The riotously funny, incredibly inventive new movie Sorry to Bother You has become one of the summer‚Äôs most acclaimed films, as well as an unlikely arthouse hit.
The movie about a young man named Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who takes a job in a call center, drifts wildly between genres. Sometimes it feels like a comedy, sometimes it feels like a call to political action, and sometimes it feels like a near-future science fiction movie.
But uniting all these ideas is a commitment to forthrightly leftist politics, and when I spoke to director Boots Riley for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You‚Äôre Interesting, I wanted to ask him about how he combined them to make a funny, entertaining, never preachy movie.
Riley got his start as a rapper in the Coup, a group that also made leftist political ideas into wildly entertaining pop culture. We talked for nearly 20 minutes just about the history of the left in America, and while I could only excerpt a small portion of our conversation, you should listen to the full episode below to hear his thoughts on the ineffectiveness of boycotts as political tools and why he thinks examining these ideas can make for great comedy.
A portion of our discussion follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
You mentioned [during an earlier answer] that you think the left gets distracted by spectacle. What do you mean by that? Like boycotts?
Not only that. In the ‚Äô20s and ‚Äô30s, there were millions of radicals in the United States. Out revolutionaries. In places like Utah, Montana, Alabama, Colorado, they were places in the ‚Äô20s and ‚Äô30s that J. Edgar Hoover said were hotbeds of communist activity. Actually red states. Which, now their grandchildren are there, and they‚Äôre called red states for another reason.
During that time, there were militant strikes going on all over the US. Mining strikes where miners were shooting it out with the people who were protecting the mines and the police. In the Midwest, they were actually occupying factories, shutting them down, taking them over. Also in the ‚Äô20s, something somewhat unrelated but not unrelated to the milieu of what was happening, you had something called the Bonus March, where veterans of World War I wanted their bonus checks that they didn‚Äôt get and they marched on the White House with guns and were met with tanks by Gen. MacArthur.
Round the world, there was revolutions. With this all going on, you had actual people that were in the 1 percent, if you want to call them, the ruling class, whatever, who were scared that there was a real revolutionary movement going on. It was in that context that we got the New Deal. It wasn‚Äôt because people were, like, ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs get FDR in there!‚ÄĚ That obviously happened, but nobody thought that was the thing that was going to do it. It was because the folks that he had to answer to were scared.
Going on from that, radicals and revolutionaries had been hoping that the US would get involved in fighting Hitler. There was a call for a united front against fascism, where the US did obviously, eventually, join World War II and fight against Hitler. They were late, but they did. Radicals and revolutionaries here said that part of the deal was that they weren‚Äôt going to organize against the US here while that fight was going on.
So it went underground. Before, people were out organizers and there was this whole radical atmosphere that was happening in the US. Think about it like this. At that same time that I was talking about all of that stuff happening, along the coast of California, the longshoremen started organizing their unions for the first time. They were considered less than custodians for their skill level, so people were like, ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt organize that! They‚Äôre always getting fired!‚ÄĚ But they had a militant strike in which state militias were called out, and they were fighting tanks. It‚Äôs not in movies, but it was a big part of history.
The milieu where all of that was happening was like, ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not going to organize here right now, during this. As a matter of fact, we‚Äôre going to hide what the politics are, so that we can get everybody on board with the US and the military going to fight Hitler.‚ÄĚ So, underground for 12 years.
Up comes the ‚Äô50s and the McCarthy era, where they could actually be like, ‚ÄúLook, all these people that are keeping themselves secret, they really have some politics they‚Äôre not telling you about. They‚Äôre Communists.‚ÄĚ Twelve years before, had they done that, people would be like, ‚ÄúWe know!‚ÄĚ [Laughs.] ‚ÄúWe were talking to them about it the other day!‚ÄĚ But they were able to create this cloak-and-dagger sort of view about it, and with that became the breakup of the biggest radical organization that there had been in the United States, which was the Communist Party USA.
All these little organizations got formed, which became what they called the New Left, and those organizations that came out of that breakup were around in the ‚Äô60s. They‚Äôre all the ones that we love. A lot of it became like the Free Speech Movement and some of the other things that we saw across campuses in the ‚Äô60s, which is where everybody thinks the birth of radicalism in the US was. But they did one thing that was much different. They were outward. They were like, ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre revolutionaries. Fuck you.‚ÄĚ
But at the same time, they called for people to move away from places like Utah and Alabama and Montana into cities and focusing on students. This made them not be able to do things like strikes, because their strikes were really just for show, because there‚Äôs no profit to stop. They‚Äôd have big demonstrations in the middle of the street, and that was where it became, all of a sudden, about getting people in the street.
Whereas in the ‚Äô20s and ‚Äô30s, when they had 50,000 people in the street, this is where the word ‚Äúdemonstration‚ÄĚ came from, because they were saying, ‚ÄúThis is a demonstration of how many people we have to shut down your industry.‚ÄĚ A demonstration met something, because it was a warning that we are organized in a way to make you lose a bunch of money. Answer what we want right now.
We all know that money is the basis of what this stuff is, so all of a sudden, the left became about letting their voice be heard and not about the nuts and bolts of how this economic system works. So radicals hid in art, like me, or academia, and it became more and more based on writing stuff. If you‚Äôre hiding in academia, if you‚Äôre being an academic, it‚Äôs about writing a book that says something that someone else didn‚Äôt say, and then that book is just based on you being there and figuring out a better way to say something or something different to say. Whereas if there was a movement where people are organizing to try to get things done, then the next thing you say is based on your findings from trying to get people to do things.
So then all of a sudden, we have a movement where linguistics becomes the most important thing, right? And that is a very academic thing, and it‚Äôs not based on the need to unify the working class to make these changes. The critiques aren‚Äôt necessarily coming from a place that says, ‚ÄúHere is the ultimate goal.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs coming from a place of, ‚ÄúWell, nothing‚Äôs going to change anyway, and I have something to say, and I don‚Äôt like you. I don‚Äôt think you don‚Äôt have the right theory. I don‚Äôt think you‚Äôre correct, and I don‚Äôt need to even say it in a way that gets you on my side. I just say it in a way to prove that I‚Äôm right.‚ÄĚ
Do you think there is some value to letting your voice be heard?
Definitely. Definitely. But if that‚Äôs all you have, then what you‚Äôre actually doing is getting people to put their faith in the system. You don‚Äôt have the tactic of withholding labor to make those forces have to answer and have to change. What you‚Äôre saying is, ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs let our voice be heard, and we can shame people into doing the right thing.‚ÄĚ
And that‚Äôs what politicians will tell you is how it all works. They‚Äôre telling you that they have the power, and they‚Äôre going to do the right thing, and that‚Äôs all you need. And what we are doing by saying, ‚ÄúAll we‚Äôve gotta do is have a demonstration and let people know we‚Äôre upset,‚ÄĚ is we‚Äôre saying that that‚Äôs right. That that is how it works. We just have the wrong people in power, and we just have to put the right people that are more responsive in power, and it ends up really selling the idea that the system works. It‚Äôs just that we‚Äôve got the wrong people in it.
One of the things that‚Äôs really interesting about this movie is the idea of identity as performance. The main character, Cash, when he‚Äôs working as a telemarketer, uses his ‚Äúwhite voice‚ÄĚ to sort of sell people. But you also point out in the film that the white voice is not specifically white. It‚Äôs supposed to be a voice that‚Äôs without care, without worry.
In the film, what Danny Glover‚Äôs character, Langston, explains is that it‚Äôs all a performance. Blackness, whiteness, all of this stuff is all a performance. He explains the white voice as something that isn‚Äôt even what white people really sound like. But it‚Äôs what they want to sound like. What they wish they sounded like. What they‚Äôre told they‚Äôre supposed to sound like.
And it has to do with that feeling that the performance of whiteness is something that‚Äôs supposed to be a counter to what we‚Äôre told is the performance of blackness. So the racist tropes of blackness are, here‚Äôs a culture that‚Äôs incomplete, in which the culture is making them make the wrong decisions. They‚Äôre savage. They‚Äôre not as smart. They‚Äôre caught up in machismo or whatever and making these decisions that are bad. Then the counter to that is, you know, ‚ÄúI‚Äôve got everything handled. I‚Äôm not really worried about any of this stuff. It‚Äôs all an intellectual endeavor. I don‚Äôt need money. As a matter of fact, I make $19,000 a year, and I am middle-class.‚ÄĚ
Always, racist tropes about people of color are ones that are used to keep the white working class from siding with other people in the working class and looking more toward ideas that the ruling class has as being of their own, which explains poor white people siding with Trump. The racist ideas have a utility. That‚Äôs the reason why they exist. They have a utility under this system, and that utility allows a large group of working-class folks to feel more allied with rich white people than poor people of other ethnicities.
For more with Boots Riley, including a discussion of the movies that have inspired him, listen to the full episode, which also includes a discussion with Jonah Levy and Matt Silva, the makeup artists behind the basketball comedy Uncle Drew, about their favorite movie makeup ever.
To hear interviews with more fascinating people from the world of arts and culture ‚ÄĒ from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers ‚ÄĒ check out the I Think You‚Äôre Interesting archives.