“Sorry to Bother You” — which makes Riley an activist-rapper-screenwriter-director — probes the seedy world of telemarketing with a satirical flair. Like many professions, telemarketing rewards detachment and moral flexibility as long as the money is rolling in — something the flat-out-broke Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) learns as he ascends the corporate ladder via the carefree pitch of his “white” voice (provided by David Cross, at his most Caucasian). The film uses telemarketing to illustrate, in hilariously exaggerated fashion, how creativity is used for nefarious purposes. It’s a reality Riley, 47, is quite familiar with, considering “Sorry to Bother You” is loosely based on his own experiences in the field.
Riley, who was born in Chicago, lived in Detroit as a child but has spent most of his life in Oakland, previously worked in telemarketing while enrolled at San Francisco State University. During the early 1990s, he co-founded the Oakland-based hip-hop group the Coup, and they signed with the independent label Wild Pitch Records. The group’s second album, 1994’s “Genocide & Juice,” spawned the minor hit, “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish.” But when major label EMI bought out Wild Pitch, Riley says the label stopped pushing the song. The resulting disenchantment with the entertainment industry triggered Riley’s quarter-life crisis.
Riley turned to telemarketing to make money and support his community-organizing work with a group he formed called the Young Comrades. He eventually returned to the Coup to work on 1998’s “Steal This Album,” but the telemarketing experience left a lasting impression that ultimately inspired “Sorry to Bother You” and the existentialism that flows through it.
In the film, Stanfield’s Cassius is as strapped for self-confidence as he is cash. He feels inadequate compared with his fearless girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an artist and activist whose art is an extension of her personality and identity. Cassius doesn’t realize that his knack for persuasion and ability to relate to people is, in fact, where his creativity lies. He uses his to siphon money from people, earning him his first taste of success and validation. His employer, RegalView, takes advantage of his ability and uses it for odious reasons — a sentiment Riley related to when he was working phones.
“That’s how I felt when I was doing telemarketing — that I was using my creativity to try and get money from folks,” he explains. “I think Cassius is feeling that same high that Detroit might get.”
As with telemarketing, Riley believes there are probably artists with once-in-a-generation talent who use their gifts to aid advertising agencies’ bottom lines. Everyone needs money to live, but Riley believes we’re conditioned to want the stability those situations offer. He cites a friend, also a filmmaker, as an example.
“He’s Taiwanese, so he has a relationship to his parents that maybe all of us don’t [have],” he explains. “I’ve always been like, ‘Man, just sleep on somebody’s couch and get your movie made.’ But for him, there’s a big thing about needing to show his parents that he’s successful. If you’re single and don’t have kids, you can go with a lot less money and take these risks. But some people have others looking over them saying, ‘You’re not supposed to do this.’ ”
But “Sorry to Bother You” doesn’t skewer people for wasting their creativity or doing what they must to make ends meet. Instead, it’s a sharp critique of capitalism and how it squeezes people in those situations. Unsurprisingly, Riley’s anti-capitalist position also shapes his views on art’s responsibility. “I have an argument against art in this art piece,” he says of the film with a laugh, adding that art alone doesn’t necessarily make a diffrence. Although he believes artists can play a factor in changing the world, they must be connected to organizations geared toward achieving that goal and the campaigns they’re running in order for the art to be effective.
“I think art is communication,” he says. “To that extent, it can be the words between the words. It has a possibility of communicating something more than people can do with prose or just talking. But I think it’s exactly that, and without action or organization connected to it, or being part of some campaign, it gets lost — even with great intention.”
If a certain degree of understanding is required to inform art’s intent, then “Sorry to Bother You” is also guided by Riley’s background in community organization. And the healthy dose of levity the film employs to analyze vital social issues is how Riley deploys his own creativity.
“There’s actually a conversation going on amongst the characters, in a way, that mirrors exactly what’s going on in my head all of the time,” he says. “There’s the part of me that’s the organizer, part of me that’s the artist, part of me that’s the person who, even with those two things, wants to figure out what my place in the world is. How to engage with it and whether my life has any meaning.”
And Riley’s purpose, by proxy of “Sorry to Bother You,” is to confront capitalism.
“It’s an indictment of how capitalism crushes creativity — how capitalism uses whatever we do to support what it’s doing,” Riley explains. “In the movie, [the companies are] constantly co-opting everything from art to moments of spectacle and making it work for them . . . so it’s not an indictment against people wasting their creativity, it’s an indictment against the material situation we’re in.”