Musician turned filmmaker Boots Riley drops sage pearls of wisdom at 2018 BFI London Film Festival Connects talk.
Sorry to Bother You (STBY)is a surrealist dark humour laced critique of capitalism, racism, and classism amongst other things. From the mind of a man who was in a popular 90s hip-hop group. Causing me to ponder yet again, how funny adult life is. Those of us who grew up in the era of Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Doggy Dog, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifah, Will Smith even, and Boots Riley’s group The Coup, could never have predicted the future. Maybe Tupac with his Machiavellian foreboding, maybe Biggie’s ‘Ready to Die’ preparation, but who knew that Snoop would evolve from warning us to never love bitches and hoes to releasing a gospel album and hosting a cooking show alongside one of white America’s revered TV chefs? That Queen Latifah would be nominated for an Oscar, that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air will beat the world at Instagram, or that the lead MC of conscious rap group The Coup would be sitting in front of a London audience in 2018, discussing his rather brilliant, controversy surrounded film?
STBY stars Lakeith Stansfield, (Get Out, Atlanta) as Cassius Green a man struggling to define his purpose. At the end of his self-imposed tether, he ends up at a call centre as a telemarketer, on one side his best friend ‘Salvador‘ (Jermaine Fowler), the other an old sage ‘Langston‘ (Danny Glover), and it’s at this mundane job, Cassius finds his purpose. On Thursday, 11th October as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival, director and writer of STBY Boots Riley was hosted at an LFF Connects Talk. A brilliant part of the festival where audiences can ‘connect‘ with filmmakers in town to support their film(s) in the festival programme. Ben ‘Doc Brown‘ Bailey Smith, our very own actor, rapper, comedian chaired the conversation which was nothing short of inspiring to many a creative in the room.
I know Boots Riley, but his music didn’t find a defined spot in amongst my 90s hip-hop repertoire. So when Smith paused the conversation to play the video of The Coup’s tracks ‘Dig It‘ released in ’93 I was surprised to recognise the track and thus realisation that The Coup were part of the soundtrack to my teenage years. The black and white very 90s rap video, video sent me back to my years of confusion. Not knowing who I’d be, or where my life would turn. Just that I loved hip-hop, my friends and held close dreams of one day running my own UK version of The Source magazine.
What stood out about Riley, as he spoke was how similar his path has been to many of us, who are ‘politically woke‘ trying to find secure footing in this industry which should receive folks like ‘us‘ with welcome arms, but yet…
At 15, after spending his summers involved with a radical communist organisation, whilst returning to his Oakland high school, Riley decided to put into practice the organisational skills he’d picked up from the organisation, by pulling together a group of students to protest a new ‘year-long‘ school scheme the school board were planning. Riley surmised that the scheme was more a rouse to track students’ progression to success, or not; a scheme only being implemented in schools with a high ethnic student population. So they protested; marched, inspired other schools along the way, eventually reaching the school board’s office to have the district head announce that they were no longer going ahead with the ‘year-long school‘ plans. The protest worked.
It was at that moment Riley said he realised that the things he did ‘meant something‘. I mean, being flown around your country to speak to other student organisations to advise how they can effect change, at the age of 16 will do that to you!
Understanding your purpose was the theme I got from Riley’s talk. An hour of reinforcing that if you have a goal, an intention, a purpose what you’re supposed to do, you will do, by any means. Riley told how though he was in the arts, and making music, him becoming a rapper was actually to try and convince a rapper friend of his to get involved with Riley’s protests, causes, and rallies. Who said he’d only get involved if Riley would be his hype man, so he did. He also wrote raps for his high school’s version of West Side Story production, the reaction to his voice, gave him the validation that he had the power to affect change.
Having written the script for STBY and accompanying album in 2012, only to have it not picked up. To then publish the script, fearlessly. Because who’s crazy enough to put out into the world a brilliant idea for a film, when there are so many idea thieves waiting in dark studio corners with their hoarded millions to steal, make and slap their names on our brilliant ideas. Then having Jordan Peele say yes, then ‘Get Out‘ literally, then Donald Glover say yes, then ‘oh, sorry have to go to space via Atlanta‘, literally. Then taking a risk on the skinny funny dude from Atlanta to lead his film, then to have to release the film under the same name as the album he wrote 6ish years ago, which no longer fit the 2018 version of his 2012 year old dream so had to do another album this one called ‘Sorry to Bother You the Soundtrack’. (Both available on Apple music). We also learned that patience and faith is needed on the journey of a creative. Riley said, “if you’re going a few days with candles, or having a neighbour run electricity into your house (it’s an American thing), or avoiding the landlord… then filmmaking is for you.”
If his latest artistic offering is anything to go by then, Sorry to Bother You should affect us all to challenge the current power structures which are slowly/rapidly depending your location and social class, killing us. Riley’s call out of international distributors who ran the boring lazy trope that ‘black films don’t sell abroad‘, sounding like your three-year-old nephew covered in chocolate yet denying he ate the chocolate bar you were saving for Netflix and couch potato later that night. Finally getting picked up by Universal Pictures and Focus Features, getting its European premiere at LFF, is testament to Riley’s ability to affect. Whether you like the film, or not, and you probably will like it that is unless you hate communism, socialism and anyone who criticises capitalism, you won’t be able to help being affected by Riley’s DGAF attitude which permeates through Sorry to Bother You’s narrative. Daring to stick a middle finger up in quite an obscure yet absolutely on point way. After hearing him talk, I totally understood how Sorry to Bother You Was Born.
Top note from Riley’s talk, filmmakers are relying on filmmaking cliches, self-imposing rules of filmmaking that ‘shouldn’t‘ be broken. Filmmakers aren’t showing people resisting, or challenging what’s not right. Sorry to Bother You does that, and we can only hope that whatever Riley thinks up next will do just the same.
Sorry to Bother You
Director: Boots Riley
Writer: Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stansfield, Danny Glover, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler , Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun
UK release date: December 7th 2018