In 2009, Oakland was set ablaze in the aftermath of the police murder of Oscar Grant. Grant’s face began to appear everywhere in the town from T-shirts to newspapers. As protests against police brutality launched throughout Oakland, they congealed themselves as the basis of the earliest drafts of Daveed Diggs’ and Rafael Casal’s new film “Blindspotting.” “That was the conversation,” Diggs said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “That was the Oakland we were representing.”
Nine years after its conception, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival. A lot has changed in Oakland in the intervening years. But a lot hasn’t. The film’s theme of “Black and Brown bodies and their relationship to neighborhoods and police,” in Casal’s words, is as prevalent now as it was in 2009.
Yet the types of protests that erupted in 2009 are no longer such a prominent part of the Oakland landscape. In light of the rapidly growing volume of tragedies, “they don’t have the capacity for that right now,” Diggs said. While these conversations still exist within the popular imagination, they have shifted dramatically, and Diggs and Casal had to shift their film alongside them. It’s “a movie for the times both in subject matter and also in pace and structure,” Casal said.
It was early in the writing process that the duo decided on Collin and Miles — Diggs’ and Casal’s characters in the film, respectively — as the perfect lenses into a changing Oakland. “We were always really invested in these being the windows that we had these conversations about the city through,” Casal said.
What changed most throughout the writing process was the screen time afforded to each of these characters. While older versions of the script were written to give roughly equal screen time to both Collin and Miles, later versions of the film featured Collin more heavily. “We felt like to gain the empathy that we needed and to understand the PTSD we needed more alone time with Collin,” Casal said.
In fact, the film’s writing process was driven by a desire to mold empathy into productive conversations. Even murderous policeman Officer Molina (Ethan Embry) is written with a sense of complexity and humanity that shifts the blame for his crime from Molina as an individual to the system of policing.
“To put the entirety of the reason that Black bodies are valued differently in this country on the shooter is missing the whole point,” Diggs said. Just as Collin and Miles are carefully constructed as Diggs’ and Casal’s chosen windows into what it means to be a person of color in today’s Oakland, Officer Molina — with his six words of dialogue — is carefully constructed as a window into the violent systems that support police brutality. “You’re trained dangerously; all of your inclinations are to devalue Black life,” Casal said “We have a society that does that.”
This nuanced understanding of systemic violence comes from Diggs’ and Casal’s own growth alongside both their project and the city of Oakland. Diggs and Casal call upon the film’s idea of “blindspotting” — of recognizing one’s own instinctive biases — to explain their growth. This idea has become especially relevant to their changing perceptions of gentrification.
The two have come to understand gentrification as an inevitable systemic phenomenon that they, too, participate in. “I’ve been a gentrifier since I left Oakland,” Diggs said. “When I moved to New York I moved to Washington Heights. It’s not my community.” Beyond just recognizing his own role in gentrification, Diggs works to check his own blind spots and become more aware of the culture that existed in his new neighborhood before his arrival. “(They were) built on the backs of somebody else,” he said. “It’s my job as a new person coming here to try and understand that a little bit.”
Even at home in Oakland, the two do what they can to work against displacement. In fact, the economic stimulus that “Blindspotting” brought to the town was one of the major reasons that Diggs and Casal decided to shoot on site despite the difficulty of obtaining a permit to shoot there. “That’s income that doesn’t rely on displacing people,” Diggs said. “It is actually pouring money into the things that already exist so that they can stay longer.”
“Blindspotting” sits alongside “Black Panther” and “Sorry to Bother You” as a film that recognizes and highlights the subtle magic that exists in Oakland. The fact that all three of these films were released within the same calendar year speaks to the urgency of the mission, and it’s one that drives Diggs’ and Casal’s filmmaking process. In Diggs’ eyes, these films serve as a powerful counter-messaging tool and correction to the idea of a new, trendy tech hub Oakland. By creating “Blindspotting,” Diggs said, the idea of the Oakland that he and Casal know and love can at least continue to flourish in the cultural consciousness.
“Blindspotting” opens Friday at Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland.