The San Francisco International Film Festival is ongoing, and Boots Riley has marked its halfway point by giving an hour-long State of Cinema Address. After beginning in rhymed verse — “I got love for the underdog,” he repeated several times throughout the five-minute portion of his speech — the “Sorry to Bother You” writer-director used the medium’s beginnings to talk about its future.
“When film started to be created, Thomas Edison didn’t think it was a thing,” Riley said. “He didn’t think it would be very popular at all, because to him what was more important was sound recording. That was so much different from anything else: People had seen pictures, they’d seen paintings, they’d seen themselves in the mirror. It wasn’t as amazing to him as sound because people hadn’t heard themselves before; hearing yourself was like hearing your soul captured.”
It did catch on and become a thing, of course, but Riley believes it needs to keep going. “Film hasn’t yet reached its fullest potential because we weren’t yet ready for what we can do with it now,” he said. “We and artists weren’t yet at a place where they’re able to take it where we can take it now.” From there he went on to discuss labor movements, communism, and the democratization of cinema.
“Even when we make films that attempt to address the problems that are around us, we don’t have anywhere to point people, so a lot of times it ends at, ‘Here’s the problem. The end.’ And that’s because we as artists haven’t been connected to movements that are looking at how we actually change things and where power lies. That’s changing now.”
Riley is no stranger to political topics, as evidenced not only by “Sorry to Bother You” itself but also his Independent Spirit Award acceptance speech. “In general, the struggle we need is one that gives us a different system. We need real democracy, and that’s democracy of the economy,” he said during the question-and-answer session. “Some people call that communism. I don’t care what you call it; you can call it cupcakes. The people should control the wealth that they create with their labor.”
Watch his full remarks below.