For 'Blindspotting' stars, poetry is a path to justice
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal mine their friendship and love of poetic verse for the simmering 'Blindspotting'
"Blindspotting" is a film about race relations and police brutality that is so 2018 it feels ripped from today's (or even tomorrow's) headlines.
For writers and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, that is somewhat bittersweet.
"We joke all the time that we wish it was a period piece," says Diggs, who sat down alongside Casal at the Foundation Hotel in downtown Detroit in early June to discuss the film, which played as part of the Cinetopia Film Festival. "Blindspotting" opens in area theaters on Friday.
The duo, who have a casual, playful chemistry, began work on what would become the film 10 years ago in their native Oakland, California. Diggs and Casal -- who star in the film as childhood pals Collin and Miles -- had been friends since they met at Berkeley High School when Diggs was a senior and Casal was a freshman, and they came up through the school's thriving slam poetry community.
"The art scene at Berkeley High was such that you went to poetry slams the way that people at other schools went to football games," says Casal.
Casal had gained a following in the early days of YouTube thanks to his poetry videos and appearances on "Def Poetry." He was approached by producer Jessica Calder to write a screenplay, and he brought in Diggs -- with whom he'd written scores of rap songs and created various theater projects -- to help.
They knew the film would be about their hometown and would incorporate poetic verse, but they didn't have a story in place. The 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer, created a conversation in the community which gave them a focus; similar incidents around the country in the years since give "Blindspotting" a current relevance that Casal describes as "really fortunate for our movie, and unfortunate for the world."
Despite its topicality, "Blindspotting" experienced several hiccups on the road to production. Through the process, the duo learned not to get their hopes up about their film ever seeing the light of day.
"We weren't writing with any expectation that this would get made," says Casal, 32. "It was just our way of learning how to write a script" -- they wrote it using a pirated copy of Final Draft software -- "and to have an excuse to work on another of our many projects together."
While "Blindspotting" lingered on the shelf, Diggs went off and starred in a little Brodway musical titled "Hamilton," for which he was awarded a Tony for his performance as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. That spotlight ratcheted up interest in "Blindspotting," which Diggs says is now coming out at the right time.
"There were times when it was frustrating when it wasn't getting made, but it's a better film now than it would have been then, and we're better equipped to leverage whatever comes with it into the next thing," says Diggs, 36.
That next thing will probably be something together.
"The beauty of collaboration is you see how much another person who understands your art can activate your art and bring it up another couple levels," Casal says. "You realize that you are better around them, and you look for excuses to do stuff with them. So the capacities may change, but I don't envision many projects that Diggs isn't involved with in some capacity."
The pair's love affair with hip-hop has been a constant in their relationship; they are just as excited talking about definitive Bay Area rap albums -- among them E-40's "Grit & Grind," Mac Dre's "Ronald Dregan" and 3X Krazy's "Stackin Chips" -- as they are their film, which also stars Tisha Campbell-Martin, Ethan Embry and Wayne Knight.
"Blindspotting" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and caused a stir with audiences who were anxious to talk about the film's stark confrontation of racial issues and themes of gentrification in urban areas.
Casal and Diggs are excited the film is helping facilitate that dialogue.
"I think that is one of the reasons you make a piece of art is as a talking point, a touchstone where we can watch this and then have a discussion about our own lives," Diggs says. "Anything that inspires discussion at this point, especially between groups of people that don't often talk about these issues, I think is a good thing. We're a nation that feels more divided to me now than it did in 2008 when we started writing."
Rated R for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use
Running time: 95 minutes
Here are five films Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal say helped them while they were writing "Blindspotting":
"White Men Can't Jump": The 1992 comedy starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as a pair of hustlers works on several levels, Casal says. "It's a great '90s comedy that has a fair amount of drama to it," he says. "I think the pace of the dialogue and the sincerity of the duo played really well."
"Do the Right Thing": Spike Lee's 1989 drama about the hottest day of the summertime ramping up boiling racial tension in Brooklyn was an inspiration "for very obvious reasons," Casal says.
"The Big Lebowski": The Coen Brothers' 1998 comedy is "a great narrative following a group of friends through a bad situation," Casal says. Diggs says the way little things in the script that are brought up and pay off later was something they tried to emulate.
"Get Out": Jordan Peele won an Oscar for the screenplay of this 2017 horror hit, a film "every filmmaker wishes they had made," Diggs says. Casal says he admires the way the film descends and plays with tropes of comedy and horror.
"Licks": Jonathan Singer-Vine's 2013 film about a man returning to his Oakland home after serving two years in prison is a "really cool micro-budget indie," Casal says, and he admires the way it depicted the Bay Area on film.
Come back to The Detroit News on Friday for Adam Graham’s review of ‘Blindspotting.’