Don't ask comedian Jermaine Fowler to explain his completely bonkers film Sorry to Bother You. Yes, it's a magical realist fantasy that has something to say about wage-slave labor, exploitation and profit, systematic oppression, our culture of consumption, mass media, race relations, assimilation, activist art, and a whole lot more, but he doesn't want to provide propaganda. And yes, it's also a sci-fi comedy, which has some really wacky moments, including, on the milder side, black telemarketers using their "white voices" to hook customers, reality shows where people just get beaten up and doused in excrement, and a spontaneous rap performance mostly consisting of one word.
Mostly, Fowler just wants you to know that the film — written and directed by Boots Riley — is completely original, unpredictable, and mysterious.
"I love it when there are more questions than answers," Fowler told SYFY WIRE. "I hate it when I look at a literal painting of a boy holding a guy, and I'm like, 'It's literally about a boy holding a gun. Maybe it's about gun violence.' I like it when I see a painting, and I try to figure out 'WTF.' When artists explain, I go, 'No, I didn't want you to tell me. I wanted to figure it out for myself. Now it's ruined.'"
So without ruining anything, Fowler chatted with SYFY WIRE about what he looks for in films, his telemarketing past, and why Darth Maul should shut up.
I hear you had some trouble with your flight getting to New York?
Yeah, it was insane. The plane just died. They were trying to find plane parts or something. You can't fly without parts! Flying is just such a hassle. If I had a million dollars, I would teleport. But I watched The Fly — I know what the risks are! [Laughs] I'd risk being a Fly-Man, if I could get to Chicago!
You used to do a little telemarketing yourself. You worked at a comedy club in New York, and one of your duties was calling people the next day?
Yeah, it was a form of telemarketing. I was trying to get them to come back to the comedy club, and I didn't like it, mostly because I was really bad at it. I'm really bad at selling things, and I just know when I'm being fed bulls***.
When you're watching this movie, there are times when Cassius [played by Lakeith Stanfield] is pretending to care about the customer because he just wants to sell. But don't we all know that? Isn't that why he called? So on one level, we should know what's up. But at the same time, we live in a very capitalist society where money rules. Money is king. I don't care what anyone says — money is the quintessential thing that separates us. It's why we act the way we act, and react the way we react. And doing telemarketing, I got to see a lot of that. And I got to see how I was losing a piece of myself doing that. Telemarketing is the devil.
You know that monorail episode of The Simpsons? Probably the best episode they've ever had? It's about a guy trying to sell a monorail to Springfield, and Marge does some digging, and she finds he sold a monorail to another city, and it went to s***. It became a ghost town. It's a really funny episode, but that's real. People will buy anything, they'll buy into anything, if you cook it right, if you sell it right.
I could never do that. I could never lie to someone to benefit myself, so telemarketing was something I was terrible at! [Laughs] Couldn't do it. I was a bad liar. I would tell people, "Hey, come back to the comedy club! Jerry Seinfeld's going to be here tonight!" And they would be like, "Yeah?" And I would be like, "No. I lied." "Why'd you lie?" "Because I need money, I need the commission. He won't be, but I'll be there!" "Oh, cool, alright!" And then they would come for me sometimes, which was great.
But as you see in this movie, it chips away at your soul. Cassius, and his white voice, lying to people to get a sale. He loses friends along the way. People will do anything for money, and to feel a sense of importance, a sense of worth, especially when you work at a big company like that. This story, on the surface, isn't taboo to anybody. It's how they get into it, and how they get out of it, is what I think is going to surprise people. Point A to Point Z. In this movie, people have made one choice, and a plethora of horrific things happen to them. Like Omari Hardwick's character? He made that one decision, he rose through the ranks, and he lost his voice forever. His voice, his name, and his identity.
Even so, sci-fi storytelling and telemarketing aren't actually as strange a match as they might seem: they both have to lure someone in with an entertaining hook, before they can sell something else, be it a social critique or a set of encyclopedias.
That is right! [Laughs] That is completely correct. In entertainment, if you have a message in a film, no one wants to be spoon-fed the message. No one wants to be told how to feel. At least, I don't. In comedy, it's a little easier to digest all those things.
This movie is one of those movies because we don't wrap things up for people to believe. You won't understand a lot of things in this movie, which is great. I want to go back and watch it and go, "Oh, f***, I missed that! Oh, s***, that was there?" I've seen Anchorman 20 times, maybe 30, and every time there's something different about it. Burn After Reading, same thing. It's amazing. I go back because I missed all those little things. I love it. I love puzzles. I love seeing something I didn't see before. Otherwise, why would you watch a movie again? And there's a reason why I don't see a lot of popular movies twice, and it's because I was told what to think right then.
V for Vendetta is an amazing movie, and it had an obvious message, but it was done so perfectly. I got out of the movie, and I wanted to march so hard. I wanted to be an activist. It made me want to do it because the story was so f***ing strong. You can do that, as long as the story's strong, and the characters make sense, and they're all doing the things that this character would do in that context. There are so many times when you watch a movie and you're like, "That character wouldn't do that!" They just did that so they can get the message across, which is not fair to the viewer.
The message can't be more important than the story. The message should never be over what the character's intentions are because then you just have propaganda. It just doesn't feel right.
Would you ever want to be in a comic book or superhero movie?
Or a Star Wars movie?
Nah. I would do a Star Wars movie if it was a new idea. I like Serenity more than Star Wars. Serenity was just dope. Star Wars, there's an obvious message, which is repeated throughout the whole movie — rebellion, uprising, all that stuff. With Serenity, there was a darker tone to it, and they didn't tell you how to feel. I love the darker tone.
That's why I love The Dark Knight more than Iron Man. They're the same guy — rich guy, demons, bodysuit. I love Iron Man, but they missed out on the darker tone, which could have been so great. The verbiage in The Dark Knight is very on the nose, heroes turn into villains, and it's uplifting to an obvious degree, but the Joker saves all that because he spits in the face of all those people's beliefs. You need both the hope and the cynicism.
I feel like there's a formula to a lot of the big-budgeted science fiction and superhero movies coming out right now, and I get so upset when I see things coming. That's why Get Out was so beautiful to me. That's why I love this movie. There are like four twists in this movie that no one sees coming, and I appreciate those more than sitting in a big-budgeted action movie where people can pinpoint why this guy is coming to come back later and kill that guy.
That's just unfair if it's predictable. You paid money to see that, and people are hip to those things now. You got to change things. You have to be innovative. People want to be surprised. And instead, most of the big-budgeted ones are boring, with the exception of Rogue One. The ending of Rogue One was amazing. Darth Vader actually fighting, I've waited for that for quite a while.
But I'm not a Star Wars person. I'm just not. I know the storylines very well, but it never grabbed me. I was in sixth or seventh grade when Episodes I, II, and III came out, so that was my introduction to Star Wars, and I had the books and everything, but it wasn't until I was older that I understood why people hated them: "Oh, these are terrible. Jar Jar Binks is Uncle Tom. What is going on?"
And there are just too many characters in Star Wars, where Serenity has seven, you can know all their stories easily, and I loved Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative, the assassin. I hate when I'm already invested in a group of people, and then I got to go follow all these other characters. I don't want to be introduced to anyone new, and with Star Wars, there's always a new person, and I don't care about this new person! [Laughs]
Unless it's Darth Maul. I f***ing love Darth Maul. The creepy thing about Darth Maul is that he never spoke, and I love that because you never know what he's thinking. He just wants to kill. He's such a quiet assassin, which is beautiful. And then when Solo came out, they have him speaking! Which I get, they were using Clone Wars as a reference, but that's not Darth Maul to me. Darth Maul is a quiet guy. I think it would be funny if Emilia Clarke's character was trying to talk to Darth Maul, who doesn't speak back. "Are you mad at me? You're mad at me!" That would have been way cooler than him speaking.