An Interview with 'Sorry To Bother You' Director Boots Riley
Boots Riley's first feature film ‘Sorry To Bother You’ is a ludicrous black sci-fi satire shot in Oakland starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Jermaine Fowler.
In an exclusive interview with Boots Riley he speaks on persuading investors to believe in him as a director, the use of the “white voice” and the Black British film industry.
Read the interview below:
Sorry to Bother You was probably the craziest film I’ve seen this year… You’re obviously a lover of film. What made you say, “Okay, I’ve done music, and now this is something else for me to work in”
Well I went to film school and only quit because we got a record deal so I’ve always know that I was going to do film. I’d done a side project where somebody else was doing the music and I was doing the lyrics and that didn’t feel as satisfying to me as stuff that I had done before and I think that increased me desire do something that was just all mine. And so after saying for years that I’m gonna do something sometime I downloaded the final draft and started typing.
How did you find the process of persuading investors to believe in you as a director and make the film?
Well I had to use the fact I’d been to film school 20 years before and act like I remembered everything. Dave Eggers published the screenplay as its own paperback book and he’s a well-known writer and he was going around saying this is one of the best unproduced screenplays he’s ever read. Then I became a filmmaker and got into the Sundance writer’s lab and so all of these things were building up. And then I got into the director’s lab and there’s a myth that if you got into the Sundance writer’s and director’s lab and you make a good movie then they’re going to select it for the festival. It’s a myth it’s not true a lot of people don’t get it selected. However as far as I was concerned and what I told investors is that it was almost a fact that I’m in the Sundance lab and I made a good movie, it’s getting into the festival. So that was part of the pitch.
Was it quite a long process?
Well I finished writing the first draft in 2012 and then we shot in 2017.
Did you change a lot between that time period?
Actually not that much. I mean sometimes when you’re writing you tend to try to make this smart dialogue and all this kind of stuff.
Considering you wrote it in 2012, some of the political stuff in the film is still relevant today.
Yeah and it’s going to continue to get more relevant unfortunately until we have a movement that uses the withholding of labour as a tactic.
In the film, Cassius deploys his white voice on phone calls, and uses its effect to secure a promotion. Suddenly he’s a Power Caller and he’s moved upstairs to the elite co-working style place where has to use his white voice all the time. What message were you giving out about the use of a white voice?
They were all performing. And in the movie he says there is no white voice, it’s just performing what they think they’re supposed to sound like.
It’s commenting on the idea of race through performance and often there’s an association especially in the US and I’m sure in the UK too with people of colour that they have a culture that’s insufficient to survive in this system. Or that their savage or their lazy or their just not geared towards education enough or the family unit is broken or whatever. And that’s the reason that people are impoverished. And it’s really just to hide the fact that poverty is built into the capitalist system. You can’t have capitalism without poverty. It can’t work that way because if you had full employment then everyone could demand what wage they want. If there was nobody else that wanted your job you could be like “I want $1000 per minute” because everybody else would have a job and there would be nobody else to replace you. They need an army of unemployed workers in order to keep the wages down. And so that’s what’s being hidden with some of the racist tropes and so the performance of whiteness is like the opposite of that to say there is no problem, everything’s cool everything’s smooth we’re all having fun here you know.
Sorry to Bother You features a predominantly black cast, which makes it almost unique among sci-fi films. In the UK we have a plethora of talented film makers, but we as consumers are mostly exposed to content that portrays black people as criminals, gangsters, thugs etc. Film makers who opt to explore other genres do not get the same success or exposure.
So our question would be, as a film maker what is your advice to UK black creatives on how to break out of the stereotypical cycle of gangster content being the successful genre in the UK?
I think just to make other kinds of films. For me my goal wasn’t to just make any kind of film. It wasn’t just to get a job being a filmmaker. My goal was; I have this piece of art, this is the thing that I want to have out and so the art has to take place of just you getting a job. If you want a job go get a job somewhere.
As a result of this, we’ve seen a lot of British Actors migrate to Hollywood to seek out more opportunities that the UK has denied them. And they have been met with scrutiny from African Americans. How do you feel about this? Do you think there is blame to be distributed? And if so to the British actors or to Hollywood?
We showed the film here and I was wondering if black people in Britain would relate to it and they’re saying they do. So we’re under the same economic system which oppresses people in different ways but there are similarities and there are differences. There’s differences all over the place. The black actors that are from the US some of them went to Julliard and Yale and theatre school and to go through that makes you a different person than the average everyday black person anyway. So the idea that you have to be the same in order to do it, I don’t agree with.
Sorry To Bother You hits U.K. cinemas on Friday 7th December.
Watch the trailer for ‘Sorry To Bother You’ below: