Musician-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley was presented with the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award Thursday night in front of a sold-out house at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles for his debut feature Sorry to Bother You. Before the preview screening of surrealistic socially conscious Sundance Festival fave, Rosario Dawson, who appears in the film in voice form, presented him with the award.
“You are walking poetry,” said Dawson. “You are a remarkable human being. You are part of this movement generation — and you know what I mean by that.”
She added that Riley is pushing boundaries when it comes to storytelling and that it “could not be given to anymore more deserving.”
When Riley strutted on to the stage to accept his award said, “I never won an award before…except for a karaoke award for ‘most well-intentioned.'”
The project started in 2012 and he started working with the Sundance Institute to develop the film which became a buzzworthy title earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW. Even though the project started six years ago, he wasn’t worried about the film’s timeliness of exploring provocative social issues of race, class, and corporate power through a fantastical lens.
“Unfortunately, the world hasn’t changed enough to make the movie irrelevant,” he said. “It’s of the time and the movement going on right now.”
Riley is in good company when it comes to the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award. Previous recipients include Ryan Coolger and Dee Rees — and as we have seen with Black Panther and Mudbound, it’s safe to say they have made pretty good names for themselves in the industry.
Sorry to Bother You, which was acquired by Annapurna at Sundance, has drawn some comparisons to the Academy Award-winning Get Out, not because it shares a similar story, but because it falls in the social thriller genre — in its own gloriously bizarre way. Set in an alternate present-day version of Oakland, the film follows telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) finds the key to success at his job but is immediately thrusted into a world that wildly compromises his integrity as a Black man and as a human being when he meets a relentlessly optimistic and borderline insane CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
At first, Riley was apprehensive about making the film. “Coming in as a musician saying you have a script — no one wants to hear that,” he joked, realizing the risk of dipping into the film industry.
During a sizzle reel of the film, Michelle Satter, Founding Director of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, said that they were immediately drawn to Riley’s work when he first presented it. She added that it’s like nothing they have ever seen before — exactly the kind of work the Sundance Institute loves to foster.
Sorry to Bother You opens on July 6.