'The world was making my movie too on the nose': Boots Riley on his directorial debut

Hip-hop artist Boots Riley makes his film debut Friday with Sorry to Bother You, a boundary-pushing exploration of the ‘soul-crushing’ world of telemarketing.

Hip-hop artist's film Sorry to Bother You is about the 'soul-crushing' world of telemarketing

Director Boots Riley and Steven Yeun on the set of Sorry to Bother You. (Annapurna Pictures/Entertainment One)

Boots Riley once spent his days cold calling unsuspecting Americans.

He was a telemarketer — like Cassius Green, the main character from his film Sorry to Bother You — who vowed revenge against a job he called soul crushing.  

But if it weren't for that soul-crushing job, he wouldn't have had the inspiration for Sorry to Bother You.

His film follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a black telemarketer who discovers the secret to becoming a "power caller" by using his white voice. As Cassius climbs the ranks at work, his fellow telemarketers stage a rebellion, and it all ends with an indescribable twist.

From musician to director

The film is Riley's directorial debut. He has been the frontman of Oakland band The Coup for decades, rapping about social change and activism.

The hip-hop artist has been trying to bring his talents to the big screen for awhile, and said it hasn't been an easy feat.

"A musician with a script is probably the person you want to avoid," said Riley. Industry folks were dubious of the quality. "It took me getting people a little at a time to say they were down with it."

The first person to be down with it? David Cross, who plays Cassius Green's white voice.

The second? Patton Oswalt, the mysteriously unnamed Mr. _______'s (Omari Hardwick) white voice.

Getting big names on board

The script was published as a paperback novel in 2014. Riley was then admitted to the Sundance writing and directing lab, a win that got the right people interested.

"That lead to actors circling it around, thinking, these are some different kind of characters; I would love to play something like that," said Riley.

The film attracted the likes of Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Terry Crews and Armie Hammer to name a few.

And although written seven years ago, the script and film are still relevant today.

"It was relevant in 2012, it was relevant in 1972 and, you know, probably will be relevant for some years to come," said Riley.

"I long for the day when it becomes irrelevant."

Tessa Thompson as Detroit and Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green star in director Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You. (Annapurna Pictures/Entertainment One)

Predicting the future

Riley's script was making pop culture references before they even happened.

It coyly hints at Kendall Jenner's Pepsi snafu, and one of the lines, "WorryFree is Making America Great Again," had to be changed.

"The world was making my movie too on the nose," said Riley.

Because he wanted to talk about bigger ideas, and wasn't a fan of his main character going through what he calls "cliché trials and tribulations," he decided to bend reality.

Riley created power callers, the upper echelon of a telemarketing company, who get to ride a special ego-boosting elevator to the top. He has black employees use white voices in order to climb the ranks. And the main character, Cassius, is offered $100 million to do something … questionable.

"[That] makes you then think about the reality of your world," said Riley.

"We're not just watching somebody go through something and empathizing with him. But we're going through something as well."

Although Riley says he wants his viewers to get a lot from the film, there is one thing in particular he's hoping for.

"I hope that it leaves you optimistic, and I hope it leaves you wanting to engage with the world."

Sorry to Bother You is already receiving commendation. The film is out in select theatres across Canada Friday.


Haley Lewis is a 2018 CBC Joan Donaldson Scholar. She is from the Maritimes and recently completed a Master of Journalism at UBC. She writes about arts, culture and politics. Connect with her on twitter: @haleylewis_