Gentrification is a problem in most major American cities, but nowhere has the shift been more palpable than in Oakland, California. Limited housing stock combined with an infusion of money from Silicon Valley has changed the San Francisco Bay Area at an alarming rate, with longtime residents bemoaning the fabric of the old city falling apart. In the new film “Blindspotting,” co-writers and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal turn their stylish buddy comedy into a searing critique of income inequality, systemic racism, and rapid gentrification. Using verse interludes to heighten the film’s emotional piques, “Blindspotting” grounds its lyrical moments with a playful humor and moving sincerity.
“We hope Oakland sees itself in it, we worked really hard for that part,” Casal, a Berkeley native, told IndieWire in a recent phone interview. The movie opened there last week, and Casal said hometown audiences have been largely supportive. “The one thing the Bay Area knows how to do is prop up it’s people when it’s go time,” he said, “and it’s just been an outpouring of love.”
Hailing from Oakland himself, Diggs plays convicted felon Collin, whom we meet with three days left on his year-long probation. Collin makes a living moving furniture for the area’s arrivistes, accompanied and distracted by his ebullient best friend, Miles (Casal). His ex-girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), thinks Miles is a bad influence. And with good reason: When, in flashback, the movie finally reveals the events that led to Collin’s arrest, we begin to question Miles’ claim to ride-or-die status.
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Egged on by Val, who thinks Miles is a bad influence, the conflict comes to a head after Miles’ hot-tempered antics threaten Collin’s probation. In the scene, set in a parking lot, Collin lays into Miles for failing to recognize all of the privileges afforded him by his race, even if the two come from the same neighborhood and background otherwise.
“That is the oldest scene in this film,” Diggs told IndieWire in a recent phone interview. “A lot of the movie was sort of reversed engineered with the idea of, ‘How do we get two friends in a buddy comedy…to have this conversation?”
Photo by Ariel Nava/Lionsgate
“They are both arguing a valid point and they’re both right,” Casal added. “Miles’ problem is valid — his neighborhood is disappearing, his poverty is real, and his family is going to get displaced and uprooted. I mean, he’s going to have to fight for his space all over again somewhere else, which has taken him probably a lifetime to establish. That conversation is particularly about Miles’ white privilege in regard to police. That gap of understanding between Collin and Miles in that moment, these two friends just need to get right with each other.”
Audiences may recognize Diggs from his roles as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway sensation “Hamilton,” but “Blindspotting” was in the works long before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hist musical. The film had financial backing before Diggs’ career took off, but he does acknowledge the musical’s role in bringing more attention to “Blindspotting,” especially its position as the opening night selection of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
“One of the things ‘Hamilton’ did was create an example of an incredibly popular piece of art that used this kind of language in a situation where generally people weren’t familiar with it,” said Diggs. “So, in terms of reception to this kind of work, it was certainly standing on those shoulders a little bit.”
While “Hamilton” takes a contemporary look at American history, “Blindspotting” focuses on the trajectory of the country today. The movie is full of all sorts of nods to the perils and privileges of gentrification. Ironically, Collin is the one who begins to enjoy the $10 “green juice” newly offered by his local corner store, and his mother is happy to finally have a nice grocery store near her house. It’s Miles who bristles when one partygoer assumes he’s a gentrifying hipster, so much so that he beats the accuser senseless.
“It was important to present all of those positions, because it doesn’t serve the discussion at all to make the idea of gentrification just a villain, right? That is underestimating how complicated it is, and the inevitability of it, really,” said Diggs. “The real question is, how do we allow cities to develop and progress and change and bring in new business and continue to gain income without this sort of systematic paving over of culture, and an eradication, and like a very violent removal of the people who made the city attractive to being with?”
Diggs takes less issue with higher-end businesses moving into historically low-income neighborhoods, than with the way those businesses view the neighborhood’s longstanding residents. “The problem isn’t with this SoulCycle, if you like SoulCycle, right?” he said. “The problem is that the SoulCycle isn’t for you. The problem isn’t the Starbucks, the problem is that they called the cops on you when you go into the Starbucks. It has made clear that it’s not for you.”