Sorry To Bother You: “What prevents me from mixing film genres?”

Boots Riley presented his “weird film” in Premiere, in 2019. Flashback, on the occasion of its release on Netflix.

With Sorry to bother youthe rapper Riley boots directs his first film and uses the social ascent of a black telemarketer to put capitalism to the sulphate. Meeting with a filmmaker who jumps without transition from political film to fantastic comedy barjo.

First: Sorry to bother you is of a rather remarkable density, complicated to digest in a single viewing. Is it the syndrome of the first film which synthesizes all the obsessions?

Boots Riley: No, no, I disagree. I’ve been doing the same thing in music for over twenty years with my band The Coup, it’s just my way of creating. I try to put as many messages as possible in all my songs. I like that there are several levels of reading, double meanings. The ideas are unlimited, do not be afraid to go there. It’s the same thing in my cinema, the language is simply different. Nobody told an artist like Romare Bearden that he made collages from lots of different images because it was his first work…

Is mixing comedy and fantasy in a highly political film a way of coating the anti-capitalist message to get it across more easily?

Not quite. When I started in hip hop, I thought I had to leave my influences behind and concentrate on the idea I had of this music. So exit Leonard Cohen, the Dead Kennedys or Steve Earle because in theory, it wasn’t compatible with rap… Except it doesn’t work that way. We can blur the borders since they do not exist. What prevents me from mixing film genres? Nothing. On the contrary, it allows me to emphasize the contradictions and paradoxes of this story. I borrowed as much from Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry as from Michael Cimino, Paul Schrader, Emir Kusturica, the Coens or Alejandro Jodorowsky.

You examine the relationship between social classes with singular, very energizing imagery.

I believe that to show a rebellion in the cinema, it is not enough to point the finger at everything that is wrong in the system. It’s not enough, because it makes people think: “Anyway, I can’t do anything about it. » And it ends up becoming a fait accompli [en français]. This film is bizarre, but optimistic. I need to be honest with myself when I write, to draw on my life experiences and relate them to my worldview, through a real analysis of social classes. I want to at least give food for thought, that the spectators leave the room wondering what they can do to improve society. Otherwise, what good is it?

At the same time, there is a strong discourse on the integration of African-Americans through the course of the main character, who only climbs the hierarchy because he manages to imitate a “white voice”.

Everything we do in life is about performance, it’s inevitable. Two human beings interacting is a performance. What I’m analyzing here is what kind of performance we give and why. The idea of ​​the white man is used in the film to sell products to the white working class, and I juxtapose it with racist stereotypes. Instead of allying with other oppressed people, the character tries to reach out to the ruling class. Basically, I wonder if people are capable of being themselves in this system.

Sorry to bother you: A great social satire [Critique]

You are openly communist.

Yes, since my teenage years.

A rather difficult position to hold in the United States, especially…

(He cuts us off.) That’s wrong, that’s what they want you to think! When I say that I am a communist, people are rather curious and not at all aggressive. In 2017, there was a very serious poll: out of 2,200 millennials questioned, half said that they would prefer to live in a socialist society. The people no longer believe in the electoral system, people have lost hope that the system will be able to help them. And in my opinion, this is what explains the success of this film in the United States despite a very limited promotion budget: we are being sold an image that is very far from what people feel.

But communism and Hollywood, that makes two…

The political aspect was curiously not the most difficult to sell. Everything else is so weird that the politics are the most normal part of the movie. (Laughter.) It took a while, I finished writing the script in 2012. But we were lucky to have Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi with us, who had produced Fruitvale Station and Dope, two films that did well. Nina was in a position of strength, she imposed on investors not to read the script of Sorry to bother you but simply to finance us. And they did!

Sorry to bother you hits theaters in France seven months after the United States. You fought for it not to end up direct-to-DVD or on Netflix internationally.

It was complicated. I attach great importance to the cinema experience, to this communion that occurs in the room. There is a French distributor on which I was asked not to speak any more, but who said huge bullshit in the press. Basically, he felt the film was “too African American” and bizarre, and made for streaming on Netflix. I do hope that we will make him eat his hat with the French release. (Laughter.)

You are one of the forgotten Golden Globes. Disappointed ?

Necessarily. But it’s a completely new world for me, I don’t even know how it works. All I want is for people to hear about the movie and go see it. And prizes are a good way to do that. We are a small independent production, if we had had 100 million dollars for the promotion and that I had the feeling that everyone saw my film, the stakes would be lower. I’m told there’s a good chance we’ll be nominated for an Oscar. Ok…fingers crossed!

Interview by François Léger

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