How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood

How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood

I asked Riley if, when shopping the film, he ever deployed his own version of a white voice. He said no, then elaborated. “Everybody feels like they’re the exception,” he went on. “There’s a story I tell, which was told to me by Tom Morello,” who was the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, with whom Riley formed a side project several years ago. “Rage were going to shoot a music video for one of their songs, Michael Moore directed it and the idea was they were gonna show up on Wall Street and play loud in the middle of the day, and when the cops came, and when Wall Street people came and yelled at them, even if it got shut down, that would be the video. So they get there, they play the song one time. Tumbleweeds. Play it again. Nothing’s happening — a couple cops talking into their radios. They play it a third time and start hearing a rumble. ‘Are they sending SWAT in?’ And then, from around the corner, they see hundreds of people in business clothes coming closer, chanting ‘Suits! For! Rage!’ They’re fans!” (In the finished video, for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire,” a few men in trading-floor jackets rock out in the crowd.)

Transgressive gestures have a dispiriting way of being absorbed by the forces they’re intended to transgress, and so I initially took this story to illustrate how Rage Against the Machine had been revealed, in this moment, as insufficiently radical. But for Riley, it conveyed an altogether different point, one that reflected the baseline faith in other people that a lifelong activist must sustain in order to keep going: “It turns out that Rage have hundreds of fans on Wall Street who are totally into what they’re saying, and who felt like they were against the system, too, but this was just what they had to do because the system wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s what most of us feel. That we’re only doing what we’re doing because there’s no way to change things.”

One mid-April morning, Riley was overseeing the construction of a fake gate on the vast grounds of Spring Mansion, a 12,000-square-foot, 106-year-old residence in the Berkeley Hills. He squatted down and peered up through its black metal bars at the mansion, framing a shot. It was Sunday, and he and a small crew had assembled to shoot pickup footage to stitch into “Sorry to Bother You.” In the film, Spring Mansion stands in for the home of Armie Hammer’s chief executive, and at one point Cassius arrives at the gated entrance, enters a code into a keypad and walks through. This tiny but critical moment was indistinct in the current cut, because Riley ran out of time on the day of filming and had to shoot the sequence elsewhere. At test screenings, audiences consistently flagged this as confusing, and so Annapurna agreed to rent out the mansion for one more day.

Wealth in the East Bay has historically concentrated itself in the hills. Today, despite some fast-gentrifying exceptions, the general rule still holds: The flatter the land, the poorer the people living on it. Spring Mansion — named for its original owner, the mining and real estate tycoon John Hopkins Spring — was a universe away from the Oakland flats, where Riley grew up and shot most of the film. Modeled on Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s Achilleion Palace, the mansion sits ostentatiously on three acres, with balustraded terraces and a view, through palm trees, out to San Francisco Bay. The place is currently uninhabited, sitting on the market with a $7.5 million asking price, but for the next 12-odd hours, a plutocrat’s palace would become a communist’s playground.

Something about this situation seemed to make Riley a touch uneasy — or, at least, to strike him as grimly amusing. Part of his decision to shoot “Sorry to Bother You” in his hometown was his knowledge that he could call in favors, make handshake deals and save money. He enlisted friends as extras and used other friends’ artwork to decorate scenes. That spirit of community-abetted thriftiness extended all the way to the film’s Oakland premiere on April 12, where Riley wore a vintage three-piece suit that Regina Evans had given him gratis, “stuffed into a trash bag with a bunch of other suits,” he said. Riley had gravitated toward Spring Mansion in the first place because a local musician he knew once shot a video there for peanuts, and Riley figured he could finesse a similar deal. “But then line producers and location scouts insist on getting involved, and it’s out of your hands,” he said. Today’s reshoot would result in maybe five seconds of new film. Considering this, Riley chuckled and shook his head. The footage was necessary, but “if we’d been able to get to this when we were first here,” he said, “it would have taken 10 minutes instead of a whole day and, like, $100,000.”

Lakeith Stanfield flew up from Los Angeles and was driven straight to the mansion. Crew members had erected their temporary gate on the patio, marking the spot where Stanfield was to stand, consult his phone and enter the code. “I love how non-actory Keith is,” Riley told me. “He doesn’t learn all his lines until right before, so you get this sense that he’s actually figuring out what he’s going to say in the moment.”

“Hello, beautiful people,” Stanfield said, greeting the crew as he walked on set.

“777-9311,” Riley sang to him — the title of a 1982 track by the Time and, for no reason other than his love for the song, the code he wanted Stanfield to type in.

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