Boots Riley Visits Campus To Discuss Art As Social Justice


boots n cats

Betsey Carroll

Villanova welcomed Boots Riley to campus on April 3rd for a Q&A event titled “Art as Social Justice: A Discussion with Boots Riley,” co-sponsored by the Waterhouse Family Institute, Cultural Studies, Global Interdisciplinary Studies, Center for Peace and Justice Education, Communication, Africana Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, Sociology and Criminology and the Office of Student Involvement. 

The session immediately followed a screening of Boots Riley’s first film, “Sorry to Bother You.” Mr. Riley describes his first movie as, “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing.” The protagonist, Cassius Green, is a struggling black man living in present-day Oakland, California. Cassius must choose between accepting a promotion that would entail surrendering his soul to a company that sells slave labor over the phone, and joining his friends and fellow telemarketers in a strike against their employer. 

“Sorry To Bother You” presents a challenge to the economic and social order, addressing common interpersonal and existential struggles the working class face while highlighting the exploitation that working class people endure, and providing an absurdist analogy for the creation of race as a mechanism of economic control. The film also offers what Riley would consider a solution: an accurate how-to for organizing your workplace.

In the film, the character Detroit makes a sculpture of a giant horse bearing a sign that says “WorryFree is turning workers into horses!” People on the street are perplexed. “I have absolutely no idea what this is about,” one bystander said. “Maybe it’s saying capitalism dehumanizes them?” Detroit steps in and suggests that maybe the artist is being literal: Maybe WorryFree is literally turning people into horses.

During the event, he shared that each character in the movie represents a struggle he faces as an artist and as an organizer. Detroit, he said, presents questions he faces as an artist that aims to critique and oppose capitalism: “It’s the conflict that I have. It’s an intellectual one. Her conflict is between art and organizing. Is her art enough or is it a cop out?”

Much like the bystanders in the movie, mainstream media outlets ignored the possibility that Riley is being literal — that race was and continues to be created in order to justify the economic exploitation of a specific group of people. “The equosapians make it tongue-in-cheek, it changes the tone of the movie,” Riley said during his visit to Villanova. Much of the discussion with Riley centered around this connection between race and capitalism and the use of absurdism and magical realism in order to elevate the truth about our society to those who may otherwise never encounter an environment that forces them to reckon with the exploitation that working class people endure. “What is effective is not teaching people things,” Riley said of his film. “You already know this!”

But how well did “Sorry to Bother You” achieve this outcome? During the conversation with Mr. Riley, senior Ayan Goran expressed that directors are more than willing to present corporate dystopias, and even more willing to show protagonists working 9-5 office jobs that make them miserable. “But so few are willing to explicitly address the source of this malaise,” Ayan said. “They only go so far as to criticise consumerism as an abstract concept. The solution to the dystopia is never to abolish capitalism — just the corrupt corporation.” Could the revolutionary messaging in a blatantly anti-capitalist film like “Sorry to Bother You” still be explained and interpreted away?

Riley acknowledged the differences in the way audiences and insiders in the media received the film’s message. For instance, the New York Times’ July 2nd review of the film concludes with “Cassius and his peers belong very much to the present… navigating their own anxieties and a radically inhumane but somehow also tolerable social order. It’s fun to hang out with them, but you can’t help but be bothered by what might be coming next. Not just in the movie” Survival does not mean toleration. Perhaps this reviewer enjoyed the dive into the reality of the working-class struggle that Riley’s movie provides, but there is nothing fictional in driving ideas and conflicts behind the story. The plot is propelled by the RegalView worker strike, a clear display of resistance to the exploitive conditions that not only Cassius and his friends are living through, but, as the NYT  weakly alludes, exists “not only in the movie.” Many viewers seen the thin veneer of absurdism Riley coats his message in and stops there, never taking Detroit’s suggestion that maybe the artist is being literal. 

Those present at the event also discussed the limits of a dialogue-based response to economic exploitation and racism, which, as the film suggests, are one in the same. Most of Riley’s responses highlighted his views on the way that current social movements do not leverage worker power. “The be-all-end-all is not just getting people out onto the streets. This strategy works off the idea that capitalism is somehow democratic. If millions of people had shut down their jobs instead, our power would be shown.” While no specific efforts were discussed, Mr. Riley presents a framework for criticizing not only the problem, but the responses to the problem. Are these movements radical in nature? Are they putting forward a vision? Riley asked the audience to consider how discussion cannot be productive outside the test of actual organizing. If the material conditions are not changing, how do we know if what were saying works?

While your takeaways from “Sorry to Bother You” might say more about you than about the movie itself, both the film and its director live up to the title. This familiar telemarketer’s greeting doubly serves as Riley’s flippant apology to audiences for telling his truth, and leaving you with a call to consciousness, and maybe even a call to action.