debut feature, Boots Riley sets fire to the modern world and blasts off to brilliantly original territory. Starring Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) and Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Creed), this is 2018's most timely feature.

Sorry to Bother You plays on our screens from Friday 7 December