Boots Riley Mines His Experiences As A Telemarketer In 'Sorry To Bother You'

Jul 2, 2018
Originally published on July 5, 2018 12:15 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Boots Riley wrote and directed the new movie "Sorry To Bother You." It's a social political satire starring Lakeith Stanfield, one of the stars of "Get Out" and the TV series "Atlanta."

This is Boots Riley's first film, but he's had a long career as a rapper with his group The Coup, a self-described revolutionary music collective. Their music is on the soundtrack of the film. Riley grew up the son of political activists who moved from Chicago to Oakland when he was 6. His grandmother ran the Oakland Ensemble Theater. "Sorry To Bother You" is set in Oakland. It takes aim at corporations that underpay or otherwise exploit workers. It's also a story about race, relationships and conscience.

When the movie begins, Lakeith Stanfield's character is broke and living in his uncle's garage. He talks his way into a telemarketing job, but everyone he cold-calls hangs up on him. An older, more experienced telemarketer played by Danny Glover offers some advice. Use your white voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU")

DANNY GLOVER: (As Langston) Hey, young blood. Let me give you a tip. Use your white voice.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) Man, I ain't got no white voice.

GLOVER: (As Langston) Now, come on. You know what I mean. You have a white voice in there. You can use it. It's like being pulled over by the police.

STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) Oh, no. I just use my regular voice when that happens. I just say back the [bleep] up off the car, and don't nobody get hurt.

GLOVER: (As Langston) All right, man. I'm just trying to get you some gain. You want to make some money here? Then read the script with a white voice.

STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) People say I talk with a white voice anyway. So why isn't it helping me out?

GLOVER: (As Langston) Well, you don't talk white enough. I'm not talking about Will Smith white. I'm talking about the real deal, like this young blood.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Mr. Kramer. This is Langston from Regal View. I didn't catch you at the wrong time, did I?

GROSS: (Laughter) That scene's from Boots Riley's new film. Boots Riley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BOOTS RILEY: Hey. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Whose voice was that that we heard as Danny Glover's white voice?

RILEY: Well, there's a rumor that that's Steve Buscemi.

GROSS: Oh.

RILEY: But it definitely is not. But it's not.

GROSS: That makes sense. I can hear that. It's...

RILEY: But it's not him, actually.

GROSS: It's not him?

RILEY: No. No. I'm just saying that's a rumor. And someone wrote it on Wikipedia. And that's what people get for reading Wikipedia as fact. But, no, it was just our engineer. He did a scratch take. And we liked that a lot. So we kept it.

GROSS: I didn't know about the Wikipedia rumor.

RILEY: No, I thought that that's why you were asking that.

GROSS: No. No, I thought...

RILEY: OK.

GROSS: No, because I didn't know. I knew that Patton Oswalt did one of the voiceovers.

RILEY: So David - Yeah, David Cross does Lakeith Stanfield's voice, and Patton Oswald does Omari Hardwick's voice. So yeah.

GROSS: I don't want to give away spoilers in the film. So I'm going to ask you to do your brief synopsis of the film without things that you don't want the audience who hasn't seen it to know.

RILEY: Yeah, OK. This is an absurdist, dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing. It's called "Sorry To Bother You." In it, Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, who's a black telemarketer with self-esteem issues and existential angst, who discovers a magical way to make his voice sound like it's overdubbed by a white actor. That white actor is played by David Cross. Hilarity ensues.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well done. (Laughter). So you actually worked as a telemarketer for a while. So you put on a voice.

RILEY: I was actually really good at telemarketing.

GROSS: Were you? Why were you so good?

RILEY: Willingness to use my creativity for evil.

GROSS: (Laughter) Keep going.

RILEY: So, for instance - I mean, the last time I did telemarketing, it was actually telefundraising, which is ostensibly better than regular telemarketing. So we were calling from the Bay Area to Orange County on behalf of LA Mission, for instance, which is a homeless shelter. But as we know Orange County is very conservative, Republican, racist - all of those things. And my job was to get money for the LA Mission. So my pitch was something like, hello, we're calling to ask you how you're doing. And they'd be like, fine, what are you calling about? OK. So no break-ins today. No - nothing wrong with your car or anything like that. They'd be like, no, why are you asking? Well, there's been a series of break-ins, and, you know, people are worried. And we understand the police can't do anything about it. So we've come up with a solution. And they're all ears because I've just scared them. And I say, so what we want to do is we want to move all the homeless people from your area to downtown Los Angeles to the Los Angeles Mission. And they're - you know, we're going to teach them how to take baths and interview for jobs and give them God. And they'd always give money. So - and it was terrible. You feel bad. You could make yourself feel good about raising money for a homeless shelter. But you're saying all this messed up stuff.

GROSS: I like the way you shot the opening telemarketing scenes where Lakeith Stanfield's character is calling people up. And visually, what happens is, like, his desk and him sitting behind basically crashes into their home, into the person he's calling, into their home as a kind of metaphor for how intrusive the call is. And he's interrupting people's lives. He's interrupting, like, a couple having sex. He's interrupting a woman whose husband has, like, stage 4 cancer. And he comes on and says, sorry to bother you, you know, and goes into his pitch. How did you come up with that visual image? Is that how it felt like when you were doing telemarketing - that you were literally crashing into somebody's home uninvited?

RILEY: Well, definitely, it felt intrusive. And the whole situation is awkward. And what I tried to do in this movie is, one, give the audience the same emotional feeling that the character was supposed to be having. So that called for visual inventiveness. And in this case, I wanted the two people to be in the same room. And so I put them in the same room. And I think us doing that early on in the film allowed people to accept a lot more. And that's what I did throughout. Every time I needed something for the audience to go through something emotional, something that had to do with the larger philosophy that I have or anything like that, I bent the reality of that world.

GROSS: So you're also a longtime rapper with your group The Coup. And before there was the movie "Sorry To Bother You," The Coup released an album with that title. What's the relationship between the album and the movie?

RILEY: I finished writing the script. I got to the end the first time in 2012. And I needed a way to get a buzz going about the script because I didn't know anyone in the film world. So I made an album that was inspired by the screenplay. It's been so many years since we put that album out that we actually made a new soundtrack album, which is by The Coup, for the movie. So that will also be coming out in this summer.

GROSS: So I wish we could play music from the soundtrack of "Sorry To Bother You." But since it's not going to be released until later in July, I thought we'd hear a track from the album "Sorry To Bother You" which came out in - what'd you say? 2012?

RILEY: '12.

GROSS: Yeah.

RILEY: Yes.

GROSS: So this is a song that I think provides a similar energy to the song that you used on the soundtrack at the beginning of the movie "Sorry To Bother You." And it's called "The Magic Clap." You want to say a few words about it?

RILEY: Yeah. And as far as that energy, I'd like to - you know, I tried to go the intellectual route and say that I needed this visceral energy for this or that. But also, we're a performing band. And we need shows that rock the crowd. And so we need songs that rock the crowd. And that's also the reason for songs like this. But this song is talking about that moment when theory turns to action, that moment in your brain. And for the purposes of the song, we're calling it "The Magic Clap."

GROSS: OK. So let's hear "The Magic Clap" from the 2012 album "Sorry To Bother You." And this is The Coup. And you'll hear my guest Boots Riley, who wrote and directed the new film "Sorry To Bother You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAGIC CLAP")

THE COUP: (Singing) Come on, kids. Gather around. Listen up. The magic clap. M-A-G-I-C C-L-A-P. Let's go. M-A-G-I-C C-L-A-P. Let's do it. Clap, the magic clap. Clap, the magic clap.

(Singing) It's like a hotwire, baby, when we put it together. When the sparks fly, we'll ignite the future forever. This is the last kiss Martin ever gave to Coretta. It's like a paparazzi picture when I flash my Beretta. I got scars on my back, the truth on my tongue. I had the money in my hand when that alarm got rung. We want to breathe fire and freedom from our lungs. Tell Homeland Security we are the bomb. Clap, the magic clap.

GROSS: That's music from the 2012 album by The Coup, "Sorry To Bother You." And Boots Riley, who is the producer and rapper in The Coup, has now made a film called "Sorry To Bother You." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "THE BALLARD OF DOROTHY PARKER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Boots Riley, and he wrote and directed the new movie satire "Sorry To Bother You." You became a rapper. You were in the music world before you were in the film world. So I think you always knew you wanted to make movies. How did you end up being in the music world first?

RILEY: I was at film school in San Francisco State, and at that time, the school was more - I found it to be more focused on experimental film and documentary. You know, I was interested in narrative and things that could reach many people. And going to school in San Francisco, you're not going to meet as many people that are making films as you would if you went to film school in New York or LA. So we got a record deal where they were actually offering me money to do music, to do my art. So I quit school really quickly and did that instead. We just happened to be at the right time and the right place because the Bay Area, specifically Oakland, was a place that every record label decided they needed a group from. So we rode that wave that was started by people like Digital Underground, Too Short and MC Hammer.

GROSS: OK. So I have to ask this (laughter) - when you were in high school, you wrote, like, a rap version, rap lyrics, for the songs from "West Side Story."

RILEY: Well, I wrote the play as well.

GROSS: Oh, oh, wow. OK. As a fan of "West Side Story," I must ask you to tell us about that and to ask you please to maybe do some of the lyrics.

RILEY: Well, I'm very old, so I don't know how I'd remember something from 1987, '86 that I only did once or twice, so - but I can guarantee you just imagine something really corny. And the first raps I ever wrote, which is how I actually got into rapping is because I did that for the play and nobody booed. So I decided maybe I could figure out how to do it.

GROSS: Related to theater, your grandmother ran the Oakland Ensemble Theater. Did she inspire you to want to do theater or to perform?

RILEY: Yeah. I think as a kid that was addicted to TV, she maybe thought that that was a way to get me away from the TV, to say, well, you could do what they're doing there. And so it was acting. I would be around her sometimes when she was doing - they did "Flash Gordon." I remember that. And there were just a bunch of people that were always creating. And I went on auditions with her. I remember that was - the first time I met Danny Glover was - I was probably like 10 and there were auditions going on, and I recognized him because he had already been in stuff.

But - yeah - and then I became part of another theater group that was called the the Black Repertory Group, and it was just in a storefront in Berkeley. And there would be just one-person plays coming through, and we would help them happen. But I think that's how I got into film was I also at the same time was an organizer. I became an organizer in helping out farm workers to organize a union. And so I saw the opportunity to fuse art and movement building. But seeing storefront plays made me think that maybe that wasn't the most effective thing to do. And at the same time, Spike Lee was out, so I got really excited about the idea of doing film instead.

GROSS: So you met Danny Glover through your grandmother.

RILEY: Actually I met - you know, that's how I met him the first time, but him and my father have known each other since 1968. They were part of the San Francisco State strike together, which created the first school of ethnic studies in the United States.

GROSS: So did he remember you when you asked him to have a brief role in your film?

RILEY: Well, I've known him so...

GROSS: Oh, so he didn't have a chance to forget you (laughter).

RILEY: He's a family friend, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: That's great.

RILEY: He's a family friend. But he was the last person to sign on, I will say that. And that's because to him I was his friend's son with a script. And so - and I'm sure so many people approach him with screenplays all the time and...

GROSS: And with their son's screenplays.

RILEY: Yeah, yeah. So - but he even though he was the last one to sign on, he's probably the most enthusiastic about it. I've - he sat through six screenings and is always laughing the loudest at the movie.

GROSS: So give us a sense from, like, when you started performing. What else was happening in the rap world when you entered it?

RILEY: Well - so our lyrics were seen as political. And I say seen as political because they were. However, I think that all of this stuff is political. Everything we talk about is political. And only the things that disagree with the status quo are called political and - which ends up kind of lying to us because then we think that the status quo is what should be or what's regular. And it stops us from thinking. Anyway - so it was at a time when supposedly political rap was over with. This was years after Public Enemy had been out. And also we didn't fit the mold of what people thought West Coast rap was supposed to sound like or talk about. So the labels always had a hard time putting us into a genre that they could easily sell.

GROSS: So before you made your new movie, your first feature film, you were in a lot of music videos with your group, The Coup. Did you have a hand in directing the music videos? Because you wanted to be a filmmaker.

RILEY: So at first, we were on a big label. You know, that was my thing. I was like, I went to film school. The label would say, OK, if you direct the videos since you don't have experience, you know, here's your budget way down here, and if you let this other person direct it, then you've got a budget way up here. And wanting to promote the - wanting to get the best video possible, that's what we went with was the other directors. But I, you know, was very involved in that, again, from the treatment to camping out in the editing room. And we - I did co-direct one video, which is an eight-minute-long story song called "Me & Jesus The Pimp In The '79 Granada Last Night" and - where we had Roger Guenveur Smith play Jesus the pimp. And - yeah, so I did that. And then, you know, with some of our other videos, I was involved in various ways; but no, only co-directed that one.

GROSS: Did the music videos that your band was in help prepare you at all for making your new movie, "Sorry To Bother You?"

RILEY: Well I'll tell you what - I told investors that they did.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RILEY: But it's a different art form. And so there were all sorts of things that I just was worried about that I didn't know. Like, OK, if you have a scene and there's 12 extras going up and down the street, who's the person that tells them to go and stop, you know, little things like that? A lot of those questions also got answered because I went to the - I took part in the Sundance Labs and then forced people to be my mentors in other cases.

GROSS: My guest is Boots Riley. He wrote and directed the new satirical film "Sorry To Bother You." He also fronts the hip-hop band The Coup. His music is used in the film. After a break, we'll talk about what went through his mind as the band's tour bus rolled off a cliff. And he'll tell us about growing up the son of activists. And Kevin Whitehead will review a new release of a previously lost 1963 Coltrane studio session with his quartet. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE ARITHMETIC")

THE COUP: (Rapping) Economics is the symphony of hunger and theft. Mortar shells often echo out the cashing of checks. In geography class, it’s borders, mountains and rivers, but they will never show the line between the takers and givers. Algebra is that unique occasion in which a school can say that there should be a balanced equation. And then statistics is the tool of the complicit to say everybody’s with it and that you’re the only critic. And teacher, my hand is up. Please, don’t make me a victim. Teachers, stand up. You need to tell us how to flip this system. Teacher, my hand is up. Please, don’t make me a victim.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR I'm Terry Gross, back with Boots Riley, who wrote and directed the new film "Sorry To Bother You." It's a social political satire about power and race, focusing on the story of a telemarketer played by Lakeith Stanfield, who is exploited by the corporation he works for. Riley also fronts the hip-hop band The Coup, whose lyrics often condemn capitalism and the misuse of power with a satirical edge and catchy beats.

Let me ask you about something else, a very different kind of incident in your career with The Coup. In 2006, you were in a tour bus accident with the other members of the group. And the van, or whatever you were driving in, flipped over and caught on fire. Were you or your bandmates injured?

RILEY: Yeah. Our - no one died, but Silk E, who sings with us, she suffered three broken ribs and her lungs punctured in a couple places. We were also in the bus with another group of musicians who were touring with Mr. Lif and their DJ - the skin on his head and on his skull split open and his leg's broken. It was terrible. We went off a cliff 35 feet down.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

RILEY: And the bus caught on fire and ended up exploding. So...

GROSS: How did you get out?

RILEY: Well, it got stuck on a rock, and we were basically sideways. And so people had to hang off and come down. And we were on - we ended up having to traverse up this rocky hill to get away from the bus. And many of us were covered in blood, and we were up at the highway waving people down. And nobody would stop for us for a long time. And what we found out from the people who eventually stopped for us was because people were told - this was near El Centro, Calif. And people were told there not to stop for anyone for any reason because they might be illegal immigrants. So apparently even if we were covered in blood and things torn and one woman also - the person selling merch for Mr. Lif - she got her finger cut in half so blood streaming down. People weren't stopping.

GROSS: Wow. I'm just trying to think of you going down a hilly path, like you and your - a rocky path. You and your bandmates with somebody having two broken legs and somebody having like three broken ribs - that must've been hard.

RILEY: It's something that doesn't affect you until a little bit after because - right then - you're just trying to make sure everybody's safe. Everybody gets out of...

GROSS: Yeah.

RILEY: ...Harm's way.

GROSS: What about you? Were you injured?

RILEY: I wasn't. I was going to be in a part of the bus that nobody actually was in. But had I been in that part of the bus, I would've been locked in. And instead, I didn't go to that part of the bus because there were people on the bus who hadn't seen the movie "Anchorman" ever. And I wanted to watch that with them. This is weird 'cause my movie's nothing like "Anchorman," but I like that movie for my own personal reasons. And so I wanted to sit there with them. So we're watching "Anchorman" in the front of the bus. And I had this - I thought about the fact that in entertainer coaches, there aren't seatbelts. And I thought about, well, what would I do if we got in a crash? And I pantomimed myself, bracing myself against the table 'cause they have like this diner table (unintelligible) that I was sitting at. I pantomimed myself, bracing myself with my leg and my arms in different things and figured that out. It was really strange. And...

GROSS: Do you think you were having a premonition?

RILEY: ...Then it happened. I don't really believe in that sort of thing but maybe I - yeah. I'm always paranoid. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RILEY: ...You know, I probably did that on the way here, too.

GROSS: So did that make you think about how life can change in an instant?

RILEY: You know, the trip down took - I don't know - a couple seconds. And it was enough time for me to be mad at the driver and then think about whether or not I was going to die. And I decided I was going to die, be scared, then mad, then accept it and then think about whether I had done everything I could do in my life. My answer was yes. Like, I had lived - I had done the best I could do. You know, and then you think about your kids, and are they going to be OK? And, you know, I had somehow - I put that to rest. But, yeah, I - and that was the weird thing - is that I made myself OK with dying. And, because of that, I realized how terrible it would've been for my answer to have been no - how it would've felt. And so I think it reinforced that in me. It also reinforced the idea that we could die at any second.

GROSS: Yeah.

RILEY: And I want to try to be as present as possible.

GROSS: So you thought you were going to die even though you weren't injured?

RILEY: Yeah, I did. No, this was as the...

GROSS: Oh, as it was - oh, oh, oh.

RILEY: ...Bus was going down - as we were careening down. And people are flying...

GROSS: Oh.

RILEY: ...Around me, and I'm holding on. And I have no idea - you know, it's the middle of the night. I have no idea what awaits us. Had it been 10 seconds before, it would've been a hundred-foot drop.

GROSS: Wow. So you're very political as a person. Your music is political. The film has a lot of political messages in it. Your father was very political as well. Did...

RILEY: What do you mean by political? Who isn't political?

GROSS: That he was a civil rights activist.

RILEY: I mean, like, are there people that aren't?

GROSS: He worked with the panthers. I mean, like...

RILEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...Literally involved in...

RILEY: I agree with you. I'm just kind of...

GROSS: Activist. I should say political activist.

RILEY: It's just a pet peeve what people call it. Political...

GROSS: Yeah, I understand.

RILEY: No, but yeah.

GROSS: But your father was an activist. And there's even...

RILEY: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...A photo of him with Malcolm X and Floyd McKissick who'd been the head of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality - one of the...

RILEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Big civil rights groups from the '60s.

RILEY: Yeah.

GROSS: What does that photo mean to you?

RILEY: I think it represents his legacy of being involved with civil rights movements and fighting for change. He joined the NAACP at the age of 12 and, like, started the Durham, N.C., chapter of the NAACP at that age. I mean, meaning there was nobody in Durham, and they needed somebody to start it there. And he - and later joined CORE and came to San Francisco. So that picture really says a lot for me. He was moderating a debate between Floyd McKissick and Malcolm X, and he was 18 years old. So him - you know, it shows me a driven young man.

GROSS: So your haircut looks like you could be in the panthers in the '60s.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This kind of big afro with kind of like early '70s big sideburns. Are you trying to make a statement with your hair about your connection to that period?

RILEY: I think when I first got it - I got sideburns because I - you know, in my early 20s, I looked like I was 12.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RILEY: Sideburns helped out with that. And after that, it's just 'cause, you know, I got used to it. And actually times when I wanted to change my hairstyle - I knew that so many people knew us from music videos and didn't necessarily know the name of the group but knew it was that dude with the afro that - I knew that me being on the cover with that hairstyle let a lot of people know that this was our album. But...

GROSS: Yeah.

RILEY: ...I do think, obviously, I like how it looks 'cause I would change it real quick if I didn't. It makes my nose smaller.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now we're getting to the real answer. Why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Boots Riley. He wrote and directed the new movie "Sorry To Bother You." He's also a rapper, and his band the Coup has several albums that they've recorded since 1993. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINCY JONES SONG, "HIKKY-BURR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Boots Riley. He wrote and directed and did the music for the new movie "Sorry To Bother You," which is a satire that has to do with telemarketing and then goes to all kinds of political and social places after that. And the name of his band is the Coup, and they've been recording since 1993.

So your father went to law school when you were how old?

RILEY: He graduated law school when I was 9. So...

GROSS: And this was like a second career for him, right?

RILEY: Yeah, he - I mean, he had many. So one of them being a bus driver. The other being a full-time organizer for radical organization. And he - what else? He drove the train at the San Francisco Zoo - lots of different things like that. I think often when people are organizers, they have to - they take whatever job they can. And...

GROSS: It's like his day jobs.

RILEY: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So when he went back to college to study law, did that give you hope that - like you can change your life? Like, you can...

RILEY: No. I...

GROSS: ...You can reinvent yourself or make a big change.

RILEY: Yeah. I mean, I was young enough to where I didn't think about it like that. I mean...

GROSS: You're too young to - yeah.

RILEY: As you're a kid, like, you're - you've got food in the refrigerator. The lights are on, and hopefully you shield your children - if you can - from even the worry that the lights might get cut off, right? So I just knew that he wanted to do that. And it actually had been something he wanted to do. If you look at his high school yearbook, it said he wanted to be a lawyer. But I think he got involved with various movements, and that was more important to him at the time. And then he finally went back to school.

GROSS: Was it hard for him to keep the lights on while he was in school?

RILEY: I know that we were at various times on food stamps, and yeah. So - but, you know, it's weird to talk about it because then it seems like I'm telling a hardship story. Well, maybe economically it is. That's not how I remember my life, you know? I just had a childhood. And yeah.

GROSS: So I think it's fair to say you consider yourself a revolutionary.

RILEY: Yeah.

GROSS: So I wonder if you vote, like in presidential elections.

RILEY: I've voted for local things. I think that my - what my takeaway is that sometimes when people vote, they use that as their be-all, end-all. And the reason why is because we promote it as the be-all, end-all. It doesn't - I know that the answer is it doesn't have to be. It doesn't have to be the only thing that people do. You know, however, the way we sell these elections - the way we sell the candidates is that everything is going to change. And there's going to be a giant change, and so we get people involved in that. And so these movements that we build that could possibly pressure the people that hold the purse strings as opposed to just the people that are being controlled by the purse strings - those movements get dissipated. And so that is the reason that I don't promote that. I don't - you know, I'm not part of those campaigns.

GROSS: So it sounds like you vote in local elections but not necessarily in presidential elections.

RILEY: Yes.

GROSS: And you seem to feel like whoever's in office - it doesn't make that big a difference, but do you perceive...

RILEY: No, that's not what I'm...

GROSS: Oh, OK.

RILEY: That's not what I'm saying.

GROSS: Do you perceive a difference between Obama and Trump when it comes to issues that directly affect people's lives, like reproductive issues, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality, climate change, the environment, voting rights, protecting our voting system?

RILEY: I just said that, yeah, there's a difference. My problem is is that if we don't want to keep going further to the right - so, for instance, right now what's going to happen is a candidate can come up and just be a couple inches to the left of Trump. And they will be seen as almost radical, and we will vote for them. And then we won't criticize them like we did with - we didn't with Obama. Like, the immigration policies that Trump is trying to put forward right now are definitely a direct result of the things that Obama did. Like, as far as he, you know, built the stairs, and Trump built a couple extra steps on those stairs. And we didn't even criticize - for the most part, we didn't criticize Obama for the things that he was doing because he was a Democrat. So my thing is, yes, there is a difference. But where - if I have only so many minutes on this earth, how am I going to make the bigger difference? And for me, that has to do with helping to build a movement that can change policy.

GROSS: But does it exclude voting?

RILEY: ...No matter who's in office.

GROSS: Does that have to exclude voting?

RILEY: Well, the reason why as a campaign - it doesn't have to exclude a personal thing. But as a campaign - someone, you know, campaigning for someone, it does exclude that.

GROSS: You're very anticapitalist. And now you're in the movie industry. You stand the possibility of having a movie career and actually making a lot of money. What have you promised yourself about how you'd handle money and fame if you get it?

RILEY: Well, I have so many plans of things that I need to do, projects and things that - some are art-related. Some are, you know, having to do with other grassroots campaigns that - a lot of that. And I've also gone 20 years without any money that - a lot of that money is going to be gone as soon as it comes to me if it does - knock on wood. But the rest of it has - I've just got so many plans that I don't have to make promises to myself for what I personally spend because I have these other projects that the money will go to.

GROSS: Boots Riley, it was great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

RILEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Boots Riley wrote and directed the new film "Sorry To Bother You" and fronts the hip-hop band The Coup, which did music for the film. After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will review a new release of a previously lost 1963 John Coltrane studio session. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "22-M (OPUS 58)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.