Director, musician, and organizer Boots Riley puts class struggle front and center in all his work. He spoke with Jacobin about this year’s entertainment industry strikes, Israel’s war on Gaza, and how to jam radical politics through the Hollywood pipeline.
Boots Riley arrives at the closing night gala premiere of I’m A Virgo at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 23, 2023. (Miikka Skaffari / Getty Images)
I first heard about Boots Riley when I was a teenager. Kill My Landlord, the title of the first album by his band The Coup, caught my eye. Soon I realized that I heard his name a lot: he was frequently mentioned in news coverage of West Coast protests.
Riley has been on the Left for a long time. His father, Walter Riley, was an antiwar activist at San Francisco State University in the 1960s before moving to Detroit to organize autoworkers. That’s where Boots was born in 1971. Later they moved back to Oakland, where Walter set up a civil-rights law practice. By the time the younger Riley was a teenager, Boots had joined the Progressive Labor Party and was organizing farmworkers. He met the two rappers who would go on to form The Coup with him while working part-time at UPS.
Boots is still in Oakland, and he’s still an organizer. But he has entered a new field: film and television. Sorry to Bother You, his first feature film, premiered in 2018. The movie combines Riley’s old-school Marxist politics with an out-there aesthetic sensibility. In early pitches to potential collaborators, Riley called it “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.”
The film follows Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), a black telemarketer who adopts a “white voice” to increase his sales. (That voice is done by comedian David Cross, who long ago performed alongside Riley at a fundraiser for Palestinian medical services.) Before long he’s swept up in his employer’s corporate conspiracy, torn between the allures of self-advancement and the possibility of liberation represented by his comrades’ union organizing.
After the success of Sorry to Bother You, Riley created a television show. The seven-episode I’m a Virgo premiered this year (on Amazon, no less). The show again mixes contemporary politics with sci-fi elements: Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) is a thirteen-foot-tall black teenager living in Oakland. Despite his parents’ attempts to shield him from the outside world, a group of young activists discover him. Suddenly he must deal with how the world perceives him, aided by his newfound friends, including a charismatic young community organizer (Kara Young).
As a result of these projects, Riley is a member of both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). He has been vocal in both unions throughout Hollywood’s turbulent year. Last week he spoke with me over Zoom from his office in Oakland to discuss the Hollywood strikes, Israel’s war on Palestine, and his plans for the future.
Alex N. Press
Let’s start with this year’s double strike in Hollywood. SAG-AFTRA is still on strike, but the WGA finally got a contract. You’re in both the WGA and the DGA. From your vantage point, what have these past few months looked like?
I definitely saw many writers get radicalized and call for things that you wouldn’t think people would call for — and they were not just calling for them, not just saying they should happen, but organizing them. A lot of the solidarity that was being pushed between WGA and DGA was from writers who may not have expressed radical politics in public before but just thought, “Okay, what helps us win this fight?” You saw a lot more people demanding things of their union that hadn’t been demanded before.
The strikes changed the idea of what can be done and what can be demanded.
There were a couple of situations where there were meetings of hyphenates — meaning dual members of the WGA and the DGA — and people from DGA in which it was assumed I’d be the most militant person in the room. Certain forces directed things toward me thinking that, but it was everybody else who was quicker to call for more militant stances.
Alex N. Press
Beyond the contract gains, what have the strikes changed, both in the industry and beyond it?
On a national level, it’s a very visible strike. Other people who went on strike have said that the WGA was part of forming what they thought could be done right then, part of the conversation in which the working class is becoming at least slightly more militant with all of these strikes and becoming more radical.
Things have changed in the sense that it’s become okay and commonplace to have a class consciousness and be outward with that, and even to have socialist politics. Now I’m saying “become,” but I’m kind of new to the industry. It’s at least more common to be vocal about those politics now.
The strikes changed the idea of what can be done and what can be demanded. Even with some folks feeling worn out because they wished the strike hadn’t lasted so long, people understand that these are things that couldn’t have been won without a strike. That knowledge has changed a lot of things for people.
Alex N. Press
Radical artists often get asked, “How does your art contribute to social movements?” You have said that while culture isn’t a substitute for political action, “it tills the soil and gets people ready.” But now we’re operating on two levels: we’re also seeing that culture workers’ unions themselves actually can have, if not more of an impact, then certainly an impact in inspiring other workers and helping them organize.
Writers are storytellers, and because of how the idea of Hollywood has been sold to people — that story of someone going to Hollywood and being able to express themselves and become rich or whatever — we are part of a story as well. In that way it becomes similar to the art. I hope that there will be more stories about this now, because a lot of writers have gone through this process. There will definitely be more stories pitched that have to do with class struggle, but there’s a strong filter that ensures it doesn’t matter what writers want to write about on the whole.
The way Hollywood works, for the most part, is that there’s a producer with an idea, but they’re not passionate enough about it to write it. So they hire a writer who would rather be writing something else — and who has a passion project of their own — but who will do this for money. They try to connect to it as much as they can, but it’s not the thing they would have chosen to do. Then they get a director who has some other thing they would rather do — they probably wrote something too that they would rather direct, but this is what they have to do for money. And then you have executives whose job is to shape it into something else entirely. So when you try to get radical politics through that pipeline, it’s pretty hard. It takes a certain kind of impetus to try to get through.
The truth is that you can sell it to people in the industry by saying, ‘Look how radical the working class is getting.’
I think that if your main thing is trying to make a living from writing, then you’re not going to get those politics through, because at every step, there’s going to be a roadblock with somebody nicely saying, “Here’s why this doesn’t work. Here’s why you can’t do this.” Do you want to be the person who people think is difficult? If your main thing is trying to make a living, you don’t. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but if the impetus is wanting to make radical work with your life, wanting to be part of a radical movement, and you see writing as a way to do that, maybe you’ll have a different experience. Certainly, to get my show done, I had to be willing to quit. All throughout my career, I had to quit. Sometimes I took huge losses, and in ways that people would feel were irresponsible.
I hope that more class struggle gets into film and TV because of this, though I think TV is a total other monster. I do think there will be more independent productions with class struggle in them. The truth is that you can sell it to people in the industry by saying, “Look how radical the working class is getting. We need to make movies that reflect that.”
Alex N. Press
You’ve talked about the difficulties you had in making Sorry to Bother You. What was the process of making I’m a Virgo like?
To get Sorry to Bother You done, I went through a long period of being pretty destitute with the idea that if I get this made, it will be the talk of Sundance, and I’ll get the money to pay people back. I’ll be able to pay rent. And we were the talk of Sundance, so I did pay everybody back. But I was at the festival wanting to cry with a sold movie because I was broke.
I had more ideas, and Media Res, which was a production company that became a studio when they sold this TV show, was interested. They paid me money to write the show, we pitched it around, and there were two companies that could pay enough for it. It wasn’t my choice of where to go, but it was between FX and Amazon. The studio was going to make a lot more profit selling it to Amazon, and that’s just how it goes. That ended up being their choice.
The connected question is going to be about Amazon. Here’s the thing: all of my work is about fighting capitalism, and I’ve never thought, “Let’s uplift the companies that are doing slightly better capitalism than the other capitalism.” They all want to be Amazon. My thing isn’t to have the illusion that you can hide yourself from that but to put forward work that says, “We have to organize in these places.” That was my question at the time. I was like, “Look, I’m going to be vocally talking about organizing labor, not only in hypothetical places but in real places, some of those places being Amazon.” I asked if they still wanted to do this, and the answer was yes.
All of my work is about fighting capitalism, and I’ve never thought, ‘Let’s uplift the companies that are doing slightly better capitalism than the other capitalism.’ They all want to be Amazon.
The owners of Amazon, who own more than Bezos, are the likes of Vanguard and BlackRock. They are also the top owners of Netflix and Disney. So although there are different personalities behind different companies, the same group of investors and funds are just using different avatars to conduct business in different ways.
Separately, before this show, I’ve gotten into arguments with well-meaning friends who want to start collective businesses because the logic is that it’s a business that doesn’t exploit labor. But that doesn’t really answer it, because that business still has to compete with other businesses. If you’re not collectivizing the whole labor market, then that doesn’t solve the problem. You’re not going to be able to do it one business at a time. To me, the only answer to short-term and long-term movement goals is organizing on the job. There’s no other nice way to do it.
Alex N. Press
There was once a blacklist in Hollywood. That’s the most widely known bit of Hollywood labor history. Now a lot of people say there no longer need to be blacklists thanks to arrangements like the Hollywood pipeline filters you described. But you were the subject of a bit of outcry earlier this year after a DGA member emailed around an actual blacklist of sorts. Your name was on her list, along with nine other “hyphenates,” the industry term for dual union members (i.e., both DGA and WGA). She didn’t want outspoken writers gaining leadership in the DGA. What was the fallout from that?
The weird thing about that email was that most of the people on the list, including me, weren’t running for leadership positions in the DGA. She told people not to vote for us, but we weren’t running. Plus, some of the people she listed aren’t radical; they’d say so themselves. The only thing the article about that situation did was spread fear. The writer of that article, in putting that out, made people afraid to speak out.
There’s a Billy Bragg lyric that I’ve stolen before: “If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.” I don’t want to live my life afraid of that. People — the general public wherever you are, even many of the people in Hollywood — are way more radical than anyone would like to believe. And one of the ways they instill fear is by making people think that they are the most radical people in the room. They make it seem like what you’re saying is something that very few people will believe, and so you think that sort of a blacklist could work rather than backfire.
One of the ways they instill fear is by making people think that they are the most radical people in the room. They make it seem like what you’re saying is something that very few people will believe.
For their part, DGA leadership reached out and tried to make it work with us. It’s not like there wasn’t friction; there was, because you had a few hundred WGA writers who were also in the DGA and wanted to make AI [artificial intelligence] an issue. At first DGA said, “We’ve got that language covered, it’s all good.” A bunch of us said, “No, we don’t think that language covers it.” And there were folks who felt they were being pressured in ways that they shouldn’t have been. But that’s just the regular politics of any grouping.
Alex N. Press
Speaking of that Billy Bragg lyric, blacklists are also on people’s minds at the moment because of Israel’s war on Gaza. In Hollywood, there have been a few alleged cases of retaliation for making public statements or social media posts about the war, along with many more cases across the country. You’ve been part of the Palestine solidarity movement for a long time, and you recently signed a statement calling for a cease-fire, alongside many other artists. What do you think about this moment?
I’m not going to completely dispel people’s fears about speaking up, but these are things I’ve faced and might face again, and yet you should still sign those statements and speak up, because what is happening is more important than your fear. I don’t ever want to say that you should give in to the fear.
There’s a rhetorical lie in which opposition to Israel gets called antisemitism. In my case, I’m a Jew, and I have a connection in my family and in my life to radical Jews who all didn’t agree with the concept or practices of Israel, to the idea of colonizing a place. We understand that it’s wrong to set up a society that way. It’s fine for folks to have a homeland, but you don’t deny other people citizenship in that and then put them in confined spaces and refuse to allow them to vote on who’s ruling them.
I’m a Jew, and I have a connection in my family and in my life to radical Jews who all didn’t agree with the concept or practices of Israel, to the idea of colonizing a place.
We’re in Hollywood. People are afraid to say, “I want a wide shot,” because they know that an executive doesn’t want it, and they think they might get blacklisted because of that. Fear is how so many people make their decisions in Hollywood: creatively, career-wise. You have people stuck for ten years making a TV show that they hate because they’re afraid they won’t get another job. Fear is how we’ve been taught to think through our choices.
Alex N. Press
You’re a BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement] supporter, right? I ask because I’ve been a part of forming an organization of writers and artists trying to push that forward right now.
Yes, definitely. I made a lot of phone calls before I signed that cease-fire statement, and someone said to me, “Why doesn’t Palestine have a Nelson Mandela?” I said, “You mean somebody that they locked up for thirty years? They have that.” The reason Nelson Mandela was able to become president had to do with boycott, divestment, and sanctions, which was about getting pretty close to crippling South Africa’s economy. If you want the Nelson Mandela of Palestine, that comes from boycott, divestment, and sanctions. That’s the nonviolent route.
Alex N. Press
You recently mentioned that you have several films in the works. Can you say anything about them? And where does your music fit in?
I’ve sold three movies, and if the actors’ strike is over in time, we’ll be shooting one in the early part of next year. That one draws inspiration from one of my songs on Pick a Bigger Weapon.
For the scores, I have been working with Tune-Yards, which is a group that lives here in Oakland. They did the score for Sorry to Bother You and for I’m a Virgo. The Coup did the soundtrack for Sorry to Bother You.
The thing is: I can get to so many more people with my movies and TV than I ever did with music.
For I’m a Virgo, I was supposed to make a song per episode. We shot the interiors in New Orleans, and I moved my whole studio out there. I thought I’d get two hours a day in the studio and that over that six-month period, I’d have some songs. But I ended up spending four hours in the studio that entire time. That said, I have music I’m working on, and I’m going to do a couple songs at a time. The thing is: I can get to so many more people with my movies and TV than I ever did with music. But it hits people in a different way: with music, people can listen to it over and over, and it becomes part of their life. With a movie, you have people trapped there in the theater.
Alex N. Press
Lately, people ask me what gives me hope. I don’t like that question much, as “hope” isn’t what drives me. I tend to defer to the late Mike Davis’s comments on this subject: “Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight absolutely.” Yet I wonder if you have an answer to it.
Well, what gives me hope is that we’re having a prolonged strike wave and there are groups of radicals trying to figure out how to strategize around them. You could have a big labor movement that is only run by the liberals, and you don’t get much out of that. But I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing now.
It’s an opportunity. When you see major upheavals toward socialism, militant labor movements with radicals involved are a huge part of it and almost a prerequisite. In most of the revolutions that people look up to, there were huge, organized strikes. We often think of the revolutionary period as the period after that, but there wouldn’t have been that period after without that organizing coming beforehand. So that gives me hope, and it’s based on what I’m seeing.Original post