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 100 years of the American left in 5 minutes, with Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley

The riotously funny, incredibly inventive new movie Sorry to Bother You has become one of the summer’s 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’re 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.

Todd VanDerWerff

You mentioned [during an earlier answer] that you think the left gets distracted by spectacle. What do you mean by that? Like boycotts?

Boots Riley

Not only that. In the ’20s and ’30s, there were millions of radicals in the United States. Out revolutionaries. In places like Utah, Montana, Alabama, Colorado, they were places in the ’20s and ’30s that J. Edgar Hoover said were hotbeds of communist activity. Actually red states. Which, now their grandchildren are there, and they’re 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 ’20s, 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’t 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’t because people were, like, “Let’s get FDR in there!” 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’t 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, “You can’t organize that! They’re always getting fired!” But they had a militant strike in which state militias were called out, and they were fighting tanks. It’s not in movies, but it was a big part of history.

The milieu where all of that was happening was like, “We’re not going to organize here right now, during this. As a matter of fact, we’re 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.” So, underground for 12 years.

Up comes the ’50s and the McCarthy era, where they could actually be like, “Look, all these people that are keeping themselves secret, they really have some politics they’re not telling you about. They’re Communists.” Twelve years before, had they done that, people would be like, “We know!” [Laughs.] “We were talking to them about it the other day!” 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 ’60s. They’re 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 ’60s, 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, “We’re revolutionaries. Fuck you.”

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’s no profit to stop. They’d 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 ’20s and ’30s, when they had 50,000 people in the street, this is where the word “demonstration” came from, because they were saying, “This is a demonstration of how many people we have to shut down your industry.” 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’re hiding in academia, if you’re being an academic, it’s about writing a book that says something that someone else didn’t 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’s not based on the need to unify the working class to make these changes. The critiques aren’t necessarily coming from a place that says, “Here is the ultimate goal.” It’s coming from a place of, “Well, nothing’s going to change anyway, and I have something to say, and I don’t like you. I don’t think you don’t have the right theory. I don’t think you’re correct, and I don’t 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’m right.”

sorry_to_bother_you___still_2_26894346199_o 100 years of the American left in 5 minutes, with Sorry to Bother You director Boots RileyDoug Emmett/Sundance Institute
Lakeith Stanfield stars in Sorry to Bother You.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you think there is some value to letting your voice be heard?

Boots Riley

Definitely. Definitely. But if that’s all you have, then what you’re actually doing is getting people to put their faith in the system. You don’t have the tactic of withholding labor to make those forces have to answer and have to change. What you’re saying is, “Let’s let our voice be heard, and we can shame people into doing the right thing.”

And that’s what politicians will tell you is how it all works. They’re telling you that they have the power, and they’re going to do the right thing, and that’s all you need. And what we are doing by saying, “All we’ve gotta do is have a demonstration and let people know we’re upset,” is we’re saying that that’s 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’s just that we’ve got the wrong people in it.

Todd VanDerWerff

One of the things that’s really interesting about this movie is the idea of identity as performance. The main character, Cash, when he’s working as a telemarketer, uses his “white voice” to sort of sell people. But you also point out in the film that the white voice is not specifically white. It’s supposed to be a voice that’s without care, without worry.

Boots Riley

In the film, what Danny Glover’s character, Langston, explains is that it’s all a performance. Blackness, whiteness, all of this stuff is all a performance. He explains the white voice as something that isn’t even what white people really sound like. But it’s what they want to sound like. What they wish they sounded like. What they’re told they’re supposed to sound like.

And it has to do with that feeling that the performance of whiteness is something that’s supposed to be a counter to what we’re told is the performance of blackness. So the racist tropes of blackness are, here’s a culture that’s incomplete, in which the culture is making them make the wrong decisions. They’re savage. They’re not as smart. They’re caught up in machismo or whatever and making these decisions that are bad. Then the counter to that is, you know, “I’ve got everything handled. I’m not really worried about any of this stuff. It’s all an intellectual endeavor. I don’t need money. As a matter of fact, I make $19,000 a year, and I am middle-class.”

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’s 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 — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

Author: Todd VanDerWerff
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