On a recent afternoon in West Hollywood, at the front desk of the Standard Hotel, Boots Riley stood underneath a box-shaped glass tank where, in the evening, girls—sometimes men, occasionally drag queens, but usually women—sit in a floating, clear container. The models are allowed to do anything, so they’ll often read, or type on a computer, or stare at their phones. “They laze around sexily,” Riley told me. The only rule is that the experience has to be voyeuristic—they’re not to engage with anyone outside the glass. (Historically, the other directive was that the model had to wear undergarments, but it’s 2018, and, as with many other institutions, the Standard is now “changing the conversation around the box.”) Riley, the rapper and music producer who wrote and directed the film “Sorry to Bother You,” has been coming to the Standard for years. He’s seen the box in several iterations. “It’s like go-go, but modern,” he explained. “You know—cages.”
At the hotel’s café, over chlorophyll-topped buttermilk yogurt—“it’s ‘yoghurt,’ with an ‘h’, so you know it’s good,” the waiter said—Riley remarked that my accent was “very State Department.” When I asked him to elaborate, he told me, “It’s just this combination of European accents with a Midwest thing thrown in there. Because it has certain things that are deadened—certain inflections are deadened, to maybe deaden the European part in some way.” Accent and pronunciation—adoption of voices—are ingrained in Riley’s film, which follows a young black telemarketer who uses a “white voice” to advance at his job.
The experience of changing one’s voice is familiar to Riley, who was a telemarketer himself. “I did try to make people think I was white,” he said. “It worked.” He was very good at sales. “I’d been working since I was eleven so I could buy my own comic books. I was that kid knocking on your door, selling subscriptions to the paper and crying because I wasn’t going to sell that last paper that would allow me to go to Disneyland.” He’d call up “old ladies who love PBS” or residents of upscale, conservative Orange County and talk about how, if they donated to a homeless shelter, the homeless would be removed from their neighborhoods and relocated to downtown Los Angeles. “It gave me, for the wrong reason, the skill of listening to people, of figuring out what they’re saying, beyond the words that came out of their mouth.” He’d reassure the voice on the other side of the phone, “We’re moving these people out of your neighborhood and we’re teaching them how to bathe themselves.” He’d make a persuasive case, tangentially related to the truth, and it almost always worked. “I would do all kinds of things that were morally questionable. You feel like you’re using your creativity for the wrong thing,” he said. In the film, the telemarketer debates with another character whether his job is “fat” or “morally emaciated.”
Riley noticed that he changed his voice at other times, too. “Sometimes I’d be on the phone in high school and my father would ask, ‘Who’s that on the phone?’ ” Not whom Riley was talking to, but who he was speaking as. “My father is from North Carolina, and he got rid of his drawl really fast,” Riley said. “He’s very much about speaking correctly, enunciating in certain ways.” Later, when he would give interviews on the radio, Riley liked to play up his Oakland drawl. “I felt that I was performing a character so that people would see my ideas as their own.” Pushing aside his shakshuka—“Is there egg baked into this?”—Riley told me that he would also consciously adjust his voice in his music. “I have a song called ‘We Are the Ones’ where a guy is talking about selling drugs on the street, and it’s in a really fucked-up British accent, but the idea is, it makes it more acceptable. Like a ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ way of talking about it, of making a comment on it.” Riley put on a pristine BBC accent and started to rap a few words from the song: “Once upon a time, when crack was ill . . .” He laughed. “At first the record label was, like . . .‘Why are you doing that?’ ”
The next day, we sat at a Cuban restaurant chain under a framed map of the country. Riley wore all black—“I’m dressed like an anarchist”—and carried a hardback graphic novel. He ordered a Cuban coffee and a margarita. “I don’t usually get sweet drinks, but here we are,” he said. For Riley, growing up, telemarketing was second to organizing—he hates the term ‘political activism’—which he got into at age fourteen. “A youth organizer showed up in front of my house with a van full of fourteen-year-old girls and said, ‘Hey you wanna go to the beach?’ ” He did. “But they’re, like, O.K., first we’re going to go support the Watsonville Cannery workers strike. And these girls, they knew about the world. And more than wanting to be with them, I wanted to be them.”
His order of roasted barbecue chicken arrived.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “I didn’t know I was ordering brontosaurus burgers. That’s a Fred Flintstone reference.”
The theme lurking throughout “Sorry to Bother You” is voiced at one point as “social capital” versus “capitalism.” But Riley finds terminology like that to be inherently deadening: “I’ve used the word ‘capitalism’ only once in my whole career, in my art, and ‘Communism’ only once. I’m talking about it all the time, but sometimes those terms . . .you say them, and you’re not thinking about what they mean. They’re supposed to get you to something so you don’t have to actually talk about or consider the thing. Some people name-check Che or Mao or whatever, and that’s like saying, Here’s the team I’m on. But the question should be: What effect am I having?”
He paused to wipe barbecue sauce off of his forearm. “Sometimes my influences are really on my sleeve,” he said. “So I just make sure to wear a lot of sleeves.”
“Sorry to Bother You” is cluttered with detail. There are statements written on earrings, slogan tees, billboards, and rooms stuffed to the gills with character-defining trinkets. The movie celebrates clutter, not only “thematically and visually” but also in the screenplay itself. “There was a lot of detail in it. Too much, probably. Reading Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Michael Ondaatje . . .the magical realism is in how many details there are. So I tried to do that with the script.”
He had these writing styles reverberating in his inner ear when he wrote the “business” of the script—the descriptions of action, scene, and character; everything but the dialogue. Riley said, “Dave Eggers would write, ‘He went to the store.’ But Toni Morrison would say, ‘He walked slowly to the store, carrying in his left hand a coffee cup that twenty years before his grandmother had murdered his grandfather with. In that coffee cup was the coffee from last night, that he was determined above all else to finish.’ ” Riley laughed. “The producers are, like, don’t even tell us that! Just show him in the store.” But Riley cared about people reading the script for its own sake. It was published in McSweeney’s as a stand-alone document years before the film existed as a possibility.
Much of the film is set in a drab Oakland office, where Riley engages in a sustained rumination on the nature of working. “In most movies there’s a workplace involved because we have to be somewhere. But everything about them usually obscures any class struggle. You’d think that in the thousands of movies that get made per year, for the last however many decades, there’d be more than, like, two or three that talk about that.” The result was as jarring to people’s consciousness as some of those long-ago telemarketing phone calls. “You think it’s a film about a telemarketer with self-esteem issues, but then it ends up being something else,” he said.“People have come after me a bit. They’re, like, I didn’t realize you were going to put me through that experience.”