by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-Chief
In Blindspotting, Collin (Daveed Diggs) must make it through his final three days of probation for a chance at a new beginning. He and his troublemaking childhood best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), work as movers, and when Collin witnesses a police shooting, the two men’s friendship is tested as they grapple with identity and their changed realities in the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood they grew up in.
Their other mutual love was Oakland. But the Oakland they’d grown up with, a place of equal parts defiant grit and revelatory grace, was changing so fast it made their heads spin. Hipsters had invaded the boulevards, healthy foods (and prices) had hit the bodegas, and business was booming … but what was being erased in the process?
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal about Blindspotting, one of the years best films, after a charged screening of the film in Boston back in April. The energy of these two artists was palpable as we spoke in a closed hotel bar the morning after.
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
IR: The theme of change while trying to maintain identity is at the heart of Blindspotting. Post incarcerated Collin feels like a guy who is struggling with his own personal gentrification in his relationship with Miles while the city they inhabit, Oakland, itself is also struggling with gentrification. The film doesn’t seem to take a stance on whether gentrification is good or bad which I found interesting. What is your opinion when it comes to gentrification?
Daveed Diggs: Gentrification is problematic when it either ignores or very intentionally covers up or destroys the community that already existed. The soul cycle place is not the problem. It’s the… I mean, you move into a new area where you’ve never been before and you sort of have a choice when you move there, are you going to interact with the community that’s already here or do the easier thing to do and what you’re often encouraged to do if you’re in a new groundswell of people moving into a brand new building with no history attached to it and where, generally speaking, it’s all new people in that building… The thing you’re encouraged to do is participate in a brand new life that popped up out of nowhere in this desert where this newly discovered frontier of places to live… So gentrification is tricky, right? Space is at a premium, everything is getting more expensive, we don’t have answers for how communities are supposed to deal with it and everybody is dealing with it differently. You see cities trying to, in every new building, make sure certain percentages have to be low income housing. There’s all that stuff that is happening, but it all gets complicated by what, because ultimately the flow of the money is going to dictate the policy. So, if new people move in with more money and therefore have more power to dictate policy and say we don’t want these people in this building or we’re moving out. The policy might change. It’s very complicated and layered and you’re right, in the film we’re trying not to take a stance, we’re trying to present the lesser seen effects of a changing landscape.
Rafael Casal: You have a neighborhood that’s had decades of tension between the community and police before an influx of new people come in. And then these new people show up and they have a different relationship with the police. The previously existing residents don’t inherit the new position that the police have with the new neighborhood. If anything, the old neighborhood feels more criminal, because now there’s this… You can identify the old and new by where they live and what they look like and who gets protection and safety are two very different populations of people. So, if anything, it creates tension between the old community, it feels even more violent because now, right on top of you, is a community that’s getting policed just fine and the original residents are getting the police called on them in spaces that used to feel like theirs.
IR: It definitely feels like you had those themes in there but you didn’t make a social commentary or political film. You wrote a personal story and that stuff is in there, but it’s a smaller individual story.
Daveed Diggs: That was the hope, right? We weren’t setting out to write a film about issues. We were just trying to tell these guys’ story.
IR: Everything is inherently political now.
Daveed Diggs: We’re also all dealing with these things all the time. Everybody is. You can’t not. This is world we live in. All we’re doing is telling this story of these two guys who we hope the audience cares about. But not ignoring the way the world works.
Rafael Casal: There’s no such thing as non-political art.
IR: Not now.
Rafael Casal: Not ever. You’re either supporting the status quo or you’re challenging it. That’s it. We didn’t set out to make something political, but we are aware that everything we make is political. A great story is a personal story that has a universal value. So instead of coming out all preachy, with politics on our sleeve and shit… We don’t really have to. All we have to do is… The great mechanism of empathy is if things are corrupt or wrong or worth investigating all you have to do is show them in the most human way. And then empathy broods. Everyone is rooting for Collin in the movie and no one is rooting for Collin in the world. Straight up. So the political act, to me, is just an audience of people rooting for Collin for once. That’s it. I love when people gasp in fear for him. I love hoping that that’s just collective whiteness gasping.
Daveed Diggs: It’s also blackness gasping. It’s humanity gasping. It is, hopefully, a moment where everyone in the theater is feeling the same thing. Which is wild, right? Because Collin’s fear is based in the fact that generally in the world that is not true. That’s why we can all look at that moment and go, “Oh shit, he’s fucked right now.”
IR: The film really works because it makes the audience ask those questions and does provoke thought and engaging an audience, which doesn’t happen enough these days. It doesn’t spoon-feed all the answers and challenges you to look at yourself and the world around you a little differently.
Daveed Diggs: Check your blind spots.
Great advice, check out Blindspotting in theaters now.