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‘Blindspotting’: Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs on Viewpoints, Friendship, and the Gentrification of Oakland

For nine years, the creative duo of Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have worked to bring their feature film Blindspotting to theaters. The lifetime friends (as well as co-writers and lead actors) had busy schedules between Diggs’ Tony Award-winning performances in Hamilton and Casal’s time teaching at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he also served as OMAI’s Creative Director.

But the delay has led to an amazing portrait of Oakland through the eyes of Collin (Diggs), a convicted felon in the last days of parole who witnesses a jarring police shooting that threatens his journey to a stable life, and his best friend Miles (Casal), whose quick-temper and street loyalty is to an Oakland that is rapidly disappearing in the face of gentrification. Their lives have always been side by side, but new stakes set them on a collision course.

In a way, the timing of the release has rewritten the conversation in the film. “The nature of the discussion around a lot of these issues has changed,” Diggs shared during a joint interview after a screening at the Independent Film Festival in Boston earlier this year. “It feels like we’re at a point where we require nuance, instead of a point where nuance would’ve been harder to take in. Politically, where we are happens to be the same place that makes good art; which is to say that we are interested in the specificity of people’s stories, and how to really humanize things, and how to understand difference even within communities and be respectful of that.”

Casal agreed, adding “This is a great time to complicate the narrative; I’m really glad that it’s happening now. I don’t know that right now people know where to go on a lot of the issues that the film brings up. I think it’d be really great if there was a lot of art that just kept it in the collective consciousness, and gave us things to point at; to go ‘Yes that, that’s happening. You saw that film and you know that’s not okay so let’s do something.’”

But the film is not really “a film about issues” according to Diggs. “It’s a film about friendships, about an incident that shakes a friendship to its core.” Even though the backdrop of the current political landscape is secondary to a story that stays true to the Oakland the two know, it is roundly inescapable. “In trying to do this honestly, you can’t do that without touching on all these other issues. I hope that’s what gives us some amount of critical distance from it or association with it, and that you can just watch people being people and fall in love with them the same way you fall in love with your friends and neighbors; and also be aware because you are sitting down and not in the middle of it, that ‘oh shit, these are ways the cards are stacked against these folks’”.

“Collin and Miles are not having hypothetical discussions,” he says laughing. “They’re just trying to live. But we can be aware that this is about recidivism, this is about all these concepts that are just words that don’t mean anything unless they’re affecting a human.”

“It’s like when you rewatch an old movie and think ‘oh this makes a really interesting statement on x, y, and z,’” shares Casal as he further explains the “communal thirst” for reading into media. “Really, in the last 3 months our movie has suddenly become about gun control. And no one talked about that while we were making it, but since the collective conversation in the country is about that now people are watching the gun more closely. You could really lose that if we weren’t in the middle of all these shootings and didn’t have this NRA debate on our minds–”

“And we in fact lose track of the gun around the end,” interrupts Diggs and they both laugh hard at how quickly the focus in the movie can change. “But you don’t have to come into the theater with those things in your mind,” Casal continues. “It really doesn’t beat a whole lot over the top of your head. People are always talking about the things that it addresses, like gentrification being really prominent.” Casal and Diggs had to deal with that issue in real life, as several of their shooting locations were at risk of redevelopment. A key location that illustrated Miles ability to hustle is today a bike-sharing dock, a change that signifies different things to different audiences.

“If you don’t know what gentrification looks like you just blow right through the film. It’s just ‘the old people don’t like the new people,’” explains Casal. He illustrates his point with a scene where Collin and Miles stop by the local bodega, which is suddenly stocking trendy (and expensive) green juice. “You have to have a sensitivity to that, or some relationship with that subject matter to feel as though it’s prominent in the film. Every times someone’s like ‘there’s a bunch of issues in this film’ I’m like ‘Good! You’re aware of a bunch of issues’. That’s progress.”

“That’s the fun of this junket,” adds Diggs. “It’s getting to go into communities and seeing what each of those places picks up on.” There’s more to connect with than gun control and gentrification, however, as Collin is continuously trying to be in the good graces of his ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) and Miles lives with his girlfriend Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their young son Sean. Diggs considers the Miles/Ashley/Sean dynamic “one of his favorites” in the film. “Just watching these two parents who are still too young to stop wylin’, but they are raising this kid and are doing it well. They’re present, and they are working really hard to raise this kid to the best of their abilities and I love that.”

Casal, FOG!’s Kristen Halbert, and Diggs

Though most of the film is spent following Collin and Miles, Val and Ashley are also living in the same Oakland neighborhood, providing another lens of what thriving and surviving looks like. “While I think Ashley is more informed about certain things; Ashley is still with Miles,” Casal points out. “She for sure drinks whiskey and smokes weed with Miles at dinner. They’re not perfect characters, right? I think there are specific issues that they [Val and Ashley] feel differently about than the leads.”

He notes a particular scenario: Miles’ purchase of an illegal firearm early in the movie. “I think the relationship that young men have to guns is just different than the relationship young women have to guns — generally speaking. I think that’s a divide that stands out between Miles and Ashley. The way that he protects the family versus the way she protects the family. They’re both trying to do the same thing — they just do it in literally opposite ways, philosophically. Ashley is trying to keep guns away, and Miles is like ‘this is how I keep us safe’. They feel like this really good pair, they just have this completely different relationship with everything outside of the apartment. I like that Ashley is wise in some ways”, he ends, “but it is because she is with Miles, that gives us this feeling that she’s human.”

“I mean, I think Val is highly focused and very, very driven but she has a huge blindspot when it comes to Collin and his situation,” Diggs explains. “That’s why Miles can’t stand her, he can’t understand disloyalty for any reason. That’s Miles’ big function — it’s loyalty. She didn’t come to visit you in prison? Cut her off,” he says emphasizing each word. “That’s it, it’s cut and dry.”

“Her process of bettering herself is about assimilation,” Casal adds. “It’s like, I’m going to be a part of this way and I’m going to talk this way and I’m going to follow these tracks.” Diggs finishes by pointing out that because the audience spends so much time with Collin and Miles, “We don’t get to see the girls wylin out. We get little tiny snippets, like the music Val is listening to while studying. We try to hint at a fuller life as much as possible but really, we’re sitting with us most of the time. Which,” he says smiling, “has its pluses and minuses.”

The pluses are many, as the dynamic between brash and earnest Miles and Collin’s more cautious approach to life after prison gives the film endless energy. It also sets up one of the best, most emotionally explosive scenes of the movie where the two must confront the fact that the stakes have changed forever and their friendship can’t survive a “colorblind” approach. According to Diggs, this was one of the earliest scenes written.

“Rafael hit me up in the middle of the night,” he recalled. “He was working at the University of Madison and says ‘this is what I want to do–” Casal, animated with the memory, jumps in to add “I wanted them to have this conversation!” Diggs continues on, but they continue to talk together and over each other as they share the workshopping of the draft. “We stayed up for hours, and kept going ‘what if, what if, what if’? It started out very academic, but we got it less so after some time.”

“The world has forced them into this discussion that they never would have had otherwise. I hope that we get the understanding that they do know each other very well. What they hadn’t been able to do, because they are actually unable to do, is really put themselves in each other’s shoes. And the words echo back later in the film, where Collin is speaking in equal parts aggression and apology; he is saying ‘I know that you don’t understand this but what you can’t do is run around killing people.” Here, Diggs pauses. “It was a process of knowing we wanted to get to that point, and figuring out what did we want to set up earlier in the film to justify that and also how can we have something that heavy and balance it? How many jokes do we have to tell to be okay to have this moment? But that’s just how friendships operate.” Casal continued, explaining that the most hostility that ever exists between the two is on the stoop the next morning, but that you need to ask “How do you have that conversation, and where does it need to end? Where do we leave them off so that they are still friends?”

“I also love the scene because of the things that don’t feel dangerous about it,” Diggs adds. His tone lightens considerably. “I mean, one of them has a gun in their pocket and they argue about it but you immediately forget. I love that there are two men yelling at each other and no one is thinking about the gun because that’s not the stakes of this. This is about friendship, about two people trying to understand each other. It’s not a violent conversation despite the fact that they are screaming and pushing each other. And that’s some male shit we don’t get to see a lot. Just because our voices are raised does not mean that we are acting violently.”

 

Blindspotting is in theaters today.

 

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