Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal
Shining a Light on Our Blindspots
by Jay S. Jacobs
For Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, it all goes back to Oakland. That was where they grew up, where they first met as kids and became life-long friends. Now, all these years later, long after both of them have moved away, Oakland has become the site, the subject and a virtual character in their first film together, Blindspotting.
Diggs and Casal came up together in the underground poetry world of Oak Town (a local nickname for the city). As teens they used to hang out at the local poetry slams; Diggs jokingly said that underground poetry is to Oakland as going to basketball games is to Philadelphia. This started getting both of them some notice, first locally and then they exploded out of the Bump City, going world-wide.
Diggs made a huge splash starring in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton – winning both a Tony and a Grammy for the performance. Since leaving the show, he has been exceptionally busy, playing recurring roles on Black-ish and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, co-starring in the film Wonder, producing and creating all of the music on the terrific, but short-lived series The Mayor. Musically, he has been a member of such hip-hop collectives as clipping, True Neutral Crew and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap troupe Freestyle Love Supreme.
In the meantime, Casal has made a splash in poetry and rap, releasing several albums and a few mixtapes. Casal and Diggs collaborated on The BAY BOY Mixtape and Casal also helped with the music for The Mayor. Casal also performed on the HBO show Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. He started the BARS Workshop, a theater-in-verse program to help upcoming performers. Blindspotting is his first performance as a feature film actor, though he has appeared in a couple of short films and had a supporting role in the mini-series The Away Team.
In the works for nine years, Blindspotting is both a labor of love and a cry of protest, looking at the gentrification of the Oak Town (a local nickname for Oakland). It explores the lives and deaths, the loves and problems of the haves and the have-nots of the area.
It showed a city in change and on the edge, where generations of tradition are changing at a rapid pace and the lifestyles are being co-opted. Redevelopment and wealth is crowding out the inhabitants of the inner city, changing the complexion and the attitude of the neighborhoods.
However, can hard times and nuevo-wealth co-exist, or will one muscle the other one out? Will an influx of strangers, coffee shops and artisanal grocers sand down the personality of the city? Will the hipsters really ever fit in with the gangstas?
“This is a film that had to represent the Oakland that we know on film. We had never seen that done before in a way that made sense to us,” Diggs told the audience of a preview screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival’s Springfest.
Blindspotting is based on the ideas of perception and reality. The title is taken from a theory based upon optical illusions. If you look at a picture meant to be an optical illusion – say a drawing which could be looked at as a tree or two faces – people will undoubtedly go back to their original conception even when the other one has been pointed out to them. The other viewpoint is their blind spot.
“Everyone in the film is dealing with a blind spot,” Diggs explained. “Everyone is struggling with both how they see and how they are seen.”
It is the story of Collin (Diggs), a guy who has just a few days of probation left on a prison sentence and he is trying to stay completely clean. However, one night when he is driving home from work, a young black man runs past his truck – which is stopped at a light. A policeman runs up behind him and Collin has a front row seat to seeing the cop shoot the running man in the back. And the policeman saw him, too, but was unable to do anything about that when another cop shows up on the scene.
So now, in addition to his problems with his ex, his determination to work past the impulsive fight which had him put in jail, his dead-end job, his inability to find someplace to live other than his mother’s place in the newly expensive neighborhoods of his hometown of Oakland, Collin has flashbacks to the shooting.
However, his best friend Miles (Casal), a wannabe gangsta, has his back, doing everything he can to keep Collin’s spirits up. The problem is, Miles is a bit of a trouble maker, and keeps dragging Collin into situations he should not be in.
The film was made on a tiny budget with a 22-day shooting schedule – that was all the time Diggs could carve out of his busy schedule – but they knew that it was finally time to make the film. The idea had flirted with them and teased them for nine years now. Despite the nearly-decade-long trek to make it to the big screen, the idea for Blindspotting would not be denied.
“It just kept coming back,” Diggs explained to me before the Film Festival screening at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia. “We have lots of ideas. As much as we keep being pushed towards other ones… there are other ones that are easier sells to some people, I think… but this one was ours. It just kept popping back up.”
In fact, due to real-life news stories and the whole Black Lives Matter movement, the story seemed even more vital to tell.
“It kept feeling relevant,” Diggs continued. “It kept feeling like there was part of a conversation that wasn’t being had. We had a piece of that. It felt like it could be useful if it got out there. So, I think that’s why it would…”
“… Repeat…,” Casal interjected, finishing his thought.
“We certainly tried to leave it alone plenty of times,” Diggs concluded. “Yet, we still came right back to it.”
Of course, the guys had some conditions that survived all of the different incarnations of the script.
“The prompt was; it’s got to have verse, it’s got to be about Oakland, and it’s going to star us,” Diggs said.
Much of the original screenplay was inspired by the killing Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Oakland African-American man who was shot in the back by an Oakland transit cop during a reported melee at a local train stop. Grant was unarmed and laying on the ground, and his killing sparked local – and international – protests. The Ryan Coogler film Fruitvale Station, which pretty much introduced the world to Michael B. Jordan, was about Grant’s last day alive.
However, as time has gone on, Grant’s name has faded in memory as so many other fresher incidents have occurred.
“There are so many more protests around these incidents that have happened over time,” Casal said. “It’s in such abundance now that by the time that they get to organize something about this shooting, there’s another one. You can’t keep track.”
Blindspotting touches on a lot of important subjects – things like Black Lives Matter, gentrification, disillusionment, rehabilitation, violence, crime, racism, discrimination, change, feelings of self-doubt. Diggs and Casal think it’s important to keep the discussion going.
“There is a counter-narrative that doesn’t get told,” Casal explained. “In gentrification we don’t hear the story of the people that get pushed out. In police violence, the person who died doesn’t get to tell their side of it. We need 90 minutes of your time to counterweight the conversation.”
Now, more than ever, it seemed important to Casal and Diggs to get their work out to the world.
“We talk a lot about urgency in our work – let’s take on the work that feels the most urgent,” Casal explained. “Every time we would read this script we were like, wow, this is sad, but this is more urgent this year than it was last year. More urgent every day that goes by. We just finally got to tell this story. We kept updating the scripts every year that it didn’t get made.”
And now, nine years into the process, the world can see what the friends have to say about the state of the world and of their hometown.
“Here is where the conversation is now,” Casal said. “We got to make it at this particular time. I hope it resonates with people. I hope it furthers the conversation.”
With both of their backgrounds, the guys decided early on to make hip-hop music a very important part of the film. However, they wanted to also make it palatable to people who don’t necessarily listen to the style.
“The way things are said is very important to us,” Diggs said. “It’s not in the music. The music is a popularized expression of the way people speak all the time. There’s constantly new language being introduced. A certain bounce and a certain rhythm to the way people talk. We were trying to capture that in a way that felt natural.”
“We’re watching hip-hop do what it does in real time,” Casal agreed. “You take the shit from your life. You find a way to package it in a way that people will listen to you, in a way they will understand you. And you execute it at the proper time. Hip-hop as a genre of music is a way we can take things from our lives. From our struggles and controversies and dilemmas, and package them in a way that you can get them out to other people.”
Despite all of the important and deadly serious parts of Blindspotting, it is often a very funny film. It was important to the filmmakers to leaven the script with lots of lighter moments and jokes. It had to be a balancing act.
“That’s the honesty of how we deal with things,” Diggs said. “Nobody’s sad all the time. We live in a very heavy world right now. We probably always have. If you’re paying attention, shit sucks in a lot of ways right now.”
“Humor is salvation,” Casal agreed.
“Yeah, we tell a lot of jokes,” Diggs continued. “There’s also something important about the male-friendship aspect of it that we were circling around. That’s what me and my guy friends do, you know? Rafa says all the time there’s like two acceptable male emotions, which are anger and humor. That’s what we are allowed to present.”
Therefore, Diggs and Casal made certain to fill the film with buddy moments, funny banter to keep things on an even keel and to balance out the darkness.
“When you talk about two guys dealing with some really hard shit, that’s what we do,” Diggs explained. “I was just talking with my friend the other day, who is going through a really horrible breakup, and all I did was make him laugh. You know what I mean? He was telling me how horrible his life was, and I turned those things into jokes.”
Diggs laughed. “That’s how we cope.”
The whole aspect of male friendships is vital to Blindspotting, with Collin loving Miles even though he’s always getting him into trouble. As life-long buddies, Diggs and Casal admits they have friends like that – guys who are the life of the party, but they are always causing a commotion.
“Yeah. That’s why we wrote one,” Casal said as they both laughed. “Also, the characters are under different restraints and trying to sort through different things.
“I think that Miles being seen as a bad influence, I guess it depends on the context in which you approach this character,” Diggs stated. “Certainly, if you approach it from Miles’ context, he’s like the most loyal human he knows. That is an underrated [attribute]. That’s a thing that you don’t see a lot anymore. Miles is a dying breed of human, [someone] who will actually do anything for the people that are close to him.”
The kind of human who would work together on a labor of love for almost a decade.
Now that the film’s long-awaited release is almost here, Diggs and Casal hope their movie will get people talking. Much like their old poetry slam days in Oakland, Blindspotting is their way of using words and discussion to pretty up some very dirty situations.
“It’s in the blood of the place,” Diggs said from the stage during the Q&A after the screening and our interview. “The reason you teach poetry to kids is because no one gives a fuck what a kid has to say unless you make it sound pretty. That’s the real shit… That’s our mentor teaching us that at 14 years old.”
That mentor will undoubtedly be proud of what he sees and hears in Blindspotting.
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 20, 2018.
Photos #1-5 © 2018 Nick Bergmann.
Photos #6-8 © 2018 Jay S. Jacobs.