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Boots Riley Says a ‘Gentler Capitalism’ Won’t Save Society

Boots Riley Says a ‘Gentler Capitalism’ Won’t Save Society
Written by Techbot

The scene is straight out of Boots Riley’s madcap moviemaking handbook. In a city where Black residents have been steadily priced out, the two of us sit—Riley wearing one of his signature hats, me hatless—swapping stories over lunch as rock music drains from the speakers. This is Oakland, the director’s longtime home, and perhaps our talk wouldn’t feel so surreal if it weren’t the exact kind of thing Riley, impresario of all things Black and bizarre, would write into one of his scripts. Ext. A Japanese fusion restaurant. Two Black men chow down on fried chicken, pondering their existence.

As an artist, Riley embodies a kind of allegorical immodesty. How to put it? He thrives in contradiction, happily stews in what he calls the “beautiful clutter” of life. It has become a mirror for his gloriously hyphy cinematic staging: He doesn’t build worlds so much as stretch the one we already inhabit to its fantastical extreme. 

Where his 2018 cult film Sorry to Bother You swerved into the funk and fuss of late-stage capitalism, manipulating the gonzo curiosity of science fiction to make a decidedly Black satire about labor, survival, and what, if anything, it means to sell out, his latest endeavor, I’m a Virgo, cranks the bass. It’s a seven-episode ride about a 13-foot-tall, comic-book-obsessed Black kid named Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) who, after years of being hidden from the world by his adoptive parents for fear that he’ll be exploited—or killed—ventures into the cosmos of Oakland, where the gentrifying city, policed by a white vigilante lawman known as the Hero, greets him with wonder and revulsion.

I won’t be the first or last to tell you: There is nothing else on TV quite like I’m a Virgo. The show is a perfect response to this furious moment, awash in contradictions. Over the past three decades, Riley has been a filmmaker, community organizer, and a member of the radical rap group the Coup. Now, amid a Hollywood writers strike, of which he’s been a vocal participant, he’s releasing a series about tearing down our broken economic system and building one that feeds power back to the people. Set in a town transformed by Silicon Valley, the show follows Cootie and a group of young activists who strive to dismantle that system from the inside. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.

As the block hums in and out of consciousness, Riley tells me he does not believe in a “gentler capitalism.” There’s an ease to the day, one that belies the reality of what’s happening across the city: exorbitant rents, a homelessness crisis, bureaucratic decay. Oakland is the place he’s devoted his life and work to, but it doesn’t always feel that way anymore. So we talk about how art can be a means for revolution. In Riley’s world, the only way forward is to disrupt from within.

Jason Parham: I’m a Virgo’s hero is a 13-foot-tall young Black man. What is it about his story that felt meaningful to tell?

Boots Riley: I didn’t think about it like that.

OK, then where did the idea come from?

I’m attracted to large contradictions. I think about what I would think of as a good lyric. There’s this setup, which hopefully is good and says something in and of itself. But then there’s this other line that comes in that maybe feels ironic, right? Like a contradiction you weren’t expecting. It surprises. It points out something.

It destabilizes you a little.

I don’t know where the thought first came up, but when you see a 13-foot-tall Black man named Cootie walking down the street, the last thing you’re thinking about is how he feels about himself. It’s all about what you want to believe and project. It leads to so many things, but specifically toward race. In this case, the title, which came later, I’m a Virgo, speaks to that—nobody cares. His astrological sign is the last thing on someone’s mind.

Your work mines the exploitation of labor, of capital, of culture. That’s a big through line in the show.

Because it’s a big through line with everything we talk about in our lives. Think about it like this: What’s the definition of culture? Culture is what we do to make our survival normal. Think about the drum. Or songs that we sang. All these things. This is what we do in our lives. And culture helps us do it. It gives instructions. It helps us keep existing while we do these particular things.

How does that intersect with capitalism?

So much of what we do is always going to be shaped by how we live, and how we live has to do with whatever economic structure we’re in. Right now we’re under capitalism. The contradictions of capitalism—how it works—are going to echo through almost everything we do.

Photograph: Simone Niamani Thompson

Both I’m a Virgo and Sorry to Bother You exist in the realm of the absurd. Has your experience in America—as someone who is conscious of the way society exploits Black people—felt absurdist?

Definitely. There was a time when the Coup got pulled over on Treasure Island, coming back from the studio, and we ended up with like 15 military police with guns standing around, yelling at me to pick up the [registered] gun [that was in the trunk of the car]. Yelling at the top of their lungs. And everybody I was in the car with was screaming like, No, don’t do it. It’s a scene that could be in a movie.

What is your earliest memory of feeling exploited?

I’ve had many low-paying jobs throughout my life, starting with being a door-to-door newspaper salesman as a kid, to being a dishwasher, to retail sales. But I don’t think I would have translated my frustrations into feeling exploited. I didn’t have the language for that. I felt like, Fuck these people. You know what I’m saying?

When did that language begin to crystallize?

When I was 14, I got involved in helping people who were striking, the Watsonville cannery workers. I was helping to pass out flyers. Stuff like that. Through that, I signed up to be part of this summer project that was helping out farmworkers who were trying to organize an anti-racist farmworkers union in the Central Valley. These were radical organizers. They weren’t just talking about labor struggles. They had a plan.

How so?

For the anti-racist farmworkers union, the idea was, first we organize this valley and get this method of organizing popular, then we use that as a way to help create a revolutionary movement. It wasn’t just like, Oh, we’re struggling to get these wages right now. It had to do with changing the way things worked. It gave me hope. It was that sort of thing that made me look at my life differently.

Is that what you try to do with your work—make people look at life differently?

I’m not really making stuff to just enlighten people. I think most of us feel like we know what is wrong. But most of the time the question is, can it be changed? Is there anything you can do about it? But really, my art can only go so far even with that approach. If there are no organizations out there for them to actually get involved with campaigns, for them to get involved with art or connect with people on the job to organize, then it kind of just sits there.

Your father was also a revolutionary. He worked as an anti–Vietnam War activist during his time at San Francisco State University, a housing rights advocate in Chicago, an auto industry organizer in Detroit, and later as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer in Oakland. Did getting more involved in activism as a young teen feel fated in any way?

He actually didn’t push me on any of it. I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this stuff?” I have seen parents push their radicalism on their kids. Because I came to it on my own, it was a lot more effective.

You once said you have a “problem with superheroes in general, because, politically, superheroes are cops.” When you’re young, you naturally want to rebel. Or not even rebel, but find your way. I’m a Virgo attempts to negotiate this specific kind of maturation. It’s not your typical superhero origin story.

I was definitely obsessed with comic books as a kid. That was actually one of the motivations for getting jobs early. I was doing gymnastics. I was taking martial arts. I was throwing ninja stars and had all the books about them. I was practicing how to sneak into a room without people hearing me, like Batman. To me, this was a real thing you could do. And what that would have led me to was becoming a cop. I got saved by my next obsession, which was Prince.

Seems like a great obsession for a future musician.

After that, the next thing I got involved with was radical organizing, and these obsessions were all part of the same thing.

How so?

For example, when you’re watching TV, you’re told you’re nothing. People that you know are nothing. What’s important are these stories, these people who are on TV. And so it could lead you to obsessing over them and feeling like that’s your connection to something bigger than you.

When I did get involved in radical politics, it was because it’s like, Oh, I can be part of making history. People want something more important for themselves. They want connection, which is very much what Cootie and Flora [Cootie’s love interest] are about.

Photograph: Simone Niamani Thompson

Why has Oakland been the setting for both your projects?

I’m just a better artist when I’m around things that I know, when I’m here. I can think, like, Oh, this would be good. This means a certain thing to me, even if it doesn’t mean a thing to someone else. Everything is more inspired.

You’re able to anchor it to the world in a real way.

Exactly. There’s a group of Boston filmmakers who are like that. There’s New York filmmakers—Jim Jarmusch, Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen, Spike Lee. Especially right now, when everything is so mix-and-match. Like anything could be anywhere. I think something becomes more universal the more specific it is.

One of the major plot points in the series is the denial of housing. Oakland saw an 83 percent increase in homelessness from 2017 to 2022. Black residents account for 60 percent of the city’s sheltered homeless population, despite constituting 23 percent of the city’s population. Art can bring these issues to people’s attention. What else can be done?

Immediately there can be rent control laws. San Francisco has 60,000 vacant units. Oakland has 10,000 vacant units. And they’re keeping them empty. What the prices are aren’t what the market can bear. So a lot of the YIMBY people have been like, Just let development happen and that will be what brings it down—but what we see is, no, if you don’t have rent control laws, rates go up.

What else?

Public housing. You know, there was a big campaign in the media in Hollywood against public housing from the ’70s until now, as if it was a trap as opposed to something liberatory. But we need those things. People need a real safety net. Oakland has 5,000 homeless people in a population of more than 400,000. A lot of those people are still living in the neighborhood. They’re just living in vans.

But these are things people have been calling out for a long time. Like even in the ’90s, there were all these respectability politics campaigns that were being put on by like, Black elite, Black elected leadership in Oakland.

Right.

Usually they use the catchphrase “affordable housing” as opposed to “low-income housing,” because affordable housing goes off the median income. So you have to make a percentage of that. We’re not going to legislate income. It’s only going to come from there being an organized working class that can fight. The kind of contract we need is one that attaches pay raises to inflation.

Don’t I know it. WIRED fought for that in our own union.

That’s why people are down to fight. With the Writers Guild, the reason we have solidarity from the Teamsters and IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] is people want to win. People are risking immediate money because they want things to get better. In 2007, IATSE and Teamsters crossed the picket lines. But not this time.

You’re in the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. The DGA just reached a tentative deal, but the WGA has been on strike for weeks. Was this inevitable?

I don’t know if this particular strike was inevitable. What the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] is trying to put forward is a message that you’re not going to be able to have a say in how we do things. And I think they underestimated how willing we are to fight, because what I’m hearing from people that know folks at the studios is they thought, Oh, the writers will be fatigued by now.

I mentioned that to a colleague recently, how we’re seeing mass labor strikes across multiple industries. Everyone is fed up.

According to Payday Report, which tracks strikes via local news, there has been, over the past three years, at least 2,918 strikes and work stoppages. Some of them might not be a full strike, some of them might be a couple of days’ work stoppage when they get their deal. This is one of the biggest since the 1970s.

Have there really been that many?

The reason it’s not called out in bigger ways is that in 1982, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official US figure, started counting only work stoppages of 1,000 people or more, which is just a way to hide figures. If you think about it, the fictional strike in Sorry to Bother You, that was only 500 people. That wouldn’t have counted. Even if people don’t see those numbers, like you said, they feel it. There’s a new way people are looking at handling issues of inequity.

Is the business of Hollywood broken?

I wouldn’t call it broken. It’s working like they want it to. They’re making an unprecedented amount of money. And they’re doing it by paying the people who make the products that help them make that money less, and giving less control over it. That’s the way all business works.

Now, the question is—does it work for creativity? Does it work for people? Does it create a healthy environment for either the production of culture or a shared ownership between the folks that produce the culture and the culture? No, it doesn’t.

I’m a Virgo has a decidedly anti-capitalist message. But it is being released by Amazon, a billion-dollar corporation with a terrible labor record. How do you reconcile that?

Well, I’m trying to get out there in front of as many eyes as possible. So that means I’m going to be dealing with some people that do things I definitely disagree with.

The Coup’s first album came out on EMI Records, which people don’t hear about anymore because they’ve dissolved into a bunch of different companies, but they were a multinational corporation that was involved in all sorts of exploitive things. My last movie was done with money from Oracle, which is owned by Larry Ellison. He does things not only in his business practices that I would disagree with, but also separately fundraised for Trump.

Have you always thought about it this way?

I’ve never been someone who has put forth the idea that we can make this gentler capitalism. I’ve always been someone that said we have to get rid of capitalism. And that there is a specific way to go about it, which I talk about directly in the show—but that means organizing on the job. So I want people to organize on the job, whether that’s in a Disney sweatshop making cute stuffed toys or an Amazon warehouse. The idea that you can kind of boycott the parts of capitalism you don’t like just plays into the belief that capitalism would be better if there were just better people on top.

So again, how do you reconcile that?

That means right now what we have to do is organize a labor movement, a mass militant, radical labor movement starting at these places. So yeah, I need to get to as many people as possible. And that means one of these big companies.

Is there such a thing as too far, for you?

I have different lines. I turned down a big Taco Bell commercial some years ago, which would have been ridiculous. They actually made the commercial and showed it to me, like, We’re going to offer you so much money. I was like, no, I’m not doing it. So many people around me were angry with that. The argument that was said to me, even though I didn’t do it, was, Your songs play on the radio right next to a Coca-Cola ad. But that’s where my line is.

Is that part of the problem—people don’t know where their line is?

It takes time. People figure out where their line is based on what they want to see happen in the world. I want to see a mass militant radical labor movement that could turn into a revolutionary one. So based on that, there are things that I will and won’t do. But often because there hasn’t been that movement, many of us don’t know what we want.

Going into I’m a Virgo, were you clear on what you wanted to achieve?

I have to do something that feels new to me. I would never go into it being like, I want something that feels comfortable to people. There are some people that do honestly go into it with that mindset, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not where I came from, especially coming from music.

Is being a musician like being a filmmaker?

There was a time when I wanted to sound just like Ice Cube, like fuck—how do they do that? Luckily for me, I didn’t know how. After I accepted how I sounded, I was able to lean into it a lot more. Even though the Coup was sometimes on major labels, we never had big money for promotion. So I had to have something people gravitated to. So that was the thing. This is more money than I ever thought I would make in the first place. So I’m good. I can get fired, whatever.


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