The world has changed quite a bit since Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal started writing Blindspotting nearly a decade ago.
For instance, when the Tony Award-winning Hamilton star and his longtime friend and collaborator began working on the critically-acclaimed film, online videos of violent encounters between police and people of color felt like a new phenomenon, sparking outrage and protests in communities across the country, including their hometown of Oakland. Unfortunately today, these kinds of clips and stories have become so common place that it’s hard to keep track of all the people who’ve died in instances of police brutality.
The cultural shift in how we talk about this issue had a huge impact on Blindspotting, which morphed from being a dissection of a city dealing with riots and outrage over acts of police violence to a portrait of two men just trying to survive amid the chaos of racism, gentrification and poverty. In the film, Diggs plays Colin, a convicted felon who wants to avoid any trouble while serving his final days of probation, but his world is turned upside down after witnessing a police shooting during a late-night drive home. Casal plays his pal and troublemaker Miles, who’s also burdened by his own poor choices, as well as the weight of fatherhood and life in an increasingly changing neighborhood.
Ahead, Diggs and Casal open up about their new film and how it tackles today’s biggest issues.
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal talk Blindspotting
Blindspotting touches upon so many important topics, from gentrification to police brutality. Did any specific, real-life moments inspire this film?
Daveed Diggs: When we started writing, it was very close to the time when Oscar Grant was murdered at Fruitvale BART Station, so that definitely played into it. That was a big part of Oakland when we started writing. I guess that’s what I think of as the biggest difference between the script we started with and the script we ended with. When it started, it was about the specificity of that event, and what we ended with, we’re now in a world where you can’t even remember the specifics because they happen so often. A lot of things changed over time, but it was never really a piece about issues. We weren’t ever trying to…
Rafael Casal: Like, “Let’s make sure we talk about gun violence.”
Diggs: The story of Oakland is the story of gentrification, if you’re talking about a contemporary story of Oakland, and you can’t talk about gentrification without talking about…
Casal: Poverty and violence.
Diggs: You can’t talk about poverty without talking about the way police differently enforce laws based on socioeconomic status, so all these things bleed together. But our goal was really just to tell these two guys’ story and let that be a window into Oakland and the reality is, all of us are dealing with these issues every day, in every city.
While Blindspotting deals with a lot of serious topics, surprisingly, the characters cope with these situations using a lot humor.
Casal: We very intentionally tried to make light of certain issues because that’s what people do when they’re trying to survive them. By showing the situations as they are, they are inherently horrifying. We didn’t have to do a lot of hardcore hits in the score. It’s jarring. Most of the sound design is naturalistic because it does the work. When you hear the police officer’s gun go off, I think the only note I gave was, “Loud. Make the gun louder. Shake this room.” Because it has to shake your entire body. If you’ve ever heard a gun go off within 20 feet of you, it shakes your entire body. That does the work of the horror. Humor is a coping mechanism. I think it inherently is paired with tragedy. The humor that exists in my life came from the people in the most pain, so I think we were trying to tell a story about things that were painful to a lot of people in a way that other people could hear it.
Diggs: I think we watch Colin do it really early on. He sees the shooting, and the next time we see him in Miles and Ashley’s (Jasmine Cephas Jones) house, he’s retelling the story and he’s clearly not OK. He has to share this with somebody, and he’s not going to cry. He can’t cry. That’s not a thing he’s comfortable doing, so what is he going do? We’re going about our lives. That’s another part of it, like, if you’re working, you don’t have time to grieve, really, you know?
Casal: That’s poverty. You get the stoplight to deal with it. You’re not on break. You got 10 moves that day… That’s your time to deal with grief. So it’s all expedited. All of it has to be. You have to process faster, you have to deal faster, you have to get back to neutral faster. Comedy expedites that.
Diggs: My dad just retired, thank God. He was driving a bus in San Francisco for Muni, a f–king horrible company. Both his parents died in the same month. They gave one day of bereavement for a death. He had to give up all of his sick leave to go take care of them, and even still, he only managed to get away for a week and then just started losing pay, they just stopped paying. My father’s one of the happiest people in the world, and to sort of get around him in this moment of extreme sadness, all I could think of trying to do is try to think of ways to make him laugh, try to tell jokes. That’s what the whole family was doing. Getting together and laughing, telling stories and remembering the good times, because that’s how you get through it. And you are going to have to go to work tomorrow, so get yourself in the highest spirits as possible so you don’t go up there and kill up a bunch of people or something. It’s a very serious situation.
Casal: Humor’s the language of the poor, man That’s the great thing about collective suffering. Everyone gets the joke, who’s from it. I think anyone who would come at us and be like, “You made light of an issue,” must not be that close to it. Funerals are nothing but jokes to me. That’s every funeral I’ve ever been to, if it’s anything other than your first one. The first one is all tears. And then after that, it’s like, “This motherf–ker would have hated this.”
When it comes to talking about all the big issues that Blindspotting tackles, why was it important to make sure that the topics of class and poverty weren’t lost in the discussion?
Diggs: Well, race is made up, right? I mean, it doesn’t exist, but it affects our perceptions of everything. But it’s not the practical application of anything, right? Poverty is real. That affects everyday life. And I think, you know, the Bay Area happens to be a place – most of our process was about making things true to Oakland – is a pretty mixed-up place, and it is a place that is sometimes geographically separated, but it’s entirely based on class, really. So you do have a lot of Mileses in the hood. And we went to Berkeley High School, which is the only public high school in Berkeley, so everybody had to go there. And that was also kind of this situation where people are learning how to function around each other, whether they like it or not.
Casal: It’s a school that is full of kids from Richmond and Berkeley and Oakland and San Leandro and the Hills and Emeryville and you know, everywhere. Totally different economic situations across the board. That melting pot effect is very real in the Bay Area. You’re in with everyone, which is why you get such sharp people. That’s why we didn’t write Colin or Miles as dumb or naive. They’re particularly informed. Miles is a smart dude. He’s not unaware of racism. He’s not unaware of his privilege. Neither is Colin assuming that Miles doesn’t understand it. It’s a very nuanced thing that Miles is missing. He knows why he doesn’t say the n-word. It’s not because he’s worried he’s going to get beat up for it. Miles will f–k you up. He’s not scared. He’s politically making a choice. He probably could get away with it. And a lot of Bay Area white people do get away with it.
These are smart characters, but the intersection of race and class is a lifetime of conversations to fully understand, and you’ll never fully understand everyone’s perspective. Early on I would tell people a good entry point into the movie is to think about Colin as having a crisis of how his race is impacting his life in this particular story and Miles is more about class. That is a dramatic oversimplification of what they’re actually going through, but it’s a nice entry point into the conversation if you need a place to jump in, but they’re both sort of dealing with both.
Diggs: On a national level, we’re only barely beginning to have even a broad-strokes conversation about race. In your day-to-day life you don’t deal with anything like that, particularly race. You know, that’s not how it comes up. You don’t have broad-strokes conversations. Everything is nuanced. What’s important to me about this film was that it’s not a film about issues, so we didn’t come at it with this brush that was like, “This is what you need to do tomorrow in order to fix racism.” That wasn’t the point of this film. It was about how are these characters practically dealing with these things that are actually much more complicated than we are even capable of having the conversation on a grand scale.
It’s hard to print stuff about this. You only have so many words. And even the freeze-framing of something for an essay doesn’t allow for the way a conversation develops in the moment between two people. That’s a thing that a film can do that is specific to what a film can do, so we tried to lean into that a little bit. We didn’t simplify anything. That would have been the worst thing for us in this movie, is sort of making it more simple than it is in real life. In reviewing drafts for me, it was like, I don’t know. Is there a way to complicate this that is honest? That was a lot of the notes I remember thinking about. What’s a way that we can make this feel more Bay Area by complicating the situation a little bit?
There’s one scene where Colin seems to process his grief and anger through a trippy, dream sequence. Why did you choose to portray that experience in that way?
Diggs: We think of it as tracking Colin’s PTSD, which, you can make the argument that just the act of being black in this country provides an amount of PTSD, but Colin’s was accelerated so quickly because he witnesses an event and there’s this clock of his probation that he’s hyper-aware of, and there all these constraints on Colin’s life that lead to him having this few days of very accelerated PTSD. What we were hoping to do, as we are getting deeper into Colin’s head, was just really understand the fear and understand how he has lost his agency. It’s like there’s nothing he can do to be safe. It doesn’t matter how good he is. It doesn’t matter how many rules he follows. And even in just trying to follow rules, that’s so hard. The rules that are set up are arbitrary and unrealistic, so this thing happens to him because he gets stuck at this stoplight too long and he’s worried about violating his probation. That’s when he witnesses this shooting, which he had literally nothing to do with.
He was trying to follow a rule by not running this light. If he had violated his probation right quick and run the light about 30 seconds earlier, this wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have been feeling these things. I think what we’re trying to do is just show how the terror is just making him start to lose his grip because he doesn’t know what to do, he can’t affect anything, he doesn’t have any agency and that’s why we needed to somehow build him to a moment where he could say that to the person who, in his mind, is the element of his fear, to the person who he’s scapegoating for it, because it’s building to that climax where he’s allowed to say those things to that person in a way that he is heard.
I think that saves Colin’s life. I don’t think he survives if that other chance circumstance doesn’t happen. I don’t know that Colin makes it, but he gets, he’s allowed to be heard, which is another meta comment for artists. I very much credit the fact that I’m alive to the way that I’ve always figured out a way to be heard. It’s a very important thing.
How much did the political conversations that are happening today affect the story you guys were trying to tell?
Casal: We just tried to meet the conversation where it was at. When we first wrote it, we could remember the names of people that have been killed. Now we can’t. It’s in such absurd abundance and it’s so normalized. We’re in this time of this normalization of absurdity. I think we just embraced that, the thing that’s not happening and one of the biggest changes in the script was in the first script. The whole time we were tracking the city’s outrage. There was a riot, all these things. We have two lines about it. We have one where Miles says, “That other dude who got shot, what was his name?” And he trails off trying to think of who it is. It’s in the background. And there’s another moment when him,Miles and Ashley are watching TV and he just says, “Wrong cocktail, no protest.” That’s where we’re at. That’s the current climate, right?
We just did this poem at CinemaCon, one of my favorite lines in it is, “How perfect must a black boy be before we mourn him?” That’s where we’re at right now. Every time it happens, there’s some reason why this is not the right person to be good enough to make change and the reason is not because the person isn’t perfect enough, it’s because they’re black. That’s the actual reason. The actual crime is that they’re black. They could be a f–king Harvard grad. The story could be f–king perfect, but it’s not a white kid, so it’s not going to happen. There’s some cynical part of me that, if it was a poor white kid, I don’t know if it would change. I don’t know. I think there’s also this really underlying hatred for the poor in this country in general that sits underneath it and I think that that became this big guidepost.
There’s a reason that there’s a Miles and not just a Colin. It’s a conversation about poverty and the divisiveness of power and how it affects poor people. I think at this heightened moment in the country where there’s a lot of poor people that are very divided when a lot of us are in the same boat. It felt powerful to have a conversation between two people like Colin and Miles about space and empathy because they have a lot in common. But one’s being hunted in a different way.
“Blindspotting” opens in theater July 20.