Film, communism, radical politics: A conversation between Boots Riley and Charisse Burden-Stelly
Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly and artist Boots Riley participated in a wide-ranging virtual conversation co-hosted by the Claudia Jones School for Political Education and the New Dawn Podcast.

WASHINGTON, D.C.– In late October, the Claudia Jones School for Political Education and the New Dawn Podcast co-hosted scholar Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly and artist Boots Riley for an evening conversation titled Anti-capitalism In These Times. Burden-Stelly is a scholar of political theory, political economy, and intellectual history. She is currently a visiting scholar with the Race and Capitalism Project and Political Science Department at the University of Chicago and an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. Riley is an American rapper, producer, screenwriter, film director, and communist activist. He is the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. He is most recently well-known for his feature-film directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, which was released in summer 2018.

The conversation actually began through Twitter, when Burden-Stelly reached out to Riley out of interest in the latter’s openness as a communist (referring to his interview on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! in 2018). Riley responded, saying “It is important to say what we are fighting for and what we are going to do about it.” It is a bit reductive to simply call oneself an “anti-capitalist,” he reasoned, when that may just mean you want a little less capitalism or less harmful and violent forms of capitalism. Riley’s point was to not just be against something but to also stake out a position when it comes to an alternative.

At the virtual conversation hosted by the Jones School and New Dawn, Riley emphasized the importance of the massive strike wave that has hit the U.S., which has seen some 900 work stoppages since March 2020 and linked this heightened class consciousness to his film, Sorry to Bother You. He noted that his audience is the entire working class and that he wants to organize that audience so it “develops the strength to overthrow capitalism.”

Riley did take offense, though, to the fact that many on the left in the U.S. right now aren’t paying enough attention to the heightened consciousness of the working class. “The left is more concerned with spectacle as opposed to shutting things down,” he said. He noted that too few left-wingers talked much about the West Coast longshoremen’s strike on Juneteenth this summer.

But older radicals like himself are happy and excited that the left is growing among millennials, although he expresses worry that a lot of this energy may get co-opted by liberalism at some stage if the youth get burnt out or suffer from defeatism—similar to what happened to many among the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s.

Burden-Stelly also asked about how Riley’s upbringing in Detroit and Oakland affected his outlook and radicalism. Riley lived in the Motor City until he was six years old. His father, Walter Riley, was a radical organizer with the Progressive Labor Party and organized workers in factories. Riley’s childhood home was always open, a place where organizers would always come over for meetings and “parties.” During this period, his babysitter was Barbara Ransby, later an accomplished racial historian and scholar.

Being brought up around radicals, he received a lot of guidance which he would later use in his own organizing. “You’ve got to know people to be an organizer,” he’s said. “Your job as an organizer is not to be right; your job is to know people and give them a reason to listen to your ideas.” It echoes the perspective of many other organizers in Oakland, like Cassie Lopez, who made a similar point at an earlier Claudia Jones School event. Like Riley, she was also born in Detroit before ending up in the Bay Area.

Later in the conversation, Burden-Stelly and Riley touched on the interlocking oppressions of racism and class exploitation. “Racial theory was promoted to divide the working class,” Riley said. Continuing, he noted that capitalism demands that there be poverty, which creates an army of unemployed people.

He also discussed racist media coverage and the linking of crime and violence to Blackness. For example, the corporate media emphasizes illegal acts done by primarily poor Black folks which lead to violence in communities. “But,” he asked, “isn’t poverty itself violent?” All these interrelated oppressions and forms of exploitation lead to racist ideas of what Blackness is and ultimately divide the working class. “We are not going to get rid of racism unless we get rid of capitalism, and we are not going to build a movement against capitalism unless we fight racism at the same time,” Riley concluded.

At the end of the discussion, Burden-Stelly and Riley discussed upcoming works to look forward to. Riley has two feature films, a television show, and an episode for a horror series on Netflix in the making. Stay tuned for announcements in the future.

See full conversation at the Claudia Jones School YouTube channel here.

Read the 2018 People’s World review of Boots Riley’s film:

‘Sorry to Bother You’: A darkly comedic condemnation of capitalism


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.