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Talking to the writers, stars of ‘Blindspotting’ about gentrification in their beloved Bay Area

"The problem is never the new things that you have... The problem is once you have to start asking yourself who it's for. And it can start to feel violent."

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in BLINDSPOTTING. CREDIT: Ariel Nava/Lionsgate
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in BLINDSPOTTING. CREDIT: Ariel Nava/Lionsgate

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal are slouching over a table at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., nearing the end of a day of hyping their new movie and honestly looking like, were it not for this interview they are about to begin, they could curl up on the booth, nestle their heads in the crooks of their elbows, and fall asleep.

After watching Blindspotting — Diggs and Casal are co-writers and co-stars — it is weird to see them weary, since they spend virtually every millisecond of their hyperkinetic feature film bolting from one thing to the next. Ordinary speech escalates to rapid-fire rapping. Ideas pile one on top of the other, precarious as Jenga blocks: About police brutality; the tenuous freedom of a convicted felon; the arbitrary cruelty of parole; the pros and cons of gentrification; what goes unspoken in, but can still simmer beneath, an interracial friendship; what it means to be loyal; and also how it feels when hipsters who have lived in your hometown for six months get the same tattoo as you.

Diggs plays Collin, a parolee who, it seems, has spent the time he was deprived of freedom reevaluating what he wants to do with it once he gets it back — ruminations which get complicated during the final days of his parole after he witnesses a white police officer (Ethan Embry) shoot and kill an unarmed black man. Casal is Miles, a childhood friend and Collin’s coworker, who is unnerved by the infusion of new residents into his beloved Oakland and hellbent on performing his authenticity, even at the expense of the safety of everyone he loves: Collin, his wife (Jasmine Cephas Jones, one of Digg’s fellow Hamilton alums), and their son (Ziggy Baitinger).

[This interview includes discussion of some minor plot points of BLINDSPOTTING.]

It feels very meta to be talking to you guys about a movie about gentrification here today, because I was driving up 14th street to get here — I’ve only lived here seven years and it feels like a very different universe. There’s a SoulCycle, like, three blocks from here now.

Diggs: A SoulCycle?

Mmhmm.

Diggs: That’s kind of the end.

If that’s the end, what’s the first sign, you think?

Diggs: Usually a Starbucks? I’d say, usually it’s bookended by Starbucks and SoulCycle.

Casal: They’ll repave the street.

Just to make it easier to get to the yoga studio.

Casal: Everything gets smoothed out. Like, who are you doing that for? That’s great. Then a new house. Then the police police it more.

How do you all feel about the changes in Oakland? How did it shape the way you were thinking about making this movie?

Diggs: Well, it’s complicated. After college, I moved back, in 2004. The first place I moved into was living with two of my friends, and we were maybe each paying $350 a month for rent, in east Oakland. Our landlord lived downstairs. It was his house. He’d been there for 40 years. His whole family had grown up there. And they were renting out the top floor to make some extra money, which was its own whole house. The next place we moved to, we moved to west Oakland, that place was slightly more, but still panhandle-able money, you know? But really while we were living there, we started to sort of palpably feel the change, I think. And it was mixed.

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This downtown area of Oakland, Jack London Square, had been a ghost town. There was a time when we were kids when it was popping, but really before we were allowed to go out. And everything shut down. There was all this unused property there. It was starting to come back. There’s clubs to go to. And it’s fun. It feels like it’s for us. Local business owners had managed to get money to buy these places, and they made it a very attractive place to be — which was great, because we were living there.

“The problem is never the new things that you have. Even SoulCycle. Some people really like SoulCycle! Some people in the hood really like SoulCycle… But that’s not the problem, right? The problem is once you have to start asking yourself who it’s for. And it can start to feel violent.”

And then all of a sudden, once word of that gets out, rents are shooting up. Even more places are popping up. Folks who had been renting their business spaces couldn’t afford them anymore, and then you start to see this large-scale turnover. So this is around 2008, 2009. It happens very quickly. And of course, the groundwork had been happening a long time before that. I wasn’t paying rent yet, so I didn’t know!

But the turnover can happen very quickly, and the problem is never the new things that you have. Even SoulCycle. Some people really like SoulCycle! Some people in the hood really like SoulCycle. It’s not my cup of tea. I don’t like stationary bikes. But that’s not the problem, right? The problem is once you have to start asking yourself who it’s for. And it can start to feel violent. You can start to feel like you’re actively being forced out of a place that you, in fact, were part of creating the situation that made it so attractive in the first place. And not only is your contribution being ignored, but it’s being, like, deliberately erased.

That’s really the problem, and I think every major city is dealing with it, with a shrinking middle class everywhere in the country. What you end up with is people who can afford almost anything and people who can’t afford anything. So there’s all these major cities that are attractive to live in, and people who can afford anything are going to come in and take those things, and it’s hard to tell a city, “You need to ignore some of that revenue stream.” But then, we live in a complicated economic system!

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs attend Lionsgate With The Cinema Society Host The After Party For "Blindspotting" at Public Arts at Public on July 16, 2018 in New York City.  CREDIT: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs attend Lionsgate With The Cinema Society Host The After Party For "Blindspotting" at Public Arts at Public on July 16, 2018 in New York City. CREDIT: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

If somebody comes in and they’re paying a ton of money for something, they’re going to expect certain social services. They’re going to expect things to be policed in a certain way. So all of a sudden, there’s an increased police presence — which maybe would’ve been nice when my house got robbed, but that’s not for me. In fact, they’re here to police me, for new people who don’t feel safe moving into a neighborhood where I live already. Where it’s like, my feelings of un-safety are not taken into account, and I already live in that neighborhood.

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And furthermore, when I left LA and moved to New York, once you leave home, you’re a gentrifier for the rest of your life! I moved to Washington Heights, and I found an incredibly-priced place there, and I was able to stay there. But somebody else wasn’t able to stay there after that. And that’s a whole other issue. So what we’re trying to present in the film is a lot of different perspectives on a changing landscape. Like, nobody in the film feels the same way or is adapting in the same way. That’s what we have to look at when we’re talking about this issue: It’s multifaceted. There are more points to it than wherever you enter into the conversation.

How was it writing all of these characters when — the word I kept thinking of while I was watching it was, it’s like being at a crowded party. It’s a crowded movie. And there’s so many different points of view in there.

Casal: I like that.

How do you start out making sure that all of those voices are clear? That it’s not just noise?

Casal: That is under the assumption that it is not noise. [laughs] I’m glad you feel that way! They’re based on a lot of compilations of very real people, which helps. There are many different facets to those conversations and I think assigning those to a person helps. So you don’t have a shouting wall of one opinion, because nobody wants to see that. We read that — that’s the social media feed, one loud voice. I think the great thing about a film is you have time to, if you’re lucky, write three-dimensional characters that you like enough to afford them the complexity that the real people they’re a representation of have, and let them unfold via the circumstances that you give them.

“You can start to feel like you’re actively being forced out of a place that you, in fact, were part of creating the situation that made it so attractive in the first place. And not only is your contribution being ignored, but it’s being, like, deliberately erased.”

So the first thing is to decide, what perspectives are the right perspectives to see the town and to see this through. And really just write how you think it would play out. So much of my part of the writing process is saying the things out loud and then saying what I think that person would say back, and see how the flow sounds: Does it feel right? Does it feel true to the people?

How did you settle on the specific crime that would be the thing that sets all this off?

Casal: Colin’s crime? It’s a real thing that happened. Eighty percent of it is a real thing that happened to a friend who was a bouncer at a bar, and then we just added fire. Because that’s fun.

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Can you talk about waiting to reveal exactly what the nature of the crime is until later in the movie? Because there’s definitely a version of this film where you start with it.

Casal: It’s for empathy.

Diggs: We want you to fall in love with Collin and relate to him. That is the thing that felons don’t get when you meet them after their felony conviction, right? I have family members who are convicted felons, and I’ve known them for many years before they were felons, and I don’t feel any differently about them post-their felony than I did before. So I think it’s important, in order to understand some of the things working against Collin, you have to relate to him, so it was important to present to you some of his life — some of this person just going through life. He is post-felony, but you just don’t know what it is. By the time you actually find out what it is, Collin hasn’t changed at all, but you have. You have new information about him. So you’re the person who that’s new for.

CREDIT: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate
CREDIT: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

That scene is so funny to me because he’s telling that whole story to the dude that it happened to, under the auspices of the friend who didn’t know… Just sharing his worship of Collin the Scorpion King.

You were just saying, you write by talking through the lines out loud. Can you talk about figuring out how the heightened reality of the dialogue would work — when it would be, like, spoken word, when it would be rapping? Even just the regular dialogue, there is still this neon feeling to it.

Diggs: Yeah, the reality I don’t think is that heightened, actually! That’s just the Bay Area reality. We were trying to present what, to us, felt like a pretty authentic version of the Bay Area. To a lot of folks on the crew and people who weren’t from the area, and folks who see it who aren’t from a similar place, or maybe don’t relate to the place that they’re from the way that we do, it feels exaggerated. But to us, a lot of that is toned down. A lot of that is a little bit, for public consumption, let’s make this a little bit more palatable. But the language in particular — heightened language is a way of life out there.

Casal: It’s what the Bay Area is known for.

Diggs: It’s what we pride ourselves on. That conversation about selling the boat, that’s all real Bay slang. And you find yourself in conversations that feel very much like that, where you’re with somebody trying to one-up the other person on your slang usage. That’s part of how you interact out there.

You sound kind of homesick.

Diggs: I am. Always!

Casal: Constantly. We really wish we could live there.

You started this nine years ago, right? What does it feel like now to have it out in the world — at least, out in the festival world?

Diggs: Basically, people can only see it when they’re next to us. It’s like we’re still showing it to our friends, in a way.

So it’s on the verge.

Casal: It’s on the verge, and it’ll be really interesting when it comes out to see what the real, unrelated-to-the-film-industry people feel about it. But a Sundance crowd, a South By Southwest crowd, these are superfans of film, or they’re people whose job it is to be at this thing. And that’s awesome, but it’s a very different conversation to have than to feel it released out into the wild. It’s a very zoo-like experience for your pet project. So we’re super-excited about it. I think we wish we could fast-forward.

“Now we can’t remember the names of people. It’s like, ‘the one who got shot in his backyard,’ or ‘the one who got choked out.’ The names are gone. I think that affected the story.”

This might be too big a thing to articulate right now, but how has it changed in that nine years? Do you remember that original kernel of the idea all those years ago?

Casal: The original kernel of the idea was just: Let’s see if we can do a film in verse, and it’s about the Bay Area. And at around that same time, Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland, and we were like: That’s going to be a part of this, too. The conversation that that sparked in the city is going to be a part of this. And then, pulling that thread comes gentrification, comes a city turning over. Why are are tensions high? Why are race politics like this? Why is that tension higher than normal? And using the city and these characters we found as a window in. So that’s always been there.

The change in the conversation that we always talk about is that, then, these shootings were more newsworthy fodder. And now they’re like, here and they’re gone [snaps fingers]. Now we can’t remember the names of people. It’s like, “the one who got shot in his backyard,” or “the one who got choked out.” The names are gone. I think that affected the story. We shifted a lot of the narrative to be much more about Collin instead of splitting it between both of them, because it became about Collin seeing something, and being the only one who saw it, and being in isolation, and showing that isolation, and explaining what that process is. And showing that the town doesn’t seem to care, because they’re exhausted. It’s a town that is fundamentally exhausted on all levels. And how that’s affecting someone who has just seen something really, really traumatic. He’s feeling it in his body in a way I don’t think he expected.

What was it like to write and to shoot these nightmare sequences?

Casal: Awesome.

Diggs: Those were pretty fun.

Casal: It was oddly all in our wheelhouse. It was rapping, it was music video stuff, that’s Carlos’ forte. It was these crazy dramatic acting moments for Diggs, which was, he’s known for that shit. And then we got to dress up… It was done all sort of, it was all practical shooting. We couldn’t rig anything. We had to use theater lights and do it all in time with the shots, which again, is Carlos’ forte, but the rest of the crew was like, what are we going to do?… And that’s actually the Oakland courthouse. That room is shut down right now, but that’s where that would happen. All the DNA was there for that to be a ton of fun.

To me, that scene is the most we lean into the verse. Even though the last scene is so dense in verse, it’s so heightened. A sort of surreal scene. Because in a dream, you can go all the way into it. There’s music and rapping and it’s abstract, and crazy imagery, and there’s bullets flying out of his mouth. You can just go balls to the wall. Everyone tried to cut it, and we wouldn’t let them.

Given that you had all this room to be surreal and be so out there, and you’re using this music video logic, did it feel like there was anything that would have been too far to include?

Diggs: I think that scene was about — that really felt like shooting a music video. We sort of shot as many ideas as we could and put it together later, which is what you do with a music video. Shoot everything that your budget allows, then cut it in a way that will feel impactful. There’s something dream logic-y about that. There’s something about a line you’re just sort of grasping at, an overflow of material. I think it works in that sense. Whereas in other points of the film, we had to be more specific about what we were shooting.

You shot other endings?

Casal: We thought about them. Just tonal choices. The movie ends on a laugh. That is the choice we made. Some of the stories we based the movie on did not end on a laugh. So those were the other things where, the whole time, we’re trying to stay true to the sincerity of the stories we were sharing through this film. I think the only place we sort of pulled back a little was in probably what would have happened to Collin. Or to Miles, for that matter. The cops could’ve showed up. But we want — there’s a better statement made about the two of them, and about their friendship, and about empathy and understanding, and I think it’s more valuable at the end than sticking to what happened to one of the people that Collin is based on. We thought about it long and hard and realized that the audience needs an exhale.

Can you talk a bit about the scene where your character’s son picks up the gun? Because that for me as a viewer was like — usually, if a movie fits into a genre, you kind of know, like, okay, Superman is not going to die in this scene, because it’s not that kind of movie. But I really felt like anybody could have been killed in that moment.

Casal: There’s a lot of moments in this film where you’re not entirely sure which film you’re watching. And if you’re lucky enough, you just stop trying to do that. You stop trying to think two steps ahead of the movie. The movie is set up for you not to be able to do that. There’s so many red herrings. But that scene, it’s just a what would you do situation.

We’ve set that up so early. You saw the gun. There’s the rule of the gun. It’s going to go off. Intuitively, you know that, because that’s a classic trope. And you’re wondering if that’s the moment that it happens. That’s why your heart drops. But it’s a catalyst scene for why Collin and Miles end up out on the street. It’s a divide between Miles and the woman that he loves, and the child that he loves. And his values and her values. They’re usually pretty aligned. Being out of alignment, in that moment, it forces Ashley and Miles to have a conversation that they need to have, later in the film.

That is the catalyst for the resolve for Miles. The gun is a representation for his impulsiveness. Everything about Miles is reactionary. It’s why I’m always so sympathetic to him, because I know people like that. They’re not bad people. They’re just impulsive. They don’t always take a second. They’re smart people, but everything in their life has been about being on the offense. So that muscle is so dialed to be reactionary. Here’s a gun, I probably need a gun, I’ll just get one. Knows she’d probably have a problem with it, so doesn’t bring it up.

“It feels exaggerated. But to us, a lot of that is toned down. A lot of that is a little bit, for public consumption, let’s make this a little bit more palatable. But the language in particular — heightened language is a way of life out there.”

Diggs: I think that moment is a consequence of having a gun in your house that you weren’t tracking, that you weren’t thinking about and weren’t taking care of when you have a child in the house. Those are real things that happen all the time.

Casal: All the time.

Diggs: Functionally, in the film, it does a lot of work, that scene. While it’s busy terrifying people, it does a ton of work. It gets Miles and Collin out of the house, with the gun. It puts them on the street, which forces them to go to the party. And it precipitates the major moment of change that we see in Miles, too.

Casal: It makes Miles upset. He’s embarrassed. He’s already high when he gets to the party. And it’s the first time that Collin doesn’t have Miles’ back, too. It puts a child at risk. It really grounds that for you, if you have kids around you. That’s just a horrifying image.

And then by the time we get to their big fight, there was so much else going on that clearly they haven’t talked about, or haven’t wanted to talk about.

Casal: Yeah, they both finally, almost have enough language to have the conversation that they need to have. Which is really just about Miles needing to be more aware of his actions, and Collin being horrified at his friend not helping him get through this at all. That’s Miles’ blind spot. He’s missing what his best friend is going through. He thinks it’s business as usual. They’ve been running around Oakland acting like assholes their whole lives! It wasn’t like Collin didn’t beat the shit out of somebody at a bar. He’s a street kid, too. We’re seeing Collin at a moment where he’s trying to absolve himself of that lifestyle and move on, but they had probably much more in common than differences for most of their lives.

Diggs: It’s pretty unfathomable to Miles, I think, that they would be feeling something different. That’s never come up before.

Casal: They’re generally on the same page.

And there’s so much about, is it more authentic to be exactly the person that you were at the moment that you met your friend, or when you were a child, or is it really more authentic to change as you have these experiences in your life?

Casal: And who are you loyal to? Miles’ definition of loyalty is so much about duration. How long can you be away? How loyal can you be to something, and for how long?

Diggs: It’s about place, too. He’s loyal to the soil.

Casal: How he defines himself is so much about place.

Diggs: So the thing that you’re loyal to, it’s the ground you stand on. That’s relatively unchangeable, right?

Casal: But Collin is practicing this different loyalty, to himself and to his safety, and his truth in a very different way. And that’s the question: It’s Val on one side and Miles on the other side, and they both have valid points. And it’s not a story of picking one or the other. It’s really just Collin vocalizing for himself where he’s at with both people. He makes a stand with Val and he makes a stand with Miles.

Is there anything you’re especially excited or nervous about as far as people’s reactions go, once the movie’s out?

Diggs: I don’t care about people’s reactions — I just really want people to see it. That’s been the wonderful thing about Lionsgate – everyone seems really committed to getting as many people who want to see it the opportunity to see it. Having a theatrical release is amazing. I hope that people go, because I want to hear people talk about it. But more importantly, I really like it! I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and I am most proud of this, of anything I’ve ever done as an artist before. So much art that you’re proud of happens in a relative vacuum. Movies have an opportunity for a lot more people to see them. It can go wherever. So it would be awesome for as many people as possible to see it.