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Adam Graham: Thanks to 'Black Panther' and more, Oakland gets its big-screen moment

The Bay Area is having a big year on screen, and is the setting for several of the year's most talked about movies

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

From the 1960s protests at the University of California, Berkeley, to the rise of the Black Panther party, Oakland and its surrounding East Bay area have long played an important role in American culture. 

Daveed Diggs (left) and Rafael Casal star in "Blindspotting."

But it's never been a hotbed for filmmaking, until now. 

A trio of recent films -- the superhero smash "Black Panther," this weekend's "Sorry to Bother You" and the upcoming "Blindspotting" -- all are set, at least in part, in Oakland, California.

And matters of race play a key role in all three films, making Oakland a focal point for one of the most important issues in American life and pop culture today. 

Why Oakland, why now?  

Most importantly, it's a matter of artists from Oakland putting their town on the map.

"Black Panther" writer-director Ryan Coogler, "Sorry to Bother You" writer-director Boots Riley and "Blindspotting" authors-stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal all call Oakland home, and set their stories inside its city limits. 

Coogler broke down the door with 2013's "Fruitvale Station," which centered on the death of Oscar Grant, who was killed in Oakland by an officer of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in 2009. 

He returned home with "Black Panther," which largely takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, but is bookended by scenes in Oakland, where the story's roots are planted. At the end of the film, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) establishes a local outreach center for the Oakland community, which helps center the fantastical superhero story in a version of present-day reality. 

"Sorry to Bother You's" Riley, a member of the Bay Area rap group the Coup since the early 1990s, uses Oakland as the setting for his riotous comedy, which touches on race relations, labor forces, capitalism, corporate slavery and a host of other big picture topics. 

He says creatives have always been drawn to the Bay, although the cheap rent that was once a boon to artist-types has all but disappeared in recent years. He says since Oakland is a relatively small city — its population is around 400,000 — there's always been a tight knit community around the city's arts scene.

"People coming there with a determination to create has made a lot of impact," Riley said last week during a chat about his film. 

"Blindspotting's" Diggs and Casal were involved with Oakland's spoken word poetry community, and set their film — a comic-drama about racial tension and police brutality in today's America — in a rapidly gentrifying Oakland.

"It’s always been a cultural epicenter, and it’s also always been a music hub," said Diggs, noting Oakland's rich hip-hop community, which birthed rap-funk weirdos Digital Underground, linguistic dynamo E-40, sex rhyme champion Too $hort and the late legend Tupac Shakur, just to skim the surface.

He says the city also has an underdog status that has given an edge to its residents. 

"It's sort of existed in the shadow, nationally and internationally, of a city like San Francisco, so it’s kind of under the radar in a weird way," Diggs said, during a chat last month. "So you have a lot of artists growing up there who are influenced by a lot of different kinds of culture — high culture, low culture, very multi-ethnic, all of these things — but we kind of walk around with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because no one is talking about the Bay outside of the Bay."

That is now changing.

It's not just at the movies where the Bay Area has become hot: in sports, the Golden State Warriors have won three titles in the last four years, and in national news, Oakland made headlines in May when a white woman called police on a group of black people barbecuing at an Oakland park. (Hundreds responded by throwing a huge BBQ in the same park the weekend after the story went viral.)

Oakland has a grit and an outsider status that we can relate to in Detroit. So while we're not seeing ourselves on screen, the scenes are recognizable and comparable to what we see in our community, and a lot of other cities can relate.  

"It’s a great place to be an artist, and it’s a great place to make art," Diggs says. 

And now that art is moving the needle, and the culture.

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