In 'Blindspotting,' A Cinematic Love Letter To A Changing Oakland

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 22, 2018 2:12 pm

Oakland, Calif., means different things to different people.

For many, it's the birthplace of groundbreaking art and politics. But Oakland, like many major cities across the country, is changing.

That's the tension at the heart of a new film called Blindspotting. It tells the story of two lifelong friends and Oakland natives, one white and one black, as they grapple with fitting into this new world.

The film stars and was written by two friends: Rafael Casal, a nationally acclaimed slam poet, and Daveed Diggs, who you may know for his award-winning turn as both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway hit Hamilton, as well as for a recurring role on the ABC series Black-ish. Blindspotting has been about 10 years in the making.

"What we decided was that we wanted to tell a Bay Area story 'cause that's where we're from," Diggs says. "And it's a place we're very proud of and it's a place that we feel like has interesting stories to tell that we hadn't seen yet. And we also wanted to star in it.

"So that was about as much as we knew going in and right around that same time Oscar Grant was murdered at Fruitvale BART station [on Jan. 1, 2009]. And so telling a story about Oakland meant that this was going to be part of the story."

A police shooting of an unarmed black man is one of the plot elements in Blindspotting, as Diggs and Casal mention in an interview.


Interview Highlights

On Diggs' character Collin, a black ex-convict nearing the end of his probation

Diggs: I think Collin is trying really hard to get on the other side of this thing. I think if you know anybody who's on probation, who's been in jail and is dealing with the after-effects of that, there are a series of traps set up to try and send you back to jail. And the amount of them is actually kind of staggering. And so Collin's been spending the better part of the last year kind of navigating this system and just trying to get to the other side of this. But he is, you know, also working in a city where his context is changing greatly, and the way that the neighborhood is being policed is different. ...

Before the film starts, or at least before the big incident of the film, I think he's already ... dealing with certain kinds of trauma and certain kinds of PTSD that I think, you know, we people of color certainly feel in this country, but really a lot of us I think are feeling. And then on his way home from work one night he and he alone witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black man. And that for him sort of ramps the stakes of everything. All of a sudden his safety — that he was already sort of questionable about — feels even more unsafe, and the haunting of that night starts to bleed into his daytime.

On Casal's character Miles, a white man with a hotheaded streak

Casal: Miles is a guy that — Daveed and I both know a number of Mileses in the Bay Area and I imagine that kind of character in different iterations exists all over the place. But I think Miles is — in his reality, he's the minority among minorities, right? He's a white face in a predominantly black and brown space. And so he's built his survival on being — having the offense as his defense, right? I can't imagine how many more times he's been tested or called out or had his authenticity questioned than growing up in that community. ... And what you get from that is a hardened dude, right? Same for Collin to a certain degree. Up until a year prior to this movie happening, right, we sort of get a sense of what Collin did to get him to get himself thrown in prison later. But Miles still exists in that violence.

And then he's also, you know, the other side of Miles is he's a family dude, and he's trying to be a good father, and he's trying to support this family that he has of Ashley [wife] and Sean [son]. And so he's a blue-collar, working-class dude who's fiercely loyal and is afraid of his context changing because it means that he has to once again fight to claim his space and his identity.

On the scene where Miles chides Collin about his ex-girlfriend

Casal: I don't know that Miles is trying to figure out who to be. I think Miles knows exactly who he is. I think his values are what everything is coming up against, right? Miles' whole thing is just family and loyalty and community. That is the fundamental core of who he is.

And so to him, in that scene he's talking about Collin's ex-girlfriend who, in his mind, broke every cardinal rule of what loyalty is and because of that she should be banished to an island. Like, she's the worst, you know? And she has a very different sort of mentality about where Collin is and how she sees Miles. And when you see sort of this re-creation in the film of why Colin went to jail, Miles was there and Val wasn't. And she didn't entirely see the situation and so her and Miles see what happened differently and why Collin went to jail differently. And that divide is a lot of the tug-of-war that Collin is sort of pinched between.

Diggs: One of the things I love about that scene is that it is — this is not an uncommon argument with men who are friends, right? If you don't like somebody's significant other ... that's a roastable offense. In private you will get roasted for that. So I think it's this pretty relatable situation that's happening.

My other favorite part about that scene is that Miles starts that argument essentially out of boredom — like, there's just nothing else happening. And so he looks for something to have an argument about, you know? I love those details that are telling of — that are friendship details, right? Because I think these two have been together for so long; they're more like siblings than just friends.

On using poetic verse in the screenplay

Casal: Oh, it was meticulously scripted.

Diggs: Very highly scripted, but also, you know, that's where we come from. ... That stuff is the oldest stuff in the script. We knew how to do that. We didn't know how to write a screenplay. So we had this sort of reverse engineer those moments from the verse moments.

On the present moment for Oakland filmmakers, between Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station) and Boots Riley (Sorry To Bother You)

Diggs: Well I think there is a push — there has been in the last few years a particular urgency for artists from Oakland to get their visions out there in whatever way possible. And part of that has to do with the changing landscape, right. I think a lot of us are aware of how quickly the Oakland we knew is disappearing and wanting to create some sort of time capsule — something that we can look at in 10 years and point to and be like, "That was it. That's where I come from." So I think that's part of it.

I also just think there are so many stories to be told from Oakland and from the greater Bay Area. And we're in an era right now in Hollywood where there are so many different modes of distribution and distribution outlets that people are content-hungry, and everyone's trying to figure out what's going to set them apart, right? When you run around and go to these meetings, you get this weird feeling that people are just looking for the thing that is different instead of the thing that is tried and true, which is interesting. ... But I think it's a place that is unlike anywhere else. So there's a lot of stories that feel different there, and we haven't seen them on the screen yet. So I think there's a particular attraction to places like that right now.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Janaya Williams produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And, finally today, Oakland, Calif., means different things to different people, but for many, it's the birthplace of groundbreaking art and politics. But Oakland, like many major cities across the country, is changing. That's the tension at the heart of a new film called "Blindspotting." It tells the story of two lifelong friends, Oakland natives, one white and one black, as they grapple with how they fit into this new and changing world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLINDSPOTTING")

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Collin) Do me a favor. I've got three days left on this probation. When you've got that gun on you, just don't tell me about it. Plausible deniability.

RAFAEL CASAL: (As Miles) Oh, do you mean this gun?

DIGGS: (As Collin) Get out.

CASAL: (As Miles) Good night, Collin.

MARTIN: The film is many things. It's a love letter to Oakland. It's about masculinity and police violence and friendship. Fittingly, the film stars and was written by two friends - Rafael Casal, a nationally acclaimed slam poet, and Daveed Diggs, whom you may know from his award-winning turn as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway hit "Hamilton," as well as for his recurring role on the ABC hit "Black-ish." When I spoke with the two earlier, I started our conversation by asking Daveed Diggs how the idea for the film changed since they began working on it almost a decade ago.

DIGGS: We wanted to tell a Bay Area story because that's where we're from, and it's a place that we feel like has interesting stories to tell that we hadn't seen yet. And we also wanted to star in it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DIGGS: So that was about as much as we knew going in. And, right around that same time, Oscar Grant was murdered at Fruitvale BART station. And so telling a story about Oakland meant that this was going to be part of the story. You asked about how the film has changed. You know, Oakland back then - this is 2009 - Oscar's face was everywhere. His name was all over the place. The news cycle - this was early on in us starting to get, like, really clear cell phone video footage of these kinds of events, right? So people were out protesting.

So early drafts of this film had protest scenes in it and riot scenes in it. One of the ways we had to modernize it over the last decade was that that doesn't happen the same way anymore. I think the fantasy of those times was that these protests would call enough attention to a thing that happens regularly in order to create change, but that doesn't seem to have happened. We just get it reported more often.

MARTIN: So I want to get into the characters in a minute. But, Rafael, can I go to you and just say, do you remember when the two of you met - like, what it is that made you want to work together?

CASAL: You know, well, we met in high school, but Diggs is four years older than me, so he was a senior when I was a freshman. And we sort of bumped into each other at a poetry slam around that time. I think we were just sort of aware of each other more than sort of fully connected.

MARTIN: Well, because seniors never pay any attention...

CASAL: Yeah, like...

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: No.

DIGGS: You are correct.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CASAL: Because he's, you know...

DIGGS: Very busy doing senior things.

CASAL: ...Very busy doing senior things. And I was just, like, probably just too impressive for him to approach.

DIGGS: That is one side of the story.

CASAL: How I remember it - "Blindspotting."

(LAUGHTER)

CASAL: And so we were aware of each other. Diggs went off to Brown. I sort of went off for the next few years and did this show called "Def Poetry" and went on tour. And, by the time Diggs was back, I had sort of built this studio in North Oakland with some friends of mine. We were hoping that more artists would be recording out of that space than just us. And so a friend, a mutual friend, reintroduced us to each other's work and pushed for us to hang out.

And so Diggs came by the studio, and we talked a little bit about music. And then we sort of stayed there all night until the sun came up and made a couple records together. And I don't really remember a time after that that Diggs wasn't involved in some capacity in something that I was making.

MARTIN: Well, let's get into the characters. Collin, played by Daveed Diggs, has a record. He's done his jail time. We find out why later. He's almost done with his probation. He's trying to get his life back on track. Miles is his friend - played by you, Rafael - is a family man. He's also kind of a hothead. They've worked together at a moving company, so they have kind of a front-row seat to the way the city is changing - what we commonly call gentrification. If you wouldn't mind, tell me - each of you just tell me a little bit about your character and what you want us to know about him. And, Daveed, why don't you start?

DIGGS: Yeah. Well, I think Collin is trying really hard to get on the other side of this thing. If you know anybody who's on probation, who's been in jail and is dealing with the sort of aftereffects of that, there are a series of traps set up to try and send you back to jail. And so Collin's been spending the better part of the last year kind of navigating this system and just trying to get to the other side of this. But he is, you know, also working in a city where his context is changing greatly, and the way that the neighborhood is being policed is different.

Before the film starts - really, it's before the sort of big incident of the film - I think he is dealing with certain kinds of trauma and certain kinds of PTSD that I think people of color certainly feel in this country, but really a lot of us, I think, are feeling. And then, on his way home from work one night, he and - he alone witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black man. And that for him ramps the stakes of everything. All of a sudden, his safety that he was already sort of questionable about feels even more unsafe, and the post-traumatic stress of American life are heightened by this event.

MARTIN: And, Rafael, tell me about Miles, and what other - I said in our introduction, right, that, you know, Miles is white. But that - you know, that's shorthand, isn't it, right, for how he sees himself in the world, particularly against the backdrop of the way Oakland is changing? So tell me a little bit about Miles and how you saw him.

CASAL: Daveed and I both know a number of Mileses in the Bay Area, and I'd imagine that kind of character in different iterations exists all over the place. But I think Miles is - in his reality, he's the minority among minorities, right? He's a white face in a predominantly black and brown space. And so he's built his survival on having the offense as his defense. And what you get from that is a hardened dude, right? And then he's also - you know, the other side of Miles is he's a family dude, and he's trying to be a good father. And so he's a blue-collar, working-class dude who's fiercely loyal and is afraid of his context changing because it means that he has to once again fight to claim his space and his identity.

MARTIN: Well, let me jump in here and play something because the story is rooted in an incident that sent Collin to prison, and I want to - I don't want to give too much away. But it does center around a fight that breaks out over some of the tensions around the way the city is changing. So let's listen to a clip. And this is where Miles and Collin are arguing about Collin's ex-girlfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLINDSPOTTING")

CASAL: (As Miles) When you were in jail, did she put money on your books? Did she come visit you even one time (unintelligible) while you were locked up? Because I'm pretty sure I went two times a week, 45 minutes each way, $500 on your book on day one.

DIGGS: (As Collin) Hey. She talked to me on the phone.

CASAL: (As Miles) How gracious of her to have called you once. And what did she want to talk to you about - about changing up your lifestyle, changing up your ways? You're not a thug drug dealer. You went to jail on a fire technicality.

DIGGS: (As Collin) Did I?

CASAL: (As Miles) Yes. How were we supposed to know that hamsters are so flammable?

MARTIN: Daveed, tell me about that scene from your perspective and, you know, the struggle that they're having as friends, as men. And...

DIGGS: This is not an uncommon argument with men who are friends, right? If you don't like somebody's significant other, like (laughter), this is - you know, like, that's a roastable offense. And, in private, you will get roasted for that. So my other favorite part about that scene is that Miles starts that argument essentially out of boredom. Like he's...

(LAUGHTER)

DIGGS: Like, he's - there's just nothing else happening. And so he looks for something to, like, have an argument about, you know.

CASAL: (Laughter).

DIGGS: I love those details that are friendship details, right? They're more like siblings than just friends. And it's only because they're so close that they're capable of having these kinds of disagreements and conversations, you know.

MARTIN: Have the two of you ever fallen out?

CASAL: No.

DIGGS: No, not like that.

(LAUGHTER)

CASAL: No, nothing like that.

DIGGS: We, like, argue about taste in music.

CASAL: We had a - we have an ongoing argument about the word opossum - possum.

(LAUGHTER)

CASAL: One of us at some point had it wrong, and now we can't remember who had it wrong, and now we're arguing about who had it wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

CASAL: Originally, the argument is about whether it was a possum or an opossum.

(LAUGHTER)

CASAL: And that went on for quite some time.

MARTIN: Well, that's...

CASAL: ...Still a little bit of a sore spot.

DIGGS: It's a sore spot. We don't talk about it.

MARTIN: Yeah. Two poets arguing over - that's a roastable offense with a poet. With two poets...

CASAL: Yeah.

DIGGS: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: I can see - yeah, I see it.

DIGGS: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: I can see it. Daveed Diggs is an actor and poet. Rafael Casal is a poet and an actor. Their new film "Blindspotting" is in select theaters now and nationwide next week.

Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DIGGS: Thank you for having us.

CASAL: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT A GAME")

DIGGS: (Singing) All I know is hustle. All I know is rubble. All I know is struggle. All I know is trouble. All I know is smuggle.

CASAL: (Singing) Yeah.

DIGGS: (Singing) All I know is (unintelligible) Ain't nobody finished with the town, all of the scales, it's... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.