Column: Boots Riley on power, organizing and who really runs the country. (Hint: It’s not Trump)
Before he was even old enough to drive, Boots Riley had the political chops of a seasoned community organizer, and as he grew up in Oakland, every few years added a new layer: working for farmworkers, for civic justice, for workers’ rights. His political hip-hop group, the Coup, recorded some notable albums.
Then, this summer, his resume got a whole lot heftier: Riley is the writer and director of “Sorry to Bother You.” It’s his first film, and it is something to behold. It sweeps politics, music, race, art, labor and capital, culture and Oakland up into a tornado of comic parody that manages to be both preposterously outre and creepily real. The man who’s found a new métier in moviemaking has something to say about his first and lasting love, the battle for radical political and social change.
You’ve been an activist since you were a teenager. You’ve been very visible in the Occupy movement. When it comes to raising awareness for change, how different are you finding the power of a movie from the power of the street?
With a movie, you have the power of putting out an idea about the world and for people to take it seriously. I think often the stuff that we see just re-situates the status quo and confirms it. But my hope is to talk about things that could be.
I think the movements — even ones that I’ve been involved with — over the last 50 years have been mainly about spectacle, mainly about showing that people are fed up with something and not one that’s power-based, whereas movements of the ’20s and ’30s used the withholding of labor as their power base.
When they came out on the street in the ’20s and ’30s with 50,000 workers, they were able to say, “These are 50,000 people who can shut down your industry.”
And that was just a demonstration — that was a demonstration of power. What are we demonstrating when we get 50,000 people on the street today? We are demonstrating that it’s great for us to talk to each other because it allows us to say, “Well, here are people that are thinking the same thing I am, and people who are fed up.”
But in the end, it doesn't have the ability to exact change. It doesn’t have the ability to exact a demand. And in that way, it’s spectacle.
Therefore, doing a movie is similar in some regard, in the sense it is spectacle. It is talking about ideas. But I was involved in Occupy Oakland. And we have the most people of Occupy [nationally] to show up because we’ve called for a general strike in Oakland. And we got 50,000 people to show up because people were like, “Wow, this is something that might be able to do something.”
We all — even at a base level, even a Republican — understand that the people with the money are the ones with the power. We all learn that.
But what we don’t learn is that we are the ones that give the folks with money their wealth, and that we can cut those purse strings or hold back on them, and therefore have a conversation with power by using our power.
There are many people who, like your character Cassius — Cash — who say, “Look, I agree with you, but I need to pay the bills, and if I have to cross a picket line to do it, so be it. I’ll take whatever they pay me, and I’m happy to get it.” What makes these people feel they have any power?
I think that people end up realizing, in those situations, that they are just pawns as well, and they’re by themselves. You can’t get much done by yourself. Speaking as someone who made a movie — and it took hundreds of people to make it happen — I can say that. And any movement that we see, any big change, does take other people.
I actually don’t think most people would make those decisions [like Cash]. I think some would relate to what he’s saying.
One the one hand, many movements have put being involved in social justice as an extracurricular activity, as something you do when you’re off work or on Saturdays or whatever. And people say, I can’t be involved in it — I got to pay the bills. And we haven’t been organizing in the way that helps people pay the bills.
If there is a different kind of movement, where it is organizing around those things, organizing around putting food on the table, I think we’ll have a whole different look at these movements. People shouldn’t have to get involved after work; they should be able to get involved at work.
In the film, you make a lot of points by exaggeration. But it’s not that much of a stretch. For example, in China, you’ve got suicide nets hanging outside dormitories where workers live. And in your movie — I won’t ruin it for anyone — you make the point about workers being literally dehumanized.
In the movie, there’s [the fictional mega-corporation] Worry Free, which does lifetime contracts; you’re guaranteed housing, employment and food for life, and these things don’t exist in the U.S. It’s not only that they exist in other countries, but they really exist here because [of the overseas corporations] making things for U.S. corporations, so the exaggeration is only of geography.
There are so many things in this movie that, when I wrote them, hadn’t happened yet. For instance, one character in the 2014 version has the line that “Worry Free is making America great again.”
The reason that these things are becoming more and more clear to us now is because it’s connected to our economic system, not just connected to who’s in elected office.
You use humor as a storytelling device. The Coup’s 1993 album, “Kill My Landlord,” made me think of the old Eddie Murphy “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Kill My Landlord.” So the steel wrapped inside the smile seems to work a little better than all steel?
See, I don’t even look at it that way. I came up around organizers, a group of them who had come from the British mining strikes of the ’80s, and then some who were older and had been in the whole CP [Communist Party] days. These are jokesters. They know how to relate to people. They’re full of jokes, and the way that they’re pointing out things is really true.
The reason why it’s funny is this: Analysis is looking at how something works, and when you’re explaining how something works, that means explaining the contradictions in it. That point of contradiction is very similar to irony, and irony and humor go hand in hand.
And so it’s all one thing to me. It’s not like I have to put sugar on it.
When you wrote your screenplay around 2012, Barack Obama was the president and he was being reelected. But you also had Mitt Romney talking about the 47%. What’s changed in those years that your movie now gets made and distributed?
Movements. Movements coming to fruition. There’s been the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy — all of those things showing that people want something different.
Also there was a [movie] development process that had to happen between then and now. At that time, I hadn’t gone through the Sundance [Institute screenwriting] labs, which gave people a lot more confidence in what I was doing.
There’s just a confluence of so many things that came together for this to happen. And I’m glad it didn’t happen before.
I probably would have been so eager for it to happen that there may have been other things that I would have compromised about. Through the process of the Sundance lab, I got a lot of good notes [about the screenplay]. I will say that the screenplay was controversial, in the sense that narrative-structure wise, it doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to do — “supposed to” in quotations.
And they’re all giving me advice, some of them that are extremely contradictory to each other. And then at some point, some of them are getting in heated conversations, and then I realized through this that nobody knows what they’re doing, and it’s up for grabs, right? You can do something different and fail, meaning it doesn’t connect to people. Or you could do something different, and it really works.
But it’s true about people wanting a good story, and a good story having to keep people on their toes to a certain extent.
If we were to update a movement anthem — maybe from “We Shall Overcome” — could you write one? What would it sound like? What would it say?
It would probably be a song from my last album, a song called “The Guillotine.” It’s a metaphorical guillotine because [if] you use the guillotine for real, just more of them pop up.
It’s talking about the idea that we have the ability to have a society where the people democratically control the wealth that we create with our labor, so we don’t have someone ruling us in that way.
Is this a system you’d ever take part in by running for office?
Nope. Here’s the thing: I know where the seat of power really is. And it’s not in the elected office.
Where is it?
It’s in the ruling class, the folks that have the money. For lack of a more understandable thing, the 1%, you know. Those are the puppeteers. The folks in office are the puppets. If we can make a movement that can get to the puppeteers, then the puppets will do whatever we want.
Think about it like this: Affirmative action came in under [President] Nixon, and it’s not because he just had one contradiction where he had some progressive idea and was like, “Hey, let’s do this.” No, it’s because the ruling class was afraid of this movement that was building.
Let’s take it back to even the New Deal. It’s the biggest liberal reform we’ve had in the 20th century — that and the civil rights bill. But that didn’t come because of a big campaign to get FDR in office. That came because all throughout the South, and places like Alabama, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, there were mining strikes, shutting down mines.
In the Midwest at the same time, in the ’20s and ’30s, there were people occupying factories. On the West Coast, at that time, there were the longshoremen who were shutting down the ports to create there, for the first time, a union.
In that milieu, with revolutions going on all around the world, the ruling class was afraid of an actual movement, perhaps a revolutionary movement happening, and because of that, we’ve got the New Deal, specifically because that’s what the left focused on — movements that were able to withhold labor.
So if we’re looking for extreme changes like that, and we want elected officials to make big changes like that, we’ve got to stop focusing only on elections because then we’re going to get caught in this cycle.
Right now, the next time a Democrat gets in office, all they have to do is be two inches to the left of [President] Trump.
The evil genius of Trump is that he’s already got the Democratic Party and people who want him out to move to the right in order to get him out. You got people cheering on the CIA and the FBI, this false nationalism where people are cheering, “Let’s only use politicians that only take U.S. billionaires’ money.”
There are people that are doing this that know better. But the opportunism of electoral politics makes people lie to each other.
Usually people ask filmmakers, “What do you want the audience to come out of the theater thinking?” But I’d like to know what you’d like the audience to come out of the theater doing.
I’d like people to get involved in campaigns and get involved in organization that can actually effect change. I hope that people are able to be involved in movements that take place at their job, that creates them, all of those things. For that to happen from the movie, that would be a lot, but that would be a great thing if it did happen.
But hopefully what happens is that organizations that are already taking on campaigns to change things, they will use the knowledge — one of the reasons that people like this movie is that it talks about changing the world — to get people involved in what they’re doing.
Patt Morrison’s new book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper.”
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