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Boots Riley Gets Real About America's Problems With 'Sorry To Bother You's' Magical Realism

(l to r.) Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green and Danny Glover as Langston star in Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You.
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By John Horn & Marialexa Kavanaugh

Up until indie sensation Sorry to Bother You premiered at Sundance this year, the world knew Boots Riley as a musician. He'd been the lead vocalist of Oakland-based funk/hip-hop group The Coup, known for criticizing the American police state, racial disparities, and political processes -- and more.

Sorry to Bother You is Riley's debut as a writer/director. The genre-bending film is part comedy, part science-fiction, part commentary on socioeconomics in today's America.

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Set in Oakland, it features Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green, a struggling telemarketer who realizes the key to success: channeling his 'white voice,' a move that comes with heavy moral compromises.

The film's look at race and gentrification is literally close to home for Riley after growing up in Oakland. He grew up in a family of activists. The movie is a continuation of his lifelong fight against injustice, and a conversation starting point.

Riley talked with KPCC's The Frame host John Horn at Sundance. (Read highlights below, or subscribe to the podcast for the full interview.)

Some twitter reactions:

Seems like it might be connecting in the way you wanted the film to connect.

'Crazy' is a thing that we say because it's out of the frame of reference that we have. Sometimes people do crazy just to be crazy. Like look how outlandish I can be. That can get tiring. I appreciated the one review, I think it was Uproxx, where stuff was called "crazy," but they appreciated the story and how the crazy fit into that.

Your movie's whole idea of magical realism seems particularly well suited to the times we are living in.

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I think I used the magical realism and the science fiction as ways to talk about how reality might be different from what we think it is. We get painted a picture of how the world works. But there's somebody painting that picture for us.

Possibly, there's a whole other side that we need to unfold. There's more to the analysis that's there. I tried to use that to talk about the difference in perceptions of reality.

I'm not talking metaphysical stuff. I'm just talking about what we're told of how the world works, why the world is how it is, versus these new ideas that we can open up to that would change reality, alter reality for us.

Director Boots Riley on the set of Sorry To Bother You.

When you were writing, directing, and cutting this movie, did you figure out where the satire was going to overlap with truth? Or how much of it was going to be reflective of what could possibly happen over something that was just totally made up?

So I went to film school 20-something years ago. Dropped out of that in favor of a music career, because we got a deal. But in watching, for 20-something years, watching movies wishing I could make something that way, one thing I noticed was Terry Gilliam talking about Brazil.

And he was frustrated because he was saying everybody thinks Brazil is supposed to be in the future, but it's supposed to be about right now. And it makes sense that everyone thinks it's in the future, because it looks so different. The production design is so different that even though it says at the beginning, "somewhere in the 20th century," you still think it's supposed to be the future or something.

So I was very aware from every element of it that it had to mainly seem like our world. And that was the line. The production design being a little bit off but not too off, and the performances being real.

Everyone is playing their character seriously. In that regard it's like a Coen Brothers thing. People believe in their characters.

And it might be hilarious. And part of that is because life is hilarious.

I didn't consciously say, here is that line, I just kind of played it by ear. And I think those are the two main elements that worked to stay on one side of the line. Because if it goes too far off, you start caring.

I want to ask you about growing up in a household where people were politically engaged, focused on what was happening in the world and doing something about it. How does that affect what you want to do as an artist?

Well I think in artist communication, and communication on all levels -- from talking to dancing -- you're communicating something. That's what art and language is for.

For instance, the worst thing in the world is to sit there and talk to somebody who's talking to you with no f---ing point. They just want to talk. They're talking to hear themselves talk. And then they're talking using vocabulary that may seem flowery.

But it's because they like talking. It's been their dream to be a talker. That's a nightmare. And there are artists like that. So to make good art, you have to care about something other than making good art.

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