The two entered the venue dressed in the most opposite terms possible — Daveed Diggs sporting a Golden State Warriors bomber jacket, highly-distressed red jeans and a grill, Rafael Casal clean cut in an all-black button down and black slacks. They were a pair of walking statements, proud proclamations of individuality with blurred separating lines. They each stuck out in their own ways, so similar in that regard, that they could only come from somewhere the same. This shared, quilt-like quality, I came to realize over the next few hours, was the reality of everyone form the Bay Area – a tumultuous community of every race, religion, and creed, bounded by an acceptance of what is not their own.
Diggs and Casal were attending the Cinetopia Film Festival premiere of their first feature film “Blindspotting,” the story of two lifelong friends — Collin (Diggs), a convicted felon looking to pull his life back together, and Miles (Casal), a new father lost in an unfamiliar hometown. They both struggle to find their new places in a rapidly changing Bay Area. “The town,” as many Oakland natives would call it, is caught in the middle of a series of changes spurred on by the rapid gentrification of the region as well as national tensions related to race, class and gun ownership.
Diggs and Casal premiered their film on opening night at Sundance back in January, and “Blindspotting” is set for a nation-wide release July 10.
In the few minutes I had to talk with Diggs and Casal, this sense idea of the “Oakland Artist” came up more than once. In response to a question about getting it right, Diggs said “that community is so isolated and self-sustaining — that the necessity to get it right — I don’t even know if people put [pressure] on us, we put it on ourselves, that’s a responsibility that we feel we owe the place we grew up. And everyone sort of gets it wrong, and sort of has a wrong perception of the Bay Area, so if you’re from there and you get the opportunity to project the Bay Area out onto the world, we want our friends to go ‘That’s right! That’s the bay area we know!’”
The duo had met at Berkeley High as teenagers and have been working collaboratively ever since. Both of their previous work has come largely in verse, Diggs as a rapper, most known for his membership on the original “Hamilton” Broadway cast, and Casal as a slam poetry performer featured on HBOs “Def Poetry Jam.” This attraction to form translates itself onto the screen in scenes that play out more like a musical than a drama. When asked about “the town’s” response to “Blindspotting,” he added “The thing about being an artist from the Bay is no one’s really checking for us, so we’ve been proud of each other anyways. And it’s really a pretty supportive artistic community. You’re always really excited when someone has something that breaks out and does well.” Casal chimed in “[Oakland] is one of the lenses with which we look at the world. I think our point of view of the world is so drastically affected by that upbringing that I think it will be omnipresent in everything we do, whether we try to or not.”
The film touches on many current social issues relevant to Oakland and to the Bay Area and is at its best when it allows these topics to exist bubbling under the surface rather than boiling to a head. “Blindspotting” is really a fun movie, until it reaches the point where it isn’t supposed to be fun anymore, Diggs and Casal’s ability to balance these opposing forces of levity and turmoil, an almost perfect microcosm to the current state of their home town — one stuck in an identity crisis, its transfixingly unique former self set up against a more sobering contemporary reality. Aside from some hiccups in the third act, the film delivers on its promise of a thought-provoking inspection on the modern intersection of race and class, managing to test its audience’s own preconceived notions through to the end.
The biggest accomplishment of the film is its wonderful array of characters, the list of notables stretching far past the central two. Each new, eccentric Oaklander added on screen contributes to the pulsating diorama of the two writers’ roots. These peripheral, sometimes one-off, characters fill a wide range of race, class, and profession, melding together into a stunning mosaic of what was once “the town” and what could still be. The only characters who aren’t given this colorful treatment are the harbingers of kale smoothies and vegan burgers, the plaid fleet of gentrifying yuppies, the tech-centric, oh-so-vilified hipsters, whose addition to the region don’t just raise property value but raise tensions as well. Miles, the Bay Area fundamentalist of the film, doesn’t hide his disdain for the geeky newcomers, he literally attacks the issue of gentrification opening up dialogue on a set of deeper issues as the film works its way to its close.
And the duo up front should not be glossed over. Diggs’ the straight-man to Casal’s wildcard, the two trounce their way around “the town” with abundant, unapologetic gusto. At times, Casal’s character begins to spill out a little bit over-the-top, but by the end of the film this jarring trait becomes not only accepted, but a narrative necessity. Diggs and Casal’s chemistry is nearly unmatched in any recent picture, their almost two decades of creative experience together showing in the best way possible.
As the film transitions into its final act, it begins to run into some structural problems, as well as a problem with the delivery of a message that had been set to simmer in the first seventy minutes. At the core of the issues in the third act is the film’s tendency to be too self-sounding, proclaiming the film’s message instead of letting it emerge through the situations on screen. This was strange to see, as one of the film’s biggest strengths through the first two acts was a focus on story that created moments addressing the issues instead of jumping right out and talking about them. These moments don’t disappear in the final thirty minutes, but they are handled with less subtlety.
The pace of the climactic sequence is also sort of strange. There are two or three moments before the final climactic scene that felt like they could have ended the movie. Diggs and Casal wrote themselves into a bit of a third act corner when they opened up so many story threads throughout. The handful of intense scenes that finish out the film feel like an attempt to tie each of these loose ends up individually — a scene for tech-induced gentrification, a scene for the recently racially charged relationship between the two lead friends, a scene about guns in the home and gun violence in the community ‑ instead of choosing just one to serve as the central story arc. None of these scenes were poorly done, and none of them felt out of place on their own in the movie but bunching them all back to back led to a feeling of a belabored message to close out before credits roll. The two writers had done enough with each of these issues throughout the film that a unique scene for each of them didn’t feel necessary.
“Blindspotting” has an interesting relationship with verse. The two actors break out in apparent (but probably not actual) freestyles at different points in the movie, giving it a flair of pseudo-musical style that is impossible not to appreciate. The most memorable of these moments comes in the final confrontation between Collin and a murderous police officer. Collin launches himself into a beat-based tirade against discrimination and police brutality that is impressive if not unorthodox. The scene is moving and well performed and would have been able to tie the film all together without the other climactic scenes.
As one final point on the film’s ending, the title “Blindspotting” is worked into a conversation between Diggs’ Collin and his ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar, “True Blood”). It’s supposed to be a new slang word she comes up with that means something along the lines of “seeing something only as you’ve been trained to see it” — or for the purposes of the scene and of the movie — “seeing someone only as society has trained you to see them.” This is probably the most egregious of the telling-not-showing in the movie and covers up what was a cleverly related title to the film before (the police shooting that Collin saw in the first few minutes of the film occurred in the “blind spot” of his movers truck).
Even with the shaky final stanza, “Blindspotting” is deserving of a trip to the theater when it hits the screen next month. A lot of the talk around it will be of its handling of the social issues mentioned above, but at its core “Blindspotting” manages to remain a fun film. Diggs and Casal’s trip through Oakland is cloaked in purple neon and flashing lights, and they’re happy enough to bring you along for the ride into their city.