‘Blindspotting’: Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal on Race, Comedy, and Poetic Justice for Oakland
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who costar in and co-wrote the acclaimed new buddy comedy, open up about tackling race, class, and gentrification in Oakland.
We meet Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal), the best friend duo at the heart of Blindspotting, in the parking lot of an Oakland, California burger joint called Kwik Way. It’s the grand reopening of the beloved city chain, which, under new owners, has overhauled its fast food menu with health trend bait like whole wheat buns and wedged potato french fries. The lifelong friends and Oakland natives aren’t too happy with the result. “Why should I have to specify that I want meat on my burger,” Miles fumes when he discovers that he was served a veggie patty by default.
We soon learn that this bougie Kwik Way iteration stands as a microcosm of a city in flux: Rising prices are driving out original Oakland communities to lure and make way for wealthy transplants. Employed at a moving company, Collin and Miles are forced to witness this migration firsthand. Together, they cruise around the city in a giant moving truck, gutting and refurbishing homes that will soon be filled with tech bros and culture vultures. Collin and Miles are able to make light of it all, riffing on the invasion of absurd hipster bicycles, uppity corporate types, and $10 green juice at their local bodega with jokes, banter, and impromptu freestyle rapping.
But pulsing beneath the witticisms and rhyming verse is an anxious beat. The men’s hometown is becoming more expensive, more homogenous, and more vanilla, and there’s nothing they can do but try to stomach it. During one moving job at a gallery, the pair is tasked with packing up photographs of local urban landscapes superimposed with oak trees. Trunks sprout out of building roofs and highways and other places they no longer grow like arboreal apparitions. During another assignment in a decrepit house, Collin, who is black, finds a dusty photo album of the black family who used to live there. He raps softly to himself as he flips through the photos. Like the oak trees, each smiling face is a ghost of the displaced.
Nobody understands the tragedy behind these changes better than costars Diggs and Casal, who also collaborated to write the film’s screenplay. The pair grew up together in Oakland and have been tossing around ideas for the movie for around a decade. “The identity of a place being a thing that’s not even there anymore—that’s so fascinating,” says Casal as he and Diggs gear up for the film’s second weekend expansion. “If Oakland is named after oak trees, and there are no oak trees there, and everyone is flooding Oakland for the arts and the culture and the people, but the people and the arts and the culture are being pushed out, it’s a really interesting way to glorify and simultaneously destroy the very reason you want or like something.”
When the film opens, Collin has three days left on his probation, which should be fine, as long as Miles—who is white and prone to foolhardiness—doesn’t drag him into any trouble. But trouble has a way of finding Collin on its own. Driving back to his halfway house one night, Collin bears unwitting witness to a police murder: a white cop shooting an unarmed black man named Randall Marshall. Terrified and traumatized, Collin keeps his mouth shut about what he saw and is haunted by nightmares. Yet eerily, the rest of the town seems to take the killing in stride, and Marshall’s death is barely even mentioned on the nightly news. When it is, he’s pictured in an orange jumpsuit.
Despite Collin’s frequent flashbacks to the scene, you won’t find any blood and carnage in the film. Where another movie might have played up the brutality of the murder, Blindspotting instead focuses on its muted aftermath. “It’s so much more about the trauma fatigue,” explains Casal. “Every time [a police shooting] comes up, the conversation is shorter, it is less nuanced, it is less loud, we see even less done to resolve it. So I think our film is so much more about the quiet of the murder.” Referring to the racial hatred-fueled stabbing of Nia Wilson this week, Casal adds, “you can feel Oakland and the Bay Area exhausted and mad. This is a 10-year post-Oscar Grant exhaustion, with a lack of resolve.”
Flipping through the Psych 101 textbook of his girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) one day, Collin stumbles upon an image of Rubin’s Vase. At first, he sees only the vase; Val has to explain the image’s duality. One of her studying tricks is to memorize slang terms that capture complicated psychology concepts. Her term for Rubin’s Vase is “blindspotting.”
“It was important to have Val create slang in the film,” says Diggs. “The creation of language is something that the Bay Area really prides itself on. Rafael was trying to figure out a way to get the idea of unconscious inference into Val’s character, to have her explain it in some way that felt honest.”
Jumping in, Casal adds that he hopes the idea can be taken “as a reference to police footage—body cam footage or witness footage of a shooting—where a community can watch the footage and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s so clearly a murder,’ and advocates for police and law enforcement and courts can see something totally different.” In a connective stylistic choice, the police shooting of Marshall is depicted only through the side mirror on Collin’s moving truck—just beyond his blindspot.
As tension grows between Collin and Miles, the pernicious effects of their changing environment—racial tension and the pressures of toxic masculinity, particularly—become more and more apparent. As a white guy, Miles feels like he has something to prove. And as a black man, Collin feels stigmatized and imperiled in a way Miles can’t understand. These issues especially come to light when dealing with Miles’ kindergarten-age son Sean, who is biracial. “Repeat after me: I’m a tough guy! I’m the toughest guy!” Miles instructs as Sean playfully flexes his skinny arms for Collin. How best to raise a black boy in an ever-changing Oakland is a question they’ll continue to struggle with.
There’s so much boisterous emotion and social commentary packed into Blindspotting that it can often feel difficult to pin down. Even the film’s coloring is vivid, as if the city itself is being enlivened and animated by Collin and Miles’ clever rhymes and rowdy friendship. But above all, it’s a story about two best friends who love each other, and the hometown they share, deeply.
“We wanted to rely on the chemistry that we have as friends, so there’s an energetic relationship that Collin and Miles have that’s very true to us,” says Diggs. “Even though they’re not us, we all come from the same place. I think Rafael and I both know very well what Collin and Miles are going through, and they’re based on friends of ours and people in our community. There’s a lot of home in those characters.”