Oakland’s Breakout Year In Film Isn’t An Anomaly, Hollywood’s Just Catching Up

August 3rd 2018

“The Bay is a hard concept to get. We’re not flashy. But, people really appreciate our authenticity, and our culture, and the way we move.” – Daveed Diggs

In 2006, Bay Area legend E-40 released the smash hit “Tell Me When to Go.” While the hyphy movement had been going for many years, this song pushed the cultural and musical genre into the mainstream where even kids in Texas and Ohio wanted to go dumb, ghostride the whip, and put on a thizz face for the culture. On one particular verse, 40 Water claims:

“I'm from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb

From the soil where them rappers be getting they lingo from.”

To the unfamiliar, this could be just another boast from a regional rapper. But if you’re from the Bay Area—or as I like to call it, home—nothing could be more accurate. DJ Mustard would prove this years later as the characteristic boom, bass and energy of hyphy would influence his greatest hits, including production on YG’s “My N***a” and Tyga’s “Rack City.” All the while, his beats would be widely mislabeled as uniquely his or an “LA sound,” without any direct mention of the Bay’s direct influence.

This phenomenon, where the Bay creates or influences a trend, has headed south and is happening in Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times refers to Oakland as having a “Hollywood moment.” While, according to The New York Times, the town “for the first time in the city’s long history as a cultural wellspring...is fertile ground for filmmakers.” Also asking, “What took so long?”

Natives like myself know better. We know that we did not just now start getting talented in the last year. We know the rich history of artists influencing, infiltrating and putting on for us in Hollywood. So, the question is not what took so long for us to get poppin’? The real question is: what took so long for y'all to notice?

The Bay Area has always been a breeding ground for what’s new in pop culture, artist, slang, music, film and everything under the sun. In this new “renaissance,” some of the most refreshing and relevant players and content in Hollywood have some connection to the Bay. This can be traced back decades, but since I’m limited in my word count, let’s start with just five years ago.

The year is January 2013. The big news coming out of Sundance was that The Weinstein Company acquired a small independent film called Fruitvale Station. The film, directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler, and starring Michael B Jordan was based on the events leading up to the 2009 police killing of Oakland’s Oscar Grant. The film propelled the careers of both Coogler, who is from Oakland and Richmond, and Michael B. Jordan.

Yes, Michael B. Jordan was a famous actor before Fruitvale Station. But thanks to his intimate and moving acting in the film, he was a full-blown star post-Fruitvale. You don’t have to take my word for it: Jordan himself has praised Coogler on multiple occasions and even credited him with giving him the confidence to work behind the camera himself. Since then, the pair has become a new Spike and Denzel, continuing to work closely together. With the success of projects like Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), it seems like they’re just getting started. And, our local streak continues.

Moonlight was arguably the biggest film of 2016, directed by Barry Jenkins whose first feature-length movie, Medicine for Melancholy (2009), was filmed in San Francisco. Given the current state of San Francisco and its changing landscape due to an influx of transplants, tech companies and gentrifiers alike, that film is a time capsule. In 2009, however, Jenkins took us on a full day adventure with a black couple, exploring themes of gentrification almost a decade ago and showing all of the beauty and images of a city and its people that now feel like daydreams. And, for that, his film will always hold a special place in local film history.

Refocusing on Moonlight though: one of its stars was none other than Oakland native Mahershala Ali, who went on to win an Oscar for his role as Juan. The year 2016 was arguably the year of Mahershala, as he also appeared in House of Cards, Luke Cage, Hidden Figures and Free State of Jones, to name a few.

S+A Op-Ed Talent 1600x1200 L-R: Natalie Baszile, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Cheryl Dunye, Ryan Coogler, Nijla Mu'min, Mahershala Ali, Daveed Diggs. All rooted in Oakland.

One of my favorite appearances by Ali in 2016 was in  Kicks. The film followed a group of kids from Richmond, California. Together, they get into some trouble over a pair of sneakers. Kicks stars Jahking Guillory, who went on to star in Lena Waithe’s The Chi, and its director, Justin Tipping, is from El Cerrito, a city south of Richmond but still tied to the town in many ways. He also touched The Chi, directing one of its episodes.

Kicks is also one of the few films that shows the deep connection the cities of Oakland and Richmond have. Another film that does this is Licks (2013), about a liquor store heist gone wrong for three friends from Oakland. In both films, you see the familial bonds the characters have in each city, as well as those bonds being the center of each story.

Richmond often gets left out of the narrative, allowing people to go with the more widely known choice of Oakland as a descriptor. This completely erases so much of Richmond’s contribution to the Bay’s culture. For example, Ryan Coogler is both from Oakland and Richmond. Kicks is a Richmond film that is connected to Oakland. Let’s get it right.

Speaking of Richmond, Kicks also highlighted the talent of another local star, North Richmond’s own poet laureate Donte Clark. In 2015, Clark’s documentary, Romeo is Bleeding,–about how a longtime rivalry of two Richmond neighborhoods inspired him to lead local students in a Richmond interpretation of the classic play Romeo and Juliet–made its debut, winning the audience award for best documentary feature at both the Aspen Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film garnered more recognition again in 2017 when it was picked up by All Def Digital and released theatrically. And, it led to Donte’s appearance in the Oakland-based web series, The North Pole, which has been covered here on Shadow and Act.

One of the biggest shows on TV right now is Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar. The series is based on the book of the same title by author Natalie Baszile, who is a longtime Bay Area teacher and resident of San Francisco. DuVernay has been adamant about having an all-female directorial team for each season of Queen Sugar, which has included Oakland resident Cheryl Dunye and Hayward High and Shadow and Act alum Nijla Mu’min. And, to bring it back full circle, Kofi Siriboe played Flaco in the film Kicks.

That’s right: Ralph Angel Bordelon was thugging it out with a grill right here in the Bay before he moved to Louisiana and grew the beard. I could go on and on about the contributions and connections, but as a native Oaklander, that’s not even the dopest part. The fact that every major Bay Area project and its creators have stayed so true to their roots, always making sure they’re representing us to the fullest and giving the soil that platform, is a sight to behold.

Jinn, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You and Black Panther are four of the most critically acclaimed films of 2018. And they’re all hella Oakland. And, let me say this: If we’re going to talk about cinema contributing to putting the Bay on the map this year, what we’re not going to do is use the movie made by a black woman as a mere footnote to support the claim and uplift the other three films.

Source: Sweet Potato Pie Productions Source: Sweet Potato Pie Productions

Directed by the East Bay’s own, Nijla Mu’min, Jinn is indeed “a quintessential Bay Area story,” as described by KQED writer and fellow Oakland native Pendarvis Harshaw. Mumin based the coming of age film about a young black Muslim girl on her own experience. A mother-daughter film at its core, Jinn’s onscreen relation to the Bay is a little less obvious than the others.

While a film like Jinn doesn’t have the imagery of the other three, that doesn’t make it any less Bay. The black Muslim community, for one, has a long prominent history in the Bay Area. The local mosques and their leaders were very visible, and different congregations ran a bunch of small businesses around Oakland, including Your Black Muslim Bakery and a small restaurant at the old Eastmont Mall food court that sold fried fish sandwiches and ice cream. You’d see brothers out in the community all the time, selling bean pies, Final Call newspapers and helping out.

This visibility decreased little by little over the years and came to a tragic head after the murder of local journalist and fellow Hayward High alum Chauncey Bailey. Mu’min’s film encapsulates this connection, while also staying true to her journey within this context. She is from here, and her story and voice are important in the conversation about what’s happening in Bay Area film. Not everything is about showing off the block. We understand that. That authenticity that natives are known for is what makes her film so uniquely Bay Area.

“We didn’t make it for them, we made this for us [Bay Area natives]”, said Blindspotting co-writer and star Rafael Casal, when asked why they decided to keep the music in the film so local and not just use more recognizable E-40 and Mac Dre songs, which you also get in the film.“Other people might not know who our artists are, but we know who they are, and they’re a big deal to us. That means something to us, regardless if anyone else gets it or not.”

This attitude and tone are apparent from the moment the opening montage comes on in the film.

Everything about it is so painfully local. For example, the interior shot of Liz & Company hair salon on San Pablo Avenue. Although we never see the outside of the location, if you’re from Oakland, you know exactly where they are in that scene. The effortless way in which Colin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) converse using local lingo and unfiltered Bay accents is melodic. The inside jokes and display of unapologetic disgust we have for transplants, hipsters and techies alike that come here with no respect for the people or culture of the city tugged at my Oakland heartstrings. Those Bay boys did that for us all the while still covering universal themes a mass audience can appreciate like race, gentrification and police brutality.

That’s what it’s about; yes, it’s cool that people got around to writing headlines about my hometown. But, I can only take so many “The BART train is so Bay Area” references. You know what’s so Bay Area? Daveed Diggs outside of the Grand Lake Theater at the Oakland premiere of Blindspottingtalking about how he used to order a triple meat, triple cheese, no veggies, with a bag of fries from Kwik Way by the lake. Now that’s “some real town s**t” happening as Miles, Rafael Casal’s character in Blindspotting, would say.

National audiences may be raving about our films, our artists and our culture, but outside validation has never been a necessity. We’re always going to gas our own regardless. That’s what we’ve been doing before Hollywood noticed us. We have been supporting our own, influencing the culture and will continue to do so even after all of the hype goes down. After all of the critics decide we are no longer worth the attention, we’ll still be here pushing out quality content and talent. You’re welcome in advance, bruh.

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