“Blindspotting,” the Bay Area-centered film and brainchild of friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, began incubating almost 10 years ago. Since then, Diggs has earned widespread notice for his performances on television and in the hit musical “Hamilton,” and Casal has amassed a large following of his own as a prolific poet.
But the two screenwriters have deemed the current moment appropriate, and perhaps demanding, for an exploration of the city they’ve held dear for decades.
As natives of Oakland, California, Diggs and Casal use “Blindspotting” not only as an ode to the trademark eclecticism and quirkiness of the city ― the bouncy vernacular, the syrupy twang and the bopping music ― but to unearth some of the uncomfortable conditions transforming the area.
Namely, these conditions are gentrification and a heightened police presence, which bring “New Oakland” into violent conflict with its native residents.
In “Blindspotting,” Collin (played by Diggs) is a black man navigating a white world, while his best friend, Miles (played by Casal), is a minority in his own right ― a white man searching for self-identity in Oakland’s predominantly black suburb. The tension in these experiences occasionally rears itself humorously, but also heartbreakingly, in a film that artfully juxtaposes the liveliness of a historic city against the forces that stamp out that life at every turn.
HuffPost talked with Diggs and Casal about the motivation behind “Blindspotting,” writing roles depicting meaningful white allies and capturing the essence of the Bay Area.
This film has been a decade in the making. Over that time, were there any specific events that were catalysts in helping you put this together? Any major motivators for you as this film was being created?
Daveed Diggs: The Oscar Grant shooting in 2009 was definitely one of them. When we decided to make this film and decided to have it be about Oakland was around the time Oscar was killed, and I was living, like, two or three blocks away from Fruitvale BART Station at the time. But also, that was the story of Oakland in that moment and I think that was sort of the inciting incident of the film.
I see. What allowed the process to take 10 years? I know some artists feel compelled to release their work immediately in response to social happenings, and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Rafael Casal: Oh, what a fascinating way to put it. (laughs) I don’t know that we wanted it to take 10 years.
No shade! You can’t rush the creative process — I get it.
Casal: We almost made it three or four times. Every time we did, we sort of had to revise the story to accommodate where the narrative of the city and the national conversation was at the time.
Can you expound upon that a bit?
Casal: Yeah. The conversation was progressing in real time as we wrote it. When we wrote a first draft that we finished a year or so after we cracked it open, Oakland’s response to police violence was to protest, to riot and to be up in arms about it — that was the country. That’s where we were when Trayvon Martin happened; that’s what happened when Sean Bell happened.
What happened over 10 years was that we experienced so much trauma fatigue that we can’t even be up in arms in the same way, because the trauma is in such abundance. The frequency of police violence is such that there isn’t enough time or energy to protest in that way. And we’ve also gone through it so many times with such little results that it doesn’t feel like the same useful investment of energy anymore.
I hear you. Both your character, Miles, and Daveed’s character are kind of calloused because they’ve been exposed to that sort of violence for so long.
Diggs: Yeah, everybody in the film, to a certain extent, is coping with several different forms of PTSD that we’d argue everyone in this country is dealing with at this point. They’re all dealing with it differently. One of the particular dangers of Collin’s situation is that, as a witness and someone who is feeling the effects so palpably with no one to talk about it with, the way that stress piles up and contributes to his nightmares. It’s one of the things that can come with a lack of community response, even though it’s a perfectly understandable lack of community response because we all gotta go to work and nothing has changed anyway.
Can you speak to how you developed both of your characters? You don’t depict them as perfectly sympathetic figures. They’re guys who wander into some trouble on their own accord sometimes, but you employ techniques to make the audience care about their outcomes. I wonder if you set out to do that for a specific reason.
Casal: I don’t know that we ever thought about how to make them sympathetic as much as we thought about how to make them feel like honest representations of people in our community. Collin and Miles, and Val (Collin’s girlfriend) and Ashley (Miles’ girlfriend), are all composites of real people that we know and love, and I think in knowing and loving people that you want to represent in the film, you just give them all of the complexities that a character requires. And the beauty of writing a character in all of their complexity is that they’re very relatable. It’s really easy to see yourself in a flawed person — I don’t think any of us walk around thinking we are without flaw.
Sure. And to that point, I think both of your characters are perfect metaphors for some of the stories we hear of people who are killed by police. Perhaps not the “perfect victims,” for lack of a better term, but they still demand our sympathy. I wasn’t sure if that metaphor was intentional.
Diggs and Casal: Oh, yeah!
Casal: The idea was to have the audience root for an imperfect hero, you know? To have them love Collin, have him be an ex-con, and not have those things cancel each other.
I understand. There’s even a part in the film where Miles is watching a news report about the shooting Collin witnessed and it’s revealed that the victim was a convicted felon, and Miles says aloud that that news pretty much did away with any public sympathy the victim would get. That seems like the thesis of the whole film.
Diggs: That’s what happens, right? Everyone is looking for the perfect victim, someone who warrants protest and can move the needle, as horrible as it is. Think: Parkland. There’s a whole group of victims that the country can rally behind. But what a horrible thing: to have someone with any kind of criminal record, all of a sudden that person doesn’t warrant protest and that person is not going to move the needle. It’s not that we believe that’s OK, it’s that it’s been proven over and over again that it won’t help to go out and rally for this person.
There are protests happening in Chicago right now. And a friend of mine — Malcolm London, who’s a poet and activist out there — posted the bruises he got from police during the protests, and he wrote that it’s dangerous to be black in America... and it’s dangerous to love someone who’s black in America. Those are the stakes we’re playing with now in a lot of situations.
I feel you. In the movie, Collin is interacting with Miles’ son, who is black, although Miles is white. That’s the first time we see his son interacting with a black man, and it’s interesting to watch the ways Collin is teaching this little black boy about police violence in a way the boy’s own father could not. It’s a unique way to look at white allies and how they go about offering aid to those they love.
Casal: I don’t think we set out to do anything but portray them all honestly. There’s something really fascinating and interesting about dissecting what it means for Miles and the way he’s come about surviving in the neighborhood. We always say that Miles is a minority among minorities; he has a very particular complex that we don’t often see in cinema. And the idea of how he’s survived and built his way of existing in this space as a man, and how that’s passed down to his son, is different. To pass that down to his son would result in very different consequences, and Collin is a representation of that, as someone who used violence to claim respect and was sent to jail for it. The big blind spot is the difference in how Miles raises himself as a man and how he’s going to raise his son.
Diggs: There are so many people in the film just doing the best they can. That’s kind of what I love about Miles and Ashley: They’re young parents. They didn’t plan to have a son. They’re just trying to figure it out and they want what’s best for their child, but it’s hard. Collin looks at their son and sees the potential for history to repeat itself over and over again.
Nowadays, we often have conversations about gentrification — particularly in the Bay Area — and the influx of out-of-towners is a pretty prevalent theme throughout the film. Did you two feel as though now was a good time to release this film as a love letter of sorts to the Oakland you grew up knowing?
Diggs: I think there’s a synergy there. I think we’ve been trying to show off Oakland in a particular light for some time. And so I think we’d have been equally happy if we’d been capable of making this movie eight years ago. One of the sadder things about the film taking so long is the town has changed so much in the time we’ve been writing this film. Our time capsule is even more stretched than it would have been then. It’s a different place. So we had to show the contemporary Oakland, which means we’ve already lost a lot of things we would have loved to put in the film. But yeah, that city is magic to us.
Daveed is on Instagram @DaveedDiggs
Rafael is on Instagram @RafaelCasal.