Papier-Mâché Bestiality and Striking Telemarketers In Oakland Mean Boots Riley is Making a Movie 

Plus: After Ghost Ship, longtime party collective SPAZ reorganizes and raises funds.

One recent afternoon in downtown Oakland, armor clad, baton-wielding riot cops rushed toward a crowd of protesters wearing blue shirts that read, “Shut Em Down.” Only this clash, on Franklin Street near 20th Street, was eerily quiet. And after a few minutes, someone shouted, “Reset!” Everyone resumed their places, then the melee repeated.

That’s because they were shooting a scene for Sorry to Bother You, a magical-realist feature film by Coup bandleader and agitprop polymath Boots Riley. The movie’s protagonist is a Black telemarketer named Cassius, who learns a trick to getting ahead in the call-center: sound white.

Details glimpsed on the set of Sorry to Bother You — Riley’s directorial debut, based on his screenplay published by McSweeney’s in 2014 — suggest that this setup quickly skews weird and tense. The telemarketers go on strike, and the management, considering those riot cops, seem reluctant to negotiate.

Many of the striking telemarketers were wearing fake afros, each affixed with crumpled, custom soda cans (designed, like other props for the movie, by local artist J. Otto Seibold). And that’s to say nothing of the hulking papier-mâché man and horse that copulated on-camera earlier that morning on Broadway.

Riley has been recruiting extras for the movie, which is set in Oakland, through Facebook. Filming locations aside from Franklin Street include The Layover, the shuttered Best Music on Broadway, and Seventh Street in West Oakland.

Sorry to Bother You is funded by independent film companies such as Cinereach and Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, plus a grant from the San Francisco Film Society and Kenneth Rainin Foundation. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta and Get Out) plays Cassius, and other actors include Armi Hammer, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, and Terry Crews.

Thompson was spotted on set wearing earrings bearing the title of Riley’s 2015 book of lyrics and analysis: Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb.

***

After the Ghost Ship fire, members of longtime underground party collective SPAZ are rethinking their storied events, and exploring new sources of funding.

SPAZ, which stands for Semi-Permanent Autonomous Zone, has been active in the Bay Area for more than twenty years — organizing warehouse parties, political actions, and secretive campouts (not unlike the closely allied outfit Katabatik).

The collective, a loose group of a dozen or so main organizers, is effectively a non-commercial, volunteer-run enterprise that often quietly backlines similar events. Though garnering little press over the years, participants in underground electronic music of a self-consciously political stripe consider SPAZ a hallowed name.

Like shadowy arts and culture operators throughout the Bay Area, though, SPAZ organizer Lukas “Whatwhat” Smithey says the Ghost Ship fire this past December changed everything.

Smithey explained that, in recent years, a decline in flexible, out-of-the-way commercial spaces meant that SPAZ slowed to throwing three or so larger events every year.

And since the fire, they’ve only organized one larger-scale, late-night event in Oakland, at an underground venue that Smithey says shuttered shortly thereafter. “That one was in December,” he said. “So, it turned into more of a memorial gathering.”

The downtick, Smithey says, makes it harder for SPAZ to cover costs, namely rent on the shipping container they use to store equipment (which also doubled last year), plus secure parking for a sound-system bus. So, SPAZ this month launched a page on Patreon, the content subscription-service popular among independent artists and writers.

The Patreon asks people to pledge $20 a month. That gets you a hand-made punch card that guarantees half-off to SPAZ’s next 23 events. Smithey says this just formalizes what was once normal: supporters sometimes pulling out of pocket to pad the group’s overhead.

“It’s a dues collection, so to speak,” Smithey said. “Only we don’t have to ask everyone every month.”

Going forward, Smithey says SPAZ is more focused on outdoor events out of town, and street actions locally. Lending amplifiers, lights, generators — Smithey says that, with parties fewer and further between, SPAZ is keen to share resources and show solidarity with other social justice oriented events.

“We want to keep lending tactical support to other groups,” Smithey said. “SPAZ has never fit in one box.”


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