For ‘Blindspotting’ Creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, There Are No Easy Answers
If there is one thing to take away from Blindspotting (opens nationwide July 27th), the forthcoming film from co-writers, co-stars, and longtime friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, it is that a person’s context matters. So it’s important to share that on the day we meet, in the middle of a wild thunderstorm in New York City in mid-July, Diggs and Casal are sitting in a near-empty restaurant in Industry City, which is a massive, converted series of century-old warehouses located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The former shipping terminal now houses office space for people who might unashamedly call themselves “creators” and a sprawling food court that attracts amateur photoshoots as much as it does hungry people. The complex’s buildings are accessed via a central, connective walkway named “Innovation Alley.”
After a few hours of interviews here today, Casal, a spoken word artist who regularly appeared on Def Poetry Jam, has decided the facility is like “a weird food Google.” He smirks. “A Foogle.”
Casal and and Diggs grew up in Oakland, the rapidly-gentrifying California city that serves as both the backdrop and heartbeat of their first feature film, and Blindspotting is very much concerned with what the Foogles of the world do to and mean for cities like it. The buddy dramedy follows two best friends — Diggs’ Collin and Casal’s Miles — over the course of three days in the Bay, where they work as movers and try to stay out of trouble in a city they love but recognize less and less. Collin, who is black, is the more circumspect and thoughtful of the two. He’s just 72 hours away from finishing a year on probation when he witnesses a white police officer murder a black man at an empty intersection. As he struggles to move on from the incident, he finds his pending freedom threatened by Miles, his brash, grill-sporting, gun-toting best friend, whose whiteness often blinds him to Collin’s circumstances.
Blindspotting has an unusual, sprawling form and sparkles with energy. Miles and Collin occasionally fall into spoken-word riffs, and we get to know the city not just through its original hyphy soundtrack (featuring Oakland legend E-40), but also brief snapshots of Oakland residents our protagonists meet while on the job.
Diggs, 36, and Casal, 32, spent nearly a decade writing the script together. They first met at a poetry event at Berkeley High School; from that moment on, Casal says, “any artistic project one of us was involved in, the other was involved in.” In 2006, L.A.-based producer Jess Calder reached out to Casal over YouTube to see if he might be interested in translating his spoken-word work into a narrative project. He introduced Calder and her husband, Keith, to Diggs a few years later, and in 2009 — not long after a 22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant was murdered by a BART officer at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station, a few blocks from Diggs’s apartment — the two friends got started on the script that eventually became Blindspotting.
With other subject matter, such a long gestation period may have made the story line less relevant, but police brutality and rising rents haven’t exactly dissipated in Oakland. The city has lost 30 percent of its black population since 2000 alone. “The inciting event of the film doesn’t feel like a period piece,” Diggs, a career rapper who had his breakthrough role in Hamilton in 2015, says. “We haven’t even gotten beyond it yet to call it history.”
Diggs and Casal have a well-earned closeness. For years and between other commitments, they worked on their script on the same laptop because they could only afford one copy of the screenwriting software Final Draft between them. In conversation, they let one another speak at length on topics ranging from L.A.’s Skid Row (not far from Casal’s downtown home base) to the complicated nature of male friendships, and they flip easily from serious to playful.
“We fancy ourselves funny,” Diggs says, and Casal sheepishly corrects him, as they’re coming off the New York premiere of Blindspotting — and its afterparty: “Not right now. We’re a little tired.”
Like their characters, Casal is intense and flowery — “can’t cite a case where it was slow like a cancer,” he says, of gentrification — while Diggs is more reserved and observational. When he’s delivered a $12 pink cocktail with a leaf floating on the surface midway through our conversation, he stops to consider it.
“I don’t know anything about Sunset Park, but I’m willing to bet I couldn’t have ordered this fancy watermelon basil gin drink here five years ago,” he says, and we talk briefly about the neighborhood’s core identity, dating back to the 1800s, as a blue-collar hub for immigrants. “This drink’s delicious! I’m happy that it’s here, right? But I also don’t know who it’s for.”
“It’s for the people who can afford to work up in here,” Casal says, motioning overhead.
It’s a little on the nose — what better symbol for gentrification than a fancy, overpriced cocktail? — but Blindspotting isn’t one for the cynics. The movie pulsates with earnestness, and finds moments to empathize not just with its flawed main characters but also with the oblivious hipster whose provocation helps send Collin to jail, and even the white cop who’s moving his family to avoid confrontation after killing a black man.
“Characters can be cynical and have cynical opinions, but the film can’t condemn anybody, really,” Diggs says. “The film is just trying to hold the camera up and show us what’s happening.”
Blindspotting’s title is borrowed from a mnemonic Collin’s ex-girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), comes up with to remember a “Rubin’s vase” while studying for a psych test. The term comes at a crucial point in the film: Collin feels he can’t escape his criminal past no matter what he does, thanks to his skin color and the way he wears his hair, and Miles finds that his whiteness obscures his Oakland authenticity. “There are plenty of things that you don’t see that you don’t necessarily have to,” Diggs explains over his cocktail. “You’re not conditioned to see them. But if you want to, you just have to do the work to look a little bit to your right or left and actually look at what’s going on.”
One thing Blindspotting asks its viewers to consider is that gentrification is not a passive process, or something to be ignored. In multiple violent scenes throughout the movie, Collin and Miles react to their changing city with desperate brutality. The movie has its fun with “hipsters,” but they’re not treated as the benign, be-bowtied doofuses of Portlandia, either.
“The stakes are higher than we think they are, generally, when we talk about ‘a hipster,’” Diggs says. “We don’t know really what that means anymore. Is it that you like vinyl? Because you have a wooden bowtie?”
“The reason it’s problematic has nothing to do with their taste,” Casal says.
During location scouting, Diggs and Casal visited nostalgic spots from their adolescence that had been replaced by condos. When they filmed, over the course of just 25 days last summer, they shot a scene in which Miles sells a boat in front of a big blue wall outside of an Oakland Boys & Girls Club. Two weeks later, when they passed by the same location, there was a city bike share where the boat had been parked. And when they returned to town for press recently, the big blue wall was covered in graffiti. Diggs understands it as an attempt to reclaim an altered space: “It’s an act of saying, ‘Actually, we’ve been here.’”
Casal says this rate of change is part of the reason they wanted to make the movie. “[Oakland] will be a different city in 10 years. I want, 20 years from now, to be able to point to [Blindspotting] and say, this is where I grew up. A version of this. These kinds of people, these kinds of tensions.”
In one memorable scene, Miles and Collin go to a friend-of-a-friend’s house for a party. They pull up to a modernist white cube that looks like it’s been inserted into a block of old Oakland Victorians via CGI (it’s a real house, Casal insists, still aghast). On cue, the music switches from hyphy to EDM. Everyone there works for a big tech company, and the host, who is from Portland, Oregon, calls them “homies” and asks if they want “drank.” Miles turns violent when a black party guest — presumably a gentrifier himself — hears Miles speak and tells him, “you don’t have to act ghetto to hang out here.”
Casal says the ensuing fight “feels so jarring, mostly just because it’s in a space where everyone felt safe a second ago. But the reason Miles goes there is he’s in the same street he’s always been in and violence has always been right around the corner. That’s why that moment is so tense. It’s like this massive culture clash of a new life sitting on top of an old.” But it’s also a reinforcement of racial power in the city: “authentic” Oakland as he may be, Miles becomes just another white man who can inflict violence on a person of color and get away with it.
When Collin confronts Miles after they flee the scene, they tear into each other and their respective racial insecurities — Miles feels Collin’s blackness gives him a right to the city they’re both losing their hold on, while Collin sees how Miles’s whiteness enables him to act recklessly and put his black loved ones at risk — in a fascinating, emotional scene between two male friends. The movie refuses to offer up an easy break to the tension.
“The experiment was about what happens to a buddy comedy when you don’t ignore things,” Diggs explains. “To have a Knocked Up function the way it functions you have to ignore so many things about what would actually happen in those situations. And that’s fine, it makes for really fun movies. But that’s not the experiment we were working in.”
“The great thing about a laugh is that a laugh draws you in and makes you relate to a character and love a character,” Casal says. “And some movies just sort of leave it at that and they have a small emotional ask somewhere in the third act. We felt like, if we’re going to make the ask, let’s really make an ask. Let’s see how much we can make them radically love these people, enough to let those people guide them into something that we feel is a much more valuable point of conversation.”
Blindspotting doesn’t offer a neat resolution to that conversation, or any of the other questions it raises. Casal and Diggs are fine with that. They seem to appreciate the discomfort. “You can’t present a complicated conversation that is unresolved in society as resolved in a film,” Casal says. “We tried to meet the conversation where it was and then get out.”