A raw and eye-opening commentary on race, gentrification and manhood, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s astounding Blindspotting electrifies Oakland on the big screen. The writing partners and childhood friends' moving narrative is helmed by first-time feature filmmaker Carlos López Estrada. The story follows two men – best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) – a misfit pair trying to navigate the ever-changing landscape of their hometown.
With only three days left to complete his probation, Collin is determined to keep his nose clean, but the boisterous Miles seems to attract trouble at every turn. While Collin works carefully to mask his rage, witnessing the police murder an unarmed black man on the street one night brings it all bubbling to the surface. Miles, on the other hand, basks in his anger and not even his loving girlfriend, Ashley (Hamilton alum Jasmine Cephas Jones), or his pre-school age son can reel him in. Just before the film’s theatrical premiere, I talked with Diggs and Casal about Blindspotting, its origin and how they married raps and rhymes to construct such a powerful piece of art.
It turns out the film has been a long-time coming. "Almost ten years ago, the genesis of the idea formed," Diggs said. "One of our producers found Rafael through a YouTube wormhole. They found a bunch of his poetry. I'd approached [Rafael] about writing a script using some of the same techniques that he used in his poems. A couple of years later, I was introduced to producers Jess [Calder] and Keith [Calder] because of a gig they had asked Rafael to do. He couldn't make it, so I went and filled in. The four of us started speaking, and we decided we would start writing a film. The prompt was it would be about Oakland, it would be about the Bay, and it would star the two of us. Right after that, Oscar Grant was killed. We knew a film about Oakland had to encompass that."
Despite its explosive commentary, Blindspotting toes the line between comedy and drama. As much as it centers around heavy conversations, the film also has candid lighthearted moments. "In a lot of ways humor is sort of co-dependent on sadness," Casal expressed. "It's a coping mechanism for the other. I always feel like there is plenty of room for both. It is the way in which poor people, communities of color and disenfranchised people deal with tragedy. Growing up, we would have to go to funerals for people who died young, but we’d be making a lot of jokes. Jokes help bring life back to the room. I think when we thought about what it meant to represent the Bay Area, it's representing a people that have managed to survive and thrive and have joy and laughter amidst circumstances that are violent and problematic and destructive at times."
"That always felt like the pairing that needed to happen. I don't know that when we were writing it, we were thinking, 'Here we should have a funny moment, and here we should have a serious moment.' I think we just try to remember the Bay Area the way that we most closely understood it. With the conversations that are happening in the Bay Area now, the more that we dove into those conversations, they are littered with sadness and humor. We just leaned into what already existed and tried to give it shape for a linear story. But the tone of the film is very much the tone of Oakland."
Though Miles and Collin are fictional characters, small nuances and moments from Casal and Diggs’ real lives weave through the script. "We’re definitely not Miles and Collin," Casal laughed. "They're composites of people that we grew up around. It felt like the best conduit to tell a story about Oakland. That's really how we landed on who they were going to be and where they were gonna live and what they're dynamic was gonna be."
"However, a lot of the nature of their dynamic is similar to how Daveed and I talk and relate to each other. I'm the bouncier one. He's the more chill one. The way the humor plays is very similar in that way. We don't really yell at each other, so none of the fights in the film are based on any fights that we've had. So much of the film is based on experiences that we've had, situations that we've had with our crew or situations that close friends and family of ours have gone through. In the first and second arc, in particular, they are things that come from a very real moment. Again, our intent was to make sure that we maintained a connection to the authenticity of the place we're trying to tell a story about. We want everyone to have an entry point, and we really feel specificity breeds that sort of accessibility. But also, we wanted to make sure that people from the Bay Area felt as though they were watching an accurate portrayal of their reality. Our approach to that was to base everything in something real."
Bringing in visionary newcomer Carlos López Estrada was a must-have for Diggs and Casal. They knew that through his lens their story wouldn’t be tamed or muddled down. "Carlos directed the “Work Work” music video for my band, Clipping; that was the first time I worked with him," Diggs said.
"It was only a one-day shoot, but he had all of these crazy ambitious ideas. Our budget from the label for the video was $1000. He had all these things he was gonna do, and we were like, 'Okay, whatever you say man. Good luck.' It was shot in an alley in Beverly Hills, and by the time I arrived, there were lighting fixtures in the alley that were capable of being timed to the rhythm of the song. [Carlos] had redressed the whole alley. It was an incredible shoot; it was just this incredibly ambitious thing. He's shot several more Clipping videos; then he worked with Rafael on some things. When it became clear that we were actually going to be able to make Blindspotting, we knew that [Carlos] does a lot with a little, and we knew that he was capable of doing the thing we were trying to do in this movie -- which is making sections in verse feel really natural. That's a difficult thing. I had actually never seen it on film before. We knew he could pull it off, and he's also a friend. We had this short-hand, and we knew that he would respect our input in terms of getting the tone right about the Bay Area and about Oakland. There were offers to try and take it to bigger name directors or people with more of a resume, but I don't know that it would have been as collaborative with them. Carlos was really the only choice for us. It worked out. We knew he was ready to make a feature. When you get an opportunity to lift somebody else up with you, why wouldn't you?"
The film is very much from the male perspective with Collin and Miles leading the narrative and Estrada bringing the movie to life. And yet, the men were careful not to use the female roles as one-dimensional prop pieces who existed only to serve their characters. It was a very deliberate choice to give Ashley (Cephas Jones) and Collin’s ex-girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), a breadth of depth, character and opinions.
"They are both composites of women we grew up around," Diggs revealed. "There were several passes of this script where we were just looking at the women. That was necessary, making sure that they had agency, that there could very easily be a film about each of them. That was something we were keeping eyes on and something Jess Calder was also keeping an eye on and constantly pushing us to go further with that. A lot of the credit is due to the actors, too, who came in and taught us even more about those characters than we already knew. Jasmine and Janina were pitched very early, and getting to watch them work on these characters and develop them and form them even more to the point where we could change lines on the day of, or they could improvise things that were even better; the whole process was an open collaboration. Once we attached somebody to the project, that's family. We're really asking them to be responsible for the characters that they are portraying. Still, I wish that we had done better. We were on day three of shooting when we realized none of our female leads talked to each other. We will do better next time. We can do as much as we can and be conscious of our own blind spots, and we can also produce work by women filmmakers."
As much as the characters drive the story of Blindspotting, it’s Diggs and Casal’s words, not just in the narrative but in the syntax and the way in which the lines curl and spin out their characters' mouths, which gives this film so much meaning. At one point Collin and Miles come to blows, but they don’t fight with their fists; instead, they rip each other apart through verse.
"Those scenes are the oldest scenes in the script," Casal said. "Those were the critical scenes that we worked on reverse engineering the script from. We knew we were going to have this conclusion moment in verse with Collin and Miles. Collin's breaking point was going to be this conversation. Ten years ago we did not know how to write scripts, but we did know how to write in verse. To a certain degree, we were relying on the convention of verse that we loved. We have faith in its ability to communicate complicated ideas in digestible ways, because verse is essentially dense, compressed metaphor and analogy that can be unpacked. However, it's simple enough to hear and react to and absorb in real time. That's a very lucrative body of language to have in the third act of your film when you are trying to get people to see how we've thread things together. We always planned on ending things in verse. It was really the rest of the film that was really hard to write."
"Even the bit that Daveed recites at the end of the movie is something that we wrote a decade ago that we always assumed we would rewrite, and then we didn’t. We really wish we would've needed a revision, but circumstances of the social climate haven't changed enough. Really, if anything, the lines got better, because they've gotten more urgent, and there are more shrouds to be associated with the weight of them. If there is any upside to tragedy, it's just that it intensifies the work around that tragedy. We kept working with that language, and it just got better to us over time. It became the piece to which we would compare everything else to. We started the characters in the midst of a fairly classic buddy comedy, and we drive them to the point where they have to say these things to each other."
Blindspotting premieres in theaters July 20, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.