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Playback: Boots Riley Hopes ‘Sorry to Bother You’ Inspires You to Do More Than Buy Swag

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

A conversation with musician-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley is sure to run the gamut, from idle considerations of dialectical materialism to analysis of canonical classics like “Star Wars” and “Apocalypse Now” and all parts in between. With the utterly original and absurdist comedy “Sorry to Bother You,” starring Lakeith Stanfield, the former film school student and avowed communist finally takes his messaging out of the recording studio and behind the camera.

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“I have a lot of contradictions,” Riley submits. “I was doing theater when I was an organizer, helping with the creation of an anti-racist farm workers union in Delano and Macfarland. I also at the same time promoted parties, like, ‘Ladies in free before ten!’ All of these things kind of converged, and I was going to film school. I saw that everything that I do is about how I look at the world. I didn’t think anyone was out there putting out the analysis that I wanted to put out.”

Riley has strong feelings about the role of art in society. He points out how often, bold and challenging ideas are couched in fantasy or science-fiction, or worlds so far removed from our own that the messaging evaporates in allegory.

“Writers and artists have done everything that we can do to try to get out of the real world, to separate ourselves from folks,” Riley says. “We’ve made ourselves believe that there’s nothing that can be done about the world, so we sink into writing and we’re like, ‘We’re going to expose it,’ which my movie kind of talks about. We’re like, ‘Look, what we do is we tell the truth and that’s our job. That’s all we can do, man,’ but that’s not enough … For the past 20-something years, rebellion has been edited out of what we write about.”

Can film be a tool for real change in the world? Riley, who believes in work stoppages and the withholding of labor to exact that change, thinks it can. But the reach obviously has to go far beyond the theater.

“If there aren’t movements happening, then they just become ideas and people talk about them and they become cute and cool and people will get the T-shirts and the earrings,” he says. “Which is good, because the T-shirts and earrings make people talk about the movie. They also show people are connecting with it. However, there needs to be movements that folks can join. We’ll see whether they’re out there. We’re seeing all kinds of stuff happening now, the teachers’ strike — people are looking for footholds to have power. Hopefully this film doesn’t just become a talking piece.”

For more, including memories of his early days fronting the Coup and how the Sundance Institute’s filmmaker labs programed helped him hone “Sorry to Bother You,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Boots Riley photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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