LOS ANGELES — “Sorry to Bother You” is like no other movie you’ll see in a theater this year. The feature debut of writer-director Boots Riley — longtime radical activist and outspoken frontman of hip-hop collective The Coup — it’s a subversive dark comedy, an incendiary satire on race and class under capitalism, and a gonzo sci-fi acid trip, often all at once.
Following a Bay Area telemarketer named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield, of TV’s “Atlanta”) whose climb up the corporate ladder entangles him in a web of union protests, mad-scientist CEOs, and viral humiliations, the film — opening July 13 — is also a very loose interpretation of the 47-year-old writer-director’s own experiences in corporate America. On a hot mid-June morning in Los Angeles, before crossing the city to accept the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award, Riley sat down in a Hollywood high-rise to talk about trusting his instincts and why one must sometimes break reality in order to better understand it.
Q. You’ve been doing press for “Sorry to Bother You” essentially since it premiered at Sundance back in January. What has it been like to talk at such length about the film?
A. I get to talk about something I created. No bigger ego-builder than that. And I like talking about movies anyway. It’s what I’d be doing if I wasn’t working. The movie is me also having a conversation, about art. Not even just in the story line but just in the fact of putting it out there, by virtue of how I’m saying what I’m saying. It allows me to have a conversation, at least in my mind, with other directors, with other people who are interested in film. In a sense, doing this [gestures across the table] is part of the art.
Q. Much has been made of the film’s narrative, which toys with the surreal, the satirical, even magical realism in a big way. Have any conversations you’ve had stuck with you?
A. There have been so many conversations going on with the film. I tried to put so many details in it — and they’re symbolic, many of them — but I also was trying to get this aesthetic of a beautiful clutter, not just in the production-design aesthetic but in the story line and the editing. In my mind, that gets closer to real life than the naturalistic [style of filmmaking]. . . . With that, you may have these six elements that you put in there, and you meant for them to have a direct relationship with the viewer, and you knew about some of the elements in action with each other. But there are so many different combinations of things you can put together in your mind, and within those, people will notice a different combination that I hadn’t consciously been aware of.
Q. How did your experiences with political organizing inform the story’s sociocultural critiques?
A. My critiques aren’t aimed at making a dividing line and telling someone else to step on the other side. My critiques are aimed at pulling people into me. . . . And that changes the style with which I do it, and it comes from this idea that how we act and who we are is not a static thing. We’re all implicated in this system. In this movie, everybody sells out, or has sold out. . . . Most of us make these choices of what we’re doing based on the idea that there’s nothing else we can do, that there’s no radical change that can be made to the world. We get in where we fit in. I approach what I do assuming everyone agrees with me, because if I put it a certain way, they will. Most people agree the world is unfair. And then a very large percentage of humanity agrees that the wealth is lop-sided and going toward a very few. That’s a very large percentage of people, who wouldn’t even call themselves radicals.
Q. Can you expand on that?
A. I was on a plane one time during the Obama years and two white-haired old ladies were talking to each other. One said, “You know, this Obamacare stuff. I’m not with that socialist stuff . . . What they need to do is Obama needs to make these bankers that just stole all this money from us pay all of our medical bills.” Much more radical concept than anything the Democrats have put out! And the point is, what we do in what we’re calling activism has to do with a lingo, a terminology, that’s not getting to the real feelings and ideas behind it. . . . My art comes from having experiences like that and taking them to their basic essence, [discovering] what those ideas are.
Q. Given that, where did the idea for the movie first spring from?
A. I started with broad strokes. I knew I was going to make a movie that took place on a telemarketing floor. I knew there was going to be a labor struggle, which the main character had to decide which side he was getting on. . . . But after I wrote that first scene, I just took the journey with Cassius. I didn’t know what was going to be happening, until I got to every scene. I just took it as, “I need to put this idea in there, so how do I do that in a way that’s not cliché or that makes you feel it instead of just empathizing with the person?” That’s usually where the reality got bit: looking for ways to convey a bigger idea. I never was like, “I want to put this weird [expletive] in there, so let me figure out a story line so I can get in there.” It was more like I needed this specific feeling or idea to be happening, and then that brought that stuff in there. It’s all necessary.
Q. In an interview that posted around Sundance, Terry Crews, who costars, described the film as a “bizarre” social commentary: part fantasy, part comedy. He added that “comedy is the only way a lot of times that portholes open so you can see the truth.” How would you respond?
A. Here’s the thing. As someone who’s been an organizer, I understand that part of getting people to do things around their life is to put out an analysis of the world. Real analysis has to do with showing how things work. How things work has to do with contradiction. It’s how a machine works: one force pushes on another, things like that, and that’s what analysis of the world is. It’s showing where the contradiction is, where the conflict is. Contradiction and irony are often one and the same, and irony and humor are very closely related, and so . . . humor is analysis. Standup comedians do it all the time. They’re saying something that you know to be true, but they’re pointing out a contradiction in it that you hadn’t thought of before or hadn’t heard vocalized. That’s what we’re doing.