New from Jon Espino on The Young Folks: [Interview] Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal dig deep on local and national social issues in ‘Blindspotting’

Every day, our country faces another political or social escalation. With new, racially motivated attacks happening daily, our country is a powder keg on the verge of combustion. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal started writing Blindspotting 10 years ago, knowing that this is something that America needed to face. Diggs and Casal co-wrote and star in Blindspotting, and we talk about how events changed the film over the last decade, gentrification, the idea of ‘culture vultures’, and more.

Blindspotting has been 10 years in the making, but so much has happened in the past decade. How did the story evolve with everything that’s happened?

Daveed Diggs: We just kept checking in with it every couple of years. We started writing this right after Oscar Grant was murdered at Fruitvale BART Station. The conversation in Oakland was very much about Oscar. Oscar’s face was everywhere, he was on t-shirts, and the news cycle covered him for so long. Then again when the trial started happening, which feels unheard of now, to spend that much time on these piles of shooting we now have. The biggest difference in the script between when we started and where we ended is that the nature of that conversation is so different. That was the biggest change outside of massaging the characters, adding new stories and taking out ones that felt outdated.

Rafael Casal: We used to sit with my character Miles a little bit more in earlier versions, be we felt that in order to get the audience to empathize with Daveed’s character Collin there needed to be more time with him alone. LIke the scene where they went to the mother’s house, it was Miles’ mother’s house originally.  

Some of the most powerful scenes in the film are done in verse, giving it an almost music video-like quality. Was it always written that way?

RC: The verse is the first stuff we had. That was the prompt. Let’s write a movie that uses verse. Let’s make it in Oakland. Let’s center it around a police shooting. Let’s star in it because we’re vain. We’re poets and rappers, and that’s what we’re way more experienced at then writing a film so we wrote a lot of the verse stuff first. We utilized verse in order to condense a large, complicated subject matter into a digestible portion. The language is built for you to unpack. I always think of a good rap line like a zip file on a computer. It’s all condensed, but everything is in there if you unpack it.

Did your love of music, poetry, and verse bring you together?

DD: He was running a studio in north Oakland and I came over one day and we spent the night writing songs, and that was it, I’ve been working with him ever since. That was in 2004.      

Gentrification is such a major issue, and I love how honestly it is showcased in the film. It’s essentially a community killer, and Chicago is definitely no stranger to that. There are people everywhere that have a blind spot to this issue, so what would you say to them?

RC: I’d tell them to see our movie.

DD: That, of course. But also, I feel like calling it a ‘problem’ is an oversimplification since it is a fact in every major city. The question is, “What are you going to do about it?” I haven’t seen any city deal with it appropriately yet. The problem isn’t the new things it introduces, like the green juices or SoulCycle, but the problem is when you become acutely aware that it’s not for you. My whole family had to move out of Oakland because they can’t afford to live there anymore, and it was where my dad was born. There is something so directional and so intentional about that and that’s the scary thing. It’s like when you see a Starbucks pop up, and you go into that Starbucks and they call the cops on you. That’s violent and that’s aggressive.   

RC: It’s not so much that it’s a community killer, but more of a community replacer. A new community is built over time. It’s a very specific demographic of people, whether that’s ethnically or economically, or both. Then, it always gets justified as a business thing. They say it’s not personal, it’s financial. America understands capitalism well, and so then it goes back to this sort of trickle-down economics. We’re going to build these communities over here, and the wealthy people are going to live over here, but that means that the new poor neighborhood is going over here. Then we’ll move to your neighborhood when it’s nice enough and move you to the outskirts until that is nice enough. This is a system that is designed or reinforced just to make sure people stay within their bracket. You can’t own if you can’t build any sort of wealth, and you can’t do that if the investments you build into your community don’t have a return. It’s like someone coming into your garden and ripping out your roots right before you are about to harvest.

Photo Credit: Ariel Nava

That’s what is happening to Oakland in the film. Oakland has such a strong presence in the film that it feels like its own character. Even Collin is always wearing something that says either Oakland or Raiders. Is your film a love letter to the city?

DD: Absolutely, but that’s just true that folks from the Bay wear Oakland in some way. That’s a thing that’s true of the town. I see you out here in Chicago wearing that flag, and it’s an attractive flag. If you look in my closet, everything either says Oakland or is from an Oakland designer.  

So it more becomes a point of pride to wear and represent Oakland.

DD: We are incredibly proud of the place we grew up in. Especially those of us who leave and come back periodically. We begin to realize that this place feels different from anywhere else. The film is totally a love letter to Oakland, and I think that the fact that it’s becoming unrecognizable to the Oakland that I’m so proud of is one of the reasons we made this film. It’s almost like a time capsule too. In 10 years from now, it might not even look anything like it did in our movie, which is already about a place in flux. One day, I can show it to my kids and be like, “Back in my day, this was Oakland.”     

I like how the film explores different sides to issues like gentrification. It also does this with the idea of “culture vultures”. What does the term mean to you?

RC: It feels like a very outdated term. I see it as when people come in and cherry pick someone else’s reality for just the parts they like. It’s at play a couple of different ways in the film, especially for Miles. That scene where Miles sees someone else with the same tattoo he had; someone who was from Portland and just put the tattoo on without doing any of the living that Miles did. Culture vulture is not the same as race vulture, which is the way it is used sometimes. The idea that someone has a reality and you just vacation in it for your own entertainment, and then try to claim it as yours is the problem. That term is sometimes used when white artists do black music. I don’t know that the problem is race, but when they just take from the community without participating or giving back to it in any way.  

DD: To complicate that further, we all kind of do that; that’s what popular culture is. There’s always some root to every fad that came from somewhere that we don’t know about. My girlfriend gave me this bracelet and it’s from Madagascar. Silver is big in Madagascar and I don’t know anything about that culturally. I don’t know what any of these designs mean, but I never take this bracelet off. I feel deeply connected to this bracelet, but I have no connection to Madagascar. That’s part of it because things travel that way. It’s all about being aware of the blind spots and being aware that they’re there.

RC: You also need to be aware of where you’re pulling from. If you’re pulling from a particular group that is constantly being exploited by popular culture, there’s already a sensitivity there. This idea of people going to disenfranchised groups, who are struggling to hold on to their identity, and taking something from them is particularly offensive. Like when people say, “Elvis is the greatest musician of all time!” Luckily I don’t hear that very often, but it’s so complicated. He came and he took everything from black culture and sold it to white audiences. Again, it’s like gentrification, snatching up something that could be beneficial to these communities.        

from Jon Espino – The Young Folks

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