Raymond “Boots” Riley, director of the new film Sorry to Bother You, sported a big Afro after it went out of style and before it came back. He called himself a revolutionary when it was politically incorrect. For three decades he has read, written, spoken, worked, organized, studied, taught, directed, acted, organized, partied, parented, made music—and organized some more. One cannot understand the film without appreciating his background.
Riley started out organizing as a teenager with the Progressive Labor Party and its offshoot, the International Committee Against Racism. He protested police violence on both sides of the San Francisco Bay, participated in the founding convention of the Black Radical Congress in 1998, and became a fixture at Occupy Oakland in 2011. He has organized migrant farm workers in Central California, worked in telemarketing, loaded packages onto UPS planes, helped launch the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, and co-founded a militant group called the Young Comrades (YC). And two decades before YouTube curiosity Jennifer Schulte called 911 in fear of a black cookout at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, Riley and the YC organized a “Take Back the Lake” rally where the community not only temporarily took back the commons but partook of free barbeque chicken and potato salad. When Riley wasn’t moving boxes or moving masses, he studied film at San Francisco State University’s School of Cinema.
Riley and his younger brother, Manuel, came up in a household meager in finances but rich in politics, art, ideas, and an ethical commitment to fight for the oppressed. Their father, Walter Riley, is a celebrated social justice attorney. He has served as counsel for Black Lives Matter activists and led groups such as the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund and the National Lawyers Guild. Born to tenant farmers in North Carolina, young Walter was intelligent, inquisitive, and intolerant of injustice—a dangerous combination for a black person in the Jim Crow South. As a leader in Durham’s NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he organized forums, sit-ins, and voter registration drives. He moved west in 1965 and continued working for CORE as a student at San Francisco State College, where, along with his friend and classmate Danny Glover, he fought for open admissions and ethnic studies. He left college in 1968 to organize city bus drivers, anti-eviction protests, and the Peace and Freedom Party.
Through his organizing work he met Riley’s late mother, Anitra Patterson. Her own mother, Anita Pinner Patterson, was Jewish, and the family narrowly escaped Nazi death camps, arriving at Ellis Island from Königsberg, Germany, in April 1938. Anita married a black man named Lawrence Patterson and lived in New York City until 1962, when she decided to move to Oakland with their two daughters. Anitra began her studies at San Francisco State College but left with Walter for Chicago in 1970, where he continued organizing. Not long after Riley was born in 1971, the family moved to Detroit, where Walter worked as a rank-and-file activist in the United Auto Workers and, on at least one occasion, fought the Klan. Riley was eight when his parents split up. When Walter moved back to the Bay area in the late 1970s to study law, Riley’s grandmother, Anita, had taken over the Oakland Ensemble Theater. A talented poet, actress, and director, she staged innovative theatrical and dance productions and organized the first Oakland Poetry Theater Festival in 1978. Most importantly, she exposed young Riley to the stage and spoken word.
Before Sorry to Bother You, Riley was best known for his work with the Oakland-based hip hop group The Coup, which has been serving up brilliant, biting, often hilarious music since 1993. Serious followers also know of his work in the Street Sweeper Social Club, a band he formed with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. Beyond his talent for radical critique—slipping dialectical analysis and primitive accumulation into his rhyme schemes—Riley is a master storyteller. Class struggle, for him, means more than confronting capital. It entails the struggle to live another day, to raise our kids, to put food on the table, to just be able to move around in the late capitalist city. Listen to the hysterical “Cars and Shoes,” or the tragic “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” and you’ll understand.
It is all of this—three decades of making art, revolution, and surplus value in various low-wage jobs—that prepared Riley to write and direct Sorry to Bother You, his debut film. He describes it as “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.” Set in present-day Oakland, it tells the story of a struggling young black man named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives with his free-spirited artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in his uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage. (Names in the film wear allegory on their sleeves.) Poverty and joblessness are rampant, but ubiquitous ads promise a way out of financial precarity: the Worry Free corporation offers “free” room and board in exchange for a lifelong commitment to unwaged labor. They are in the slavery business, in other words, but it is marketed as a kind of working person’s gated community.
Of course there is a resistance. Leading it is Left Eye, an underground group that vandalizes advertising posters and organizes acts of civil disobedience. (As an unspoken homage to the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of the R&B/hip-hop group TLC, members identify themselves by drawing a black mark beneath their left eye.) Unbeknownst to Cash, Detroit joins the faction and engages in guerrilla operations while sign spinning and making art for a living. Meanwhile Cash, his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), and eventually Detroit land low-wage jobs as telemarketers for the Regal View company. Green fails miserably in his new role until a veteran coworker, Langston (Danny Glover), shows him how to use his “white voice.” Dubbed by David Cross, it works like a charm. He is promoted to “power caller” and reassigned to the top-floor suite to sell big-ticket items—arms and slave labor through Worry Free.
But another coworker, Squeeze (Steve Yeun), has organized a strike of the rank-and-file at Regal View. Cash is caught between solidarity and wealth. By crossing the picket line, he accrues enough cash to afford a luxury car and posh apartment, and to help his struggling uncle pay off his house, but he loses his friends and his love, Detroit. Worry Free’s CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), sees in Cash a man willing to do anything for money, and he tries to recruit him for a dastardly project that would tighten his grip on human bondage. Cash refuses, joining his friends and new comrades in the class struggle.
Riley finished the screenplay in 2012, the same year The Coup released its CD Sorry to Bother You in anticipation of the film. Not quite a soundtrack, it includes songs written with the film in mind, or perhaps for a future musical. (The cut “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You Cassius Green” recounts Cash’s recurring nightmare about the monstrous system to which he bears witness, and his horror at realizing that he is a vital part of it.) Neither the CD, nor the accompanying tour, nor Riley’s many elevator pitches drummed up much interest in the screenplay—at least not in Hollywood. Dave Eggers loved it, though: his San Francisco–based publishing collective, McSweeney’s, put it out as a paperback in 2014.
What a difference four years makes. Sorry to Bother You was made for about $3.2 million, but it has already earned nearly $17 million. It took home the Sundance Institute’s coveted Vanguard Award, and Twentieth Century Fox will release it digitally and on DVD in October. Though brilliant in its own right, it is also timely. It may not have resonated as well in the Obama years, when so many of us were lulled into believing that the arc of the moral universe was actually bending toward justice. The film feels more like a prescient commentary on the present than a dystopian fantasy. It appears at a time when critiques of capitalism, galvanized by the crimes and misdemeanors of the Trump administration, are building momentum outside the usual circles—the academy, the Socialist Scholars Conference, the Left Forum—in arenas from prisons to the Democratic Socialists of America.
When Riley speaks of an “absurdist dark comedy,” I suspect he is using “absurdist” in its deepest philosophical sense. For Albert Camus absurdism is the search for meaning in a world that is fundamentally meaningless. The film opens with Cassius Green reflecting on the likelihood that he will die before he has a chance to do something meaningful with his life. His garage door opens onto a world that is precarious, violent, and hella hard. He can’t pay his rent. He drives his raggedy, firetrap of a car past a massive (and real) homeless encampment on his way to interview for a mind-numbing, low-wage job. The most popular game show on television, “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me,” subjects contestants to brutal physical beatings before covering them in feces. Like the young Camus, a pied-noir raised by a rural laborer and domestic worker in colonial Algeria, Cash is stone-cold broke.
Camus tells us there are only three ways to address the absurdity of life: kill yourself, find God, or accept life as it is. Freedom is in the last. Revolt here is the search for meaning knowing there are no absolutes—including no absolute justice or freedom. “Instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not,” Camus concluded, “we have to live and let live in order to create what we are.” He arrived at this understanding after moving through life as a Communist, an anarchist, a syndicalist, a left anti-communist, a reluctant defender of settler colonialism in Algeria, and a staunch critic of revolutionary violence.
Like Camus’s intimate antagonist, Jean Paul Sartre, Riley rejects the absurdist premise. Life is not inherently absurd; instead its absurdities are produced by capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. The point of dialectical analysis is not to find the meaning of life but to reveal the fundamental antagonisms in the material world. For Riley, as for Marx, only by remolding the world can we begin to resolve its philosophical contradictions. Sorry to Bother You chooses revolution over the lone Camusian rebel, suggesting that our survival as a species and as a planet depends on the overthrow of capitalism, the redistribution of wealth, and a complete reordering of society based on collective needs. And as long as the state continues to deploy brutal force to suppress popular opposition, revolutionary violence will remain a legitimate tactic.
In one scene, Cash and his friend Salvador are sitting in a dark, nondescript working-class bar when Cash notices a VIP room in the corner. Surprised that such a rundown joint even has a VIP room, Cash gets the not-so-secret password from his friend Salvador and ventures in. It is so small that would-be party people are practically on top of one another, butts awkwardly positioned in Cash’s face as he tries to take in the ambience. The curtain dividing the VIPs from the barroom is just an illusion; here is the Oakland working class dressed in their Saturday night best and ready to party. Riley’s subversive genius comes through in the song the DJ is spinning. In the best tradition of Dogme films, the VIPs are bobbing to The Coup’s “Level it Up,” with Riley spitting “I’ma L-E-V-E, level that shit / I’ma lev, I’ma vel / I’ma level that shit.” If it wasn’t clear before, the film’s real heroes are the people, the modern Levellers and Diggers, the gravediggers of capitalism.
Riley’s vision of class struggle is tempered by race, what W. E. B. Du Bois understood to be the Achilles heel of proletarian revolution: the wages of whiteness. The film’s use of the “white voice” has been ballyhooed as a clever comedic and cinematic vehicle. But this misses the point; Riley is using it to interrogate the privileges and poverty of whiteness. In one of the film’s most illuminating scenes, Langston explains to Cash that finding his inner white voice is not about mimicking what white people sound like, but rather “what they think they sound like.” Like whiteness itself, the white voice is a chimera, masking a specific class position and conveying a sense of being genuinely worry free, with no bills to pay, money in the bank, not a care in the world. This is the expectation of whiteness—an expectation many white people never, in fact, realize.
Langston’s deconstruction of the white voice slyly breaks down the principles of minstrelsy: white men in blackface adopted a black voice not as it was but as white folks imagined it to be. I do not mean the plantation dialect or the corruption of words but the intonations that come from imagining that slaves don’t have a care in the world. As we have learned from the historians Eric Lott and David Roediger, minstrelsy was a product not only of hatred and fear, but also of envy. It wasn’t just black bodies white men envied, but the association of blackness with sexual abandon and the rhythms of preindustrial life—with the performing rather than the laboring body, as it danced and sang. Ironically, the enslaved African—who often worked in gangs from sun up to sun down under the supervision of a driver—came to represent freedom from industrial time and discipline. And while Riley shows how whiteness can undermine class solidarity, he also exposes the fragility of whiteness. In one scene Cash and his fellow workers debate whether Italians are white; Squeeze, the Asian American union organizer, interjects that they have only been white for about sixty years.
Lakeith Stanfield’s understated Cash is complicated, sensitive. He is driven as much by his uncle’s needs as by his own wish to count for something. Riley portrays him sympathetically, blunting knee-jerk criticism of the materialism of the poor. For the first time in his life, Cash discovers that he is good at something, and he is lucratively rewarded for it. Overnight, he is able to accumulate everything he’s ever wanted, debt free. Or so it seems. But more than the car, the clothes, and the apartment, he commands respect. Or so it seems. He never quite loses his conscience; he just tries to set it aside as he hawks weapons and workers—“no wages needed” is the selling point—to corporations and heads of state.
Riley creates intimacy between caller and client by transporting Cash into their private spaces—their living rooms, their offices. At the same time, he deepens the distance between seller and product. Like a drone pilot dropping bombs on Iraqis from a control room in Virginia, Cash never has to see the violence that results from these transactions. The violence becomes unavoidable, though, when he has to cross the picket line of striking Regal View workers, escorted by riot police. As he becomes the face of the company, he loses the respect of his friends, coworkers, and the masses. From this point on, contradictions sharpen and Cash’s inner conflict deepens.
At first glance, Detroit—sublimely portrayed by Tessa Thompson—appears to be Cash’s conscience. But she, too, is wrestling with contradictions; her transformation is also a central theme of the film. Her name is both a joke (“my parents wanted me to have an American name”) and a symbol of rebellion (a city famous for its labor struggles, revolutionary movements, and the ’67 uprising). Her art is political, both in its explicit critique of racial capitalism and in the way it underscores the phallic and masculine character of power. Her earrings serve as silent commentaries on the deep links between violence and masculinity under capitalism. At the beginning of the film the words “Murder/Kill” hang from her ears; later we see male genitalia and a man in an electric chair. The last of these could be read either as “power=death=masculinity” or “death to power = death to masculinity.” At one point she sports a T-shirt that reads, “The Future is Female Ejaculation.” The power associated with sexual virility, in other words, need not be masculine.
But Detroit isn’t content with art as commentary. She wants to bring down Regal View and Worry Free—along with the state that buttresses them. Though she joins Left Eye, she is quick to embrace the glamorous life when her man is suddenly flush with cash. Riley again compels us to temper our criticisms, reminding us that for all of Detroit’s rich history of creativity and militancy, she is poor.
Besides, Detroit is no stranger to the tension between art as critique and art as commodity. As Cash is rising up the corporate elevator, she is preparing for a major solo show. She explains that it is about “life shaped by exploitation,” highlighting capitalism’s origins in the theft of human beings from Africa. But her clients are wealthy collectors. During her performance she invites them to throw bullets, cell phones, and animal blood at her nude body to symbolize how global capitalism assaults the continent. To endure the abuse she must shut her left eye. Her sunglasses double as a blindfold, and she also adopts a “white voice”—an affected British accent (dubbed by Lily James). The contradictions in the outward performance mirror her own inner conflict, sealing her decision to break from Cassius and by extension corporate power. In later scenes she sports earrings that read, “You’re gonna have to fight” and “Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb” (another of The Coup’s songs).
The driving metaphor of the film is not the phone but the elevator. It is a symbol of class domination: Worry Free’s CEO is Steve Lift, and a golden elevator is the way to the top. It also doubles as a phallus. The company’s lift is outfitted with a computer whose voice (Rosario Dawson) strokes Cash’s ego and extols his sexual prowess. On each ride he is being groomed to become little more than a high-priced slave.
The guardian of the elevator is Mr._______ (Omari Hardwick). He is a quiet, mysterious, powerfully built black man with a patch over his left eye—symbolizing his blindness to the truth, necessary for the only other black person allowed in the realm of the power callers. Mr. _______ is every manservant: the trusted doorman, the loyal slave promoted to driver, the eunuch. He consistently uses his white voice. He runs interference for Cash as they break through the picket line. He has authority but no power. His status as a modern slave is made clear when he escorts Cash to a party at Steve Lift’s mansion. Lift greets Mr. ______ by striking him with a horsewhip and calling him a “sexy chocolate motherfucker.” And when Mr. _______ begins to speak, Lift orders him to shut up. Here the sexual politics of race come sharply into focus.
Sorry to Bother You is most terrifying when Cash enters the mansion. The party is all-white except for Cash, Mr. ______, and a few token South Asian men. A bevy of young women—groupies, paid sex workers, or a bit of both—are gathered around Lift. As the alcohol and cocaine flow, Lift asks Cassius, the presumptive guest of honor, to rap. He tries to beg off, but Lift and the increasingly aggressive crowd of white folks insist. As one might expect from a comedy, Cash cannot rhyme to save his life. He flounders at first, then starts chanting, “Nigga shit, Nigga shit, Nigga nigga nigga shit” over and over. The crowd goes wild, repeating every word. It is the perfect minstrel moment: a black man imitating the white man imitating the black man, in the master’s house.
The party degenerates into a bacchanalian orgy as the two black men wander through the mansion, fully clothed, alone, and invisible. The scene has been criticized for its gratuitous display of sex and female nudity, but it works as both a critique of bourgeois excess and a commentary on sexualized representations of black men—whether as sexless eunuchs or as hypersexual predators. Surrounded by a white sea of impersonal sexual encounters, Cash and Mr. _______ are finally real with each other. Using his actual voice for the first time, Mr. _______ tells Cassius that Lift wants to see him, offering up some unsolicited advice: “don’t fuck it up.” The implication is that black people about to ride to the top always do fuck it up—because they are unwilling to sell their souls, to shut their left eyes to the world, to accept absurdity as an inevitable consequence of the way things are.
Cash finds Lift waiting in his office. The CEO explains that Worry Free has begun creating a new species of workers—“equisapiens.” A fusing agent, snorted like cocaine, endows human beings with the strength, endurance, and features of a horse. They are “the future of labor,” Lift says. They will make Worry Free “the most profitable company in human history”—adding, almost as an afterthought, that “this isn’t irrational.”
And it isn’t, according to what political theorist Wendy Brown calls “neoliberal logic.” Equisapiens represent neoliberalism’s project in its most extreme form—the maximizing of profit and minimizing of labor costs, the eradication of labor’s shared interests and collective identity. And for Riley, they also highlight the cozy relationship between capital and scientific research: the academy as an instrument of class rule, science as a terrain of class struggle. (He elaborates in the track “Gods of Science” from The Coup’s Sorry to Bother You CD.) In a world where slavery is in effect legal, the scientific establishment has no ethical quandary about fusing humans and horses. This is not a vision of a dystopian future; it is a commentary on five hundred years of human history.
Lift’s goal is to make sure the equisapiens know their place. They are already rebelling; he has had them chained up. Lift proposes turning Cash into “the equisapien Martin Luther King”—a false leader, redirecting and squashing rebellion while remaining accountable to Worry Free—for a cool hundred million dollars. But Cash can no longer be bought. He flees the mansion, beginning his descent to freedom and newfound commitment to the struggle. When he exposes Lift’s devious plans, Worry Free’s shares spike in value and its CEO is hailed in the press as the latest tech genius.
The film ends on a promise of a new beginning. The streets see intense clashes between workers and the police. Reunited with Detroit and his old comrades, Cash emerges as the unlikely hero, organizing the formidable equisapiens as the ruling power’s worst nightmare. It is an old lesson: capital creates its own grave diggers. The last words of the film take a friendly jab at contemporary identity politics. Squeeze turns to an equisapien and proclaims, “Same struggle, same fight.”
Riley’s essay on Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, has drawn both head-nodding and head-scratching. Also released this year, BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story and 2014 memoir of police officer Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated and exposed the Klan in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s. Neither review nor polemic, Riley’s essay critically interrogates the relationship between power and representation—focusing on the ways Lee’s fictionalization transforms an undercover police officer into a black freedom fighter and elides allegations that Stallworth helped to undermine black movements. Sidestepping debates over “good” cops vs. “bad” cops, Riley trains our attention on the larger questions: What has been the function of the police in relation to struggles for land, bread, freedom, justice, and power? What does it mean in our current moment to portray the police as the first line of defense against white nationalists?
BlacKkKlansman may be a good film, but that is beside the point. It is perfectly legible partly because we confuse reform and catharsis for revolution. It is easy to see self-styled white nationalists as our primary threat, and chasing Klansmen and Nazis out of town makes us feel good. It is not that white nationalists are harmless. But they constitute a threat only insofar as they are sanctioned by a state that is far more dangerous to our lives and well-being. We die more often at the hands of cops—good cops—than by Nazis and Klansmen. And we die in prisons. And we die by gunfire at the hands of acquaintances, loved ones, and by random acts of violence. And we die slowly from being poor, from lack of healthcare, from self-medication, from the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. The more dangerous forces are often the ones that look friendliest—the corporate entities that allow Cash Green to rise up the corporate ladder and rep as the model Negro.
Sorry to Bother You threw down the gauntlet. We can no longer afford to stick to the script.