Interviewed by Fiona Underhill
For the first six months of 2018, the most exciting and contemporary filmed art being produced seemed to be from the music industry. The music videos and films that accompanied Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, Childish Gambino’s This is America and The Carters’ Apesh*t and Family Feud all feel as if they have something to say about the state of America right now, with their commentary on the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, among many other themes. Now that July has arrived, we have two films that have been released (just in the US so far), both set in the same city, that have this same fresh voice and risk-taking approach – Sorry to Bother You (written and directed by Boots Riley) and Blindspotting (directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs). It is perhaps no coincidence that the filmmakers behind both of these movies have come from a music (specifically hip-hop) background themselves. The writers of both films are from Oakland (where the films are also set), a city with a rich cultural and huge artistic seam running through it, a history of protest and activism (the Black Panther Party originated there), but now changing rapidly and potentially beyond all recognition.
I was lucky enough to speak to the co-writer and star of Blindspotting – RAFAEL CASAL – and I asked him about the points he was trying to make about Oakland in the film.
I think what we were hoping to do was show a side of the Bay Area that’s the less popularised side. The way we want to showcase Oakland is very much in the film, I would do no justice describing it now. I think it took us the 94 minutes to even give a fraction, so I want to encourage everyone to go see it. I think stories that are often told about areas that are getting a new influx of a population that’s not originally from there is mostly about real estate and about new businesses and then periodically any controversy that salts the new reputation of the place. That’s how you get these BBQ Becky memes about a white woman calling the police on people who have been barbecuing there for twenty years. Then you get another article about how expensive San Francisco is compared to the rest of the country – those are the big narratives.
The people from there have such a different love and appreciation for the subtle nuance of a place where they’ve existed for their entire lives; food, community, culture. The relationship between elders and children, the way that the school system has worked, the way that the street culture has worked, the way that the music and slang and the virtuosic nature of the people. It’s so unbelievably vibrant, that the biggest challenge that came for us was figuring out how to capture it on film. More importantly, those elements are so infrequently broadcast that we really wanted to ‘time capsule’ them for a moment, because they’re disappearing due to an influx of people that aren’t aware of those things and moving in somewhat on top of them. For us, it was important to capture that place on film before it disappears.
I also spoke with the production designer of Blindspotting, Tom Hammock and asked him about the location-scouting process and the choice to showcase so many different sides of the city. The two main characters, Miles (Casal) and Collin (Diggs) play removal men, which means that the diverse neighbourhoods are seen as they drive through them in their mover’s truck. Miles and Collin go to a party at a hipster’s house which was a real location – a modern building in a row of Victorian houses. Like so much of the film and the wider conversation about gentrification, this story is not as simple as it seems. Hammock told me that the original house had burned down (not been knocked down) and a local architect was employed to create the new design. Their job as movers also means that you see historic houses being emptied and pulled down, robbing them of their contents and erasing the city’s culture. Hammock explained that these wooden houses had been built by ship’s carpenters, meaning that many featured port-holes. He also told me that the apartment that was used for Miles and Ashley was an Air B&B which is ironic, given the film’s focus on gentrification and Miles’ feelings about it, in particular. I mentioned this to Casal:
We came about that apartment because the people who lived there were moving out and it was being Air B&B’d so that it could be either rented or sold to a new resident, who I would imagine would also experience a hike in rent. It’s amazing how many moments in filming that the subject matter met us face-to-face and reminded us why the film was so important to make. And that was one of a thousand moments, like, wow – we couldn’t even write that. There is a movie [that could be made] about the movie being made and about a town that is being taken over by different industries and subsequently a population of people. There are so many clashes that are worth writing about, that evolved this experience and that was one of the first ones.
Casal has a background in theatre and Diggs was in the original cast of a little-known Broadway musical called Hamilton. Director Estrada brought the same virtuosity, ambition and problem-solving as he had to shooting music videos with Diggs and when filming Casal’s students’ theatrical performance in New York. He brought in split-screens, tracking shots and shot the climatic scene with two cameras in a 9-minute single-take. The dream sequences are shot like music videos, complete with flashing colours, choreography, dollying cameras and employing theatre tech to time everything perfectly. The influence of the filmmakers’ background is clear in the theatrical style and also the heightened language in the film. I asked Casal about the influence of theatre on the film.
Yeah – Daveed and I both have backgrounds in theatre. The stage is where we built our careers, separately and together. My time on the stage started out as a writer/performer in the performance poetry scene in the Bay Area. So very much, I would describe that as a gateway drug. It’s an art-form that has all of the attributes and skill sets that you need to eventually work in long-form, especially in heightened language in long-form. It is a performative monologue essentially, it is communicating the personal to the universal. We are using heightened language to condense information and you do have to connect with an audience in real time, right? That transition into long-form theatre was very easy and obvious for me, so when I got into my late teens, Daveed and I wrote a few plays together. Then I went onto teach Creative Writing and Theatre at UW Madison, while Daveed was pursuing music and teaching middle school after-school programmes back in the Bay Area. And then we ran a theatre programme at the Public Theater [in New York] called #BARS which is a theatre and verse programme, under the mentorship of Oskar Eustis, building a theatre programme very much based on that curriculum that I was developing at UW Madison.
So much about our approach to the stage and to story-telling is about the inter-personal relationships between characters, the dynamic and the momentum of a dynamic that takes place when you just let a scene happen and experience the power of actors fully immersed in the moment. And Carlos, our director also comes from a theatre background, even though his forte is in cinema, so much of our philosophies were aligned and the script was so-written to cater to the kind of performances that work both on stage and on film. So in the filming of it, we would just do these long, sprawling takes and let Daveed and I just sort of off-the-leash and play for the moment as much as possible. I think we were all the better for it. I think in terms of approaching our next project, I’ll probably continue to go back to the same conventions because I think that the dynamic that you get from theatre while also being verse performers [is that the] the camera is just allowed to roll to try to pick up the full duration of a scene, you get so much more subtlety and so much more inherent chemistry than all this start-and-stop.
As well as theatre, Casal started out using spoken-word and verse in performance poetry and hip-hop. He was featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, toured college campuses with his spoken-word performances and has a large presence on YouTube. This also feeds into the film, along with the use of the Bay Area slang that Casal and Diggs have grown up with. This innovative use of a unique style of dialogue is one of the most refreshing aspects of the film, so of course I had to ask Casal about it. It was producer Jess Calder who discovered Casal on the internet and approached him about writing a film using verse (she particularly traces the film back to one of Casal’s poems – Monster, a piece about growing numb to his friends dying violent deaths at a young age).
They had found my YouTube popular poetry videos and music videos where heightened language was being used to tell stories directly at the camera. So that was the prompt, that producer Jess [Calder] saw the potential to write a film where heightened language is the way in which the characters communicate in some of the most tense or important moments. So it’s always been a part of the DNA of the idea; even that final scene with Daveed – I wrote the bulk of that nine years ago and it just stayed in the script and we always just thought me and Daveed would re-write it to accommodate the film, but so much of the film is reverse-engineered from that climatic moment, so we just kept the bulk of it there. I think Daveed added two or three lines a few days before we shot, to fit it into his mouth the way that he wanted it to, but it’s been essentially the same the entire time.
So I think what was most exciting for me was this was the challenge of verse that both independently and collectively, Daveed and I have always thought about and wanted to crack the rhythm of how to introduce heightened language into film in the way that we’ve been exposed to it. The Bay Area is so ingrained in the idea of the beauty of language to articulate yourself, that your individuality is very much expressed through the way in which you speak and the words you use. We treat virtuosity like it’s mundane, we expect it. So, it felt essential that it be a spine of the piece. The element about Miles that we loved so much is that Miles is a salesman. The way in which Miles sells himself and uses language is also the tool that he is teaching Collin to wield in order to vocalise and articulate what he needs to let out of his soul, in order to survive and get his sanity back. In the whole film, Collin is trying to express himself through improvisational verse, but the “make it sound pretty”, the salesmanship, the selling of an idea is the gift that Miles is unknowingly giving Collin through the duration of their friendship and most importantly, the duration of these last four days.
As well as confronting race, the film also shows different aspects of masculinity. In a separate interview (on BUILD series – it’s amazing and on YouTube, watch it!), Casal talks about
“men who do not have a well-tuned capacity for intimate conversation, men’s most acceptable modes are anger and humour and everything in between is a stumbling walk through trying to articulate yourself. These two men are very much a part of toxic masculinity to a degree, they have a survivalist mentality, claiming their space, whether through violence or through humour.”
I asked Casal about the theme of toxic masculinity, particularly in relation to how the character of Miles is trying to raise his son. He was understandably protective of the character he’d created.
I think we steered heavily away from the idea of trying to impose themes into the story. I think we were trying to represent the characters honestly and ask ourselves what we felt like they would do or how they would act or how they would raise their kids based on the people we based those characters on. Miles is a minority among minorities, that has been his reality the entirety of his life and the way in which he has had to defend his position and his space has probably been more violent than Collin, not because he is pursuing violence but because he’s getting picked on and messed with, he’s been questioned and been getting his credibility challenged, he’s had his space encroached upon more than anyone else around him, he sticks out like a sore thumb, and the idea of a white dude in a black and brown neighbourhood is really questionable. So he has been fighting physically and had to fight physically so much more than Collin. So his way of surviving as a male in violent neighbourhoods, in dangerous spaces, his way of imparting some wisdom on his son is to make sure that his son is tough enough to handle the neighbourhood that they live in. And I don’t know that that is inherently problematic, I think what that leads to is potentially very problematic.
I’m more critical of systemic poverty and the violence that that encourages because of the way that we starve and shrink the physical space of poor people than I am of critical of Miles and how he survives within that problematic system. I just want to make that point. It’s really easy to demonise Miles’ reaction to a fucked-up situation but the problem is the situation and Miles’ reaction to it is also problematic, but it is secondary to the circumstance. That family is trying to raise a son within a problematic, dangerous and violent circumstance and Miles as a father (and we’ve alluded to the fact that he had no father of his own) is trying to teach his son to survive the best way that he knows how and God bless him for it, even if you have a problem with it. He’s trying to be a positive role-model with his son.
[Miles’ girlfriend] Ashley (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) is in a different mind-state, she suddenly has a black son and that son is becoming an age when he’s not someone that she’s holding onto physically at all times, that is out in the world increasingly more independently. So the fear of the police is something that is weighing on her heavily in the film and the two of them (who we always sort of imagined as high school sweethearts) have a new negotiation to have. We always imagined that Ashley – she knows who she’s with, she knows that he’s someone who defends space very aggressively and I’m sure to a certain degree, she likes that – it’s partly what she was attracted to. But now that violence can have a slightly different consequence, that can take a potentially larger toll if it gets out of hand. So the gun threat is really a rallying point in which the two of them have to talk about the fear that Ashley has about the safety of her son and that the way in which Miles is approaching parenting, while noble and while loving, is scary to her, which turns out to be such a beautiful conversation between an interracial couple from the same place. So often we tend to see interracial couples where they live in completely different realities and one is always educating the other on the harshness of the world and that’s not what this conversation is. It’s about two people who really understand the complexities of their reality and are in those trenches together. But their relationship to violence and the fear of violence is different and they have to negotiate that in raising a brown son.
The film had a long (almost 10 year) gestation period and had to be updated along the way. Depressingly, they cut protests to police violence from the film because they noticed that there were less protests as police shot more black people (it was becoming more commonplace and therefore being met with more apathy and silence). Ultimately, there came a ‘now or never moment’ where Daveed Diggs had a tiny window in his schedule and they seized their chance. I asked Casal about the sense of urgency created from shooting in 22 days.
Yeah the urgency of filming in 22 days was because they were the only 22 days that Daveed had open in his schedule. I had to essentially do the physical writing of it on my own, so I moved to LA and rewrote the script and Daveed participated in that via phone and big-picture conversations between he and I in the middle of the night. You know we’d gain this momentum and excitement and there was a opportunity in our window to shoot it and we were racing against the Sundance deadline. Really, to make an independent film, so many variables have to line up – the right people, the right place, the right time, the right funding, the right enthusiasm, the right script for the right moment because we don’t have this massive budget and machine behind us. So I think when it came around again, when I very fortuitously sent a drunk text to our producers after the Oscars last year and said “I wish we had made that movie” and they responded “so make it” – that snowballed in a way that I felt needed to be capitalised on. Everybody was a little hesitant, Diggs was very hesitant, Carlos didn’t even know about the script the day before and the producers were excited but unsure if we could pull it off in that window. But I am often known in my artistic circle as the instigator, as the rallier, as the one who tells everyone “we can definitely do it, if we all get on board.” I feel like we willed it into existence with love and enthusiasm and excitement around bringing this story to the communities that we feel like really need it and really that’s to say: the whole country. We feel like the country is in a place where conversations like these, the conversations that this film seem to be provoking when people are walking out are exactly the kinds of conversations that I’m excited to have. Every question that you ask, I’m excited to answer and that doesn’t always happen with the art that we make. So with every question, every conversation, I’m just more and more excited that we did it.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to discuss this stunning film with Mr Casal and I cannot wait to disect it with more people. Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting have genuinely made me excited about cinema again – as a vital and urgent art-form confronting contemporary themes and provoking conversation. They are both a snapshot of a city in flux and people who are struggling to cope with new realities. They both do so with artistry which pushes boundaries, take risks, are innovative and unique. How exciting and how lucky we are that we get to experience these films NOW. I urge you to check them out as soon as you are able to.
Blindspotting is on limited release from July 20th and wide release from July 27th.
I also urge you to subscribe Rafael Casal’s YouTube channel
(Some of Mr Casal’s comments may have been edited for clarity)