Daveed Diggs (left) and Rafael Casal co-wrote and co-star in 'Blindspotting.' Drew Costley
Daveed Diggs (left) and Rafael Casal co-wrote and co-star in 'Blindspotting.' (Drew Costley)

'Blindspotting' is a Spot-On Portrait of an Oakland in Flux

'Blindspotting' is a Spot-On Portrait of an Oakland in Flux

For Oakland natives, the conversation these days is less about what high-rise is going up where: instead, it's geared towards how these new buildings further fuel gentrification.

In 2017, the City of Oakland issued permits for 4,284 total units, with only 324 units falling under affordable housing. This ongoing trend has changed The Town's demographics over the past decade. For those who do not live here anymore—whether they chose to move away or were forced out—coming home is always a shocking sight, far more so than to residents who see the changes daily.

Oakland’s gentrification serves as the backdrop in Blindspotting. Co-written by and starring Oakland natives Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, the new film explores the intersection of race, class and police brutality while telling the story of two friends, Miles and Collin, and how they navigate their daily lives. Collin (Diggs) is a convicted felon with three days left on parole, and Miles (Casal) is his hot-headed childhood friend who might jeopardize his freedom. The movie comes out Friday, July 20.

With this impressive big-screen debut, Casal and Diggs have come a long way since they met at Berkeley High School, later working on music and uploading videos videos to Casal’s YouTube channel. Now, they live in Los Angeles, and they've made names for themselves outside of the Bay Area. Spoken-word poet Casal appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry, performed and taught nationwide with YouthSpeaks (which Diggs was also a part of) and is also a two-time Brave New Voices poetry slam champion. Diggs, who raps in the group clipping., is best-known for his dual portrayal of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the original run of the smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton (his portrayal earned him a Tony Award in 2016). But he’s also landed roles in the movie Younger, ABC’s Black-ish, and Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

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The pair of friends worked on the Blindspotting movie script over the past 10 years. When they first started, Diggs lived in Fruitvale, a few blocks away from where a BART Police officer gunned down Oscar Grant in 2009. From the script's inception to now, the national conversation surrounding police brutality escalated and then fizzled out, as more and more cases became passing hashtags and officers were acquitted or not charged at all.

“That’s the biggest difference between the first draft of the script and where we ended up,” Diggs says. “We were trying to match the nature of the national conversation about these kinds of killings. When Oscar Grant was murdered, there were riots and protests; Oscar’s face was on all the shirts; there was 24-hour news cycle about it. Flash forward to now, every time one of these [killings] happens, it’s just another body on the pile.”

Diggs and Casal play best friends who work together as movers.
Diggs and Casal play best friends who work together as movers. (Ariel Nava)

Blindspotting is, simply put, a love letter to Oakland. A more complex way to describe it would be as a raw, poetic and timely film that accurately depicts the trials and tribulations that people of color go through in order to survive and provide for their families—especially those convicted of a crime, who served their time and are trying to rebuild their lives within a system that wants them to fail.

For Oaklanders, the film will feel familiar: many of the scenes take place in recognizable locations; the hella Town Biz soundtrack includes Fantastic Negrito, Mistah F.A.B and E-40; some notable locals make cameos. And then, sadly, there's the sight of the countless homeless encampments we see on our daily commutes. The cinematography is as beautiful as it is daunting. Moviegoers get to see the gentrified parts of Oakland that newcomers are attracted to, as well as the displacement—a blind spot for some recent transplants.

Contending with The Town's changing landscape

The Blindspotting narrative stems from a life-altering moment. Collin happens to witness a police shooting that results in the death of a black man named Randall Marshall. The film follows Collin as he navigates his final days on parole while dealing with the post-traumatic effects of witnessing the shooting—not to mention Miles’ short fuse.

A powerful scene shows Collin on his daily run through the Mountain View Cemetery the day after witnessing the police killing. Still disturbed from the incident, Collin begins to hallucinate and sees black men, dressed in black, standing in front of each grave he runs past. Once he reaches the the top of the hill, the last face he sees is that of a bloody Marshall.

“It’s Collin finally seeing where he is, and seeing himself in it,” Casal says. “The whole film, he’s realizing how similar he is to the person he saw that died, and how inevitable it feels. I think that inevitability is the PTSD. It’s the torture that it feels like everything is conspiring towards his death, because to a certain degree, it is. The probation system is hell bent on sending you back to prison. Police are policing and murdering black men at a higher rate.”

Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Val (Janina Gavankar) in 'Blindspotting.'
Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Val (Janina Gavankar) in 'Blindspotting.' (Ariel Nava)

Blindspotting does an exceptional job explaining how gentrification affects people of color who have called Oakland home for generations. Rents have sky-rocketed in recent years. (Finance site Walletwyse released a study last week determining that Oakland has the fifth highest average rent in the world, tied with Hong Kong.) In the film, Collin and Miles work as movers, and every day as part of their job, they see how gentrification reshapes Oakland’s landscape, both structurally and racially.

One day, they clear “junk” out of a house in West Oakland that’s scheduled to be renovated—a house where a black family once resided. While clearing stuff out, Collin comes across a broken picture frame and a photo album; this sentimental moment makes it all the more real that this now-gutted Victorian was recently someone’s home.

The next day, the two friends help the owner of an art gallery move out of his space. The owner chit-chats with Collin and Miles about displacement as they pack black-and-white frames showing oak trees superimposed onto images of houses and freeways all around Oakland. “They are chopping us down,” the gallery owner tells Collin and Miles as a reference to displacement—just like oak trees were chopped down to make way for development.

This scene is not a far cry from what is happening today in Oakland, with West Oakland’s Alena Museum, a creative space for people of the African diaspora, currently facing eviction.

Oak trees are an important element throughout the film. The setting of one of the film's most climactic clashes between new and old Oakland is a modern, slick house stuck between two older Victorians. The home, Casal points out, was built around a dead oak tree. In one of the scenes, the homeowner proudly shows off his coffee table, an actual oak tree stump.

“We wrote this oak tree stump as sort of a punchline of this parallel between the clearing out of oak trees and the clearing out of poor people of color,” Casal says.

He and Diggs were shocked to learn that their punchline was, in fact, not far from reality.

Rafael Casal as Miles, Ziggy Baitinger as Sean and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Ashley in 'Blindspotting.'
Rafael Casal as Miles, Ziggy Baitinger as Sean and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Ashley in 'Blindspotting.' (Robby Baumgartner)

The fight to preserve Oakland culture continues

For Casal and Diggs, coming back to Oakland as visitors makes the city’s changes seem drastic—more so for them than to those who still live in Oakland and see it every day with a degree of numbness. They mention Merritt Bakery—Diggs recently posted a picture on Instagram of the duo in front of the historic eatery with the caption, “Learning to cope with change.”

Merritt Bakery was an iconic restaurant that served the Oakland community for over 60 years and shut down due to a fire in 2013. It then moved into the small space that was once occupied by Kwik Way Drive-In, seen in the opening sequence of Blindspotting. (The movie takes place in a present-day, alternate Oakland, where the shuttered fast-food joint has turned into a hipster eatery.)

“New folks are ignoring locals, and locals are growing more and more furious and fed up with people coming in,” Casal says. “There’s tension, going into bars, going into certain restaurants—you can feel the anger on people, even when they are not vocal about it. Who are these people who’ve come in and thrown off the ecosystem, and are pushing us all out?”

In the film, Miles is vocal about his discontent with the changes around The Town. He has to eat a vegan burger at the newly reopened Kwik Way. He finds a fridge full of $10 green juices at his local liquor store. He gets upset at a newcomer whose car blocks Miles and Collin into a parking space with the moving truck. He laments how Oakland police officers are not from and don’t live in Oakland. (Forty percent of Oakland Police Department cops are white and nine out of 10 officers live outside of Oakland, with many in primarily white suburbs miles away.)

The situations that Miles and Collin experience throughout the film are vivid, all-too-true reminders of what Oaklanders see in their daily lives. For Casal and Diggs, gentrification enters conversations whenever they’re in Oakland hanging out with friends, as was the case when they visited recently to promote the film. “We were talking about where to go, and people were like, ‘This spot is still cool on this day of the week, we should go there.’ Or, ‘Nah, let’s not go there.’ We know what ‘nah’ means,” Casal says. “It means new people.”

Rafael Casal as Miles, Daveed Diggs as Collin and Jon Chaffin as Dez in 'Blindspotting.'
Rafael Casal as Miles, Daveed Diggs as Collin and Jon Chaffin as Dez in 'Blindspotting.' (Ariel Nava)

Fantastic Negrito, who is featured on the Blindspotting soundtrack, often talks about building a bridge between the old, pre-gentrification Oakland and the new Oakland taken over by the wealthy. Is it possible to build such a bridge? “I think it’s possible, and actually, I think new people would prefer that,” Diggs says. “I don’t know how—a lot is legislative control over the market, of how you are allowed to charge folks to live here. There are people who can’t compete with folks coming in from somewhere else.”

Casal is less optimistic. “It’s not gonna happen,” he says.

Diggs says he feels like a gentrifier himself whenever he moves somewhere new. When he moved to New York, he chose to live in Washington Heights, a quickly changing neighborhood in Manhattan. “It’s a beautiful neighborhood with so many great things,” Diggs says. “There are two ways that you can move into that neighborhood. You can move there and check off the boxes: close to the subway, checked; a Starbucks on the corner, OK, checked; I have all the things I need to feel comfortable, and not have to change anything about myself. Or, you can move in there excited to participate and learn about a culture that you know nothing about. You can approach it by being a productive partner in this community—that’s a good way to move in to a place.”

The film’s themes of gentrification will likely resonate with audiences across the country. But Blindspotting also serves as a time capsule of the current, ongoing battle in Oakland.

“We need you to tell the story of this place,” Diggs says, calling on native Oaklanders who remain rooted in The Town. “It becomes harder to tear something down when it’s in the national consciousness. They’re never gonna tear down the Washington Monument—they have to keep updating that shit every year because we know it’s there. I want that to be Oakland. I want all those Victorians to be so ingrained in people’s minds, so they wouldn’t dare tear them down. I want the barbecue around the lake to continue to get bigger as protest, as a reclaiming of space. I want all that."

“The more you tell the story, the more people will recognize that they are building on top of something that already exists," Diggs continues. "This isn’t a clean slate, you don’t get to come in here and [pretend] there are no consequences to your actions.”

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Blindspotting opens in theaters July 20.

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