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Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal first met performing slam poetry as teenagers in their hometown of Oakland, California.
After almost two decades of friendship, the duo debuted their first feature film, Blindspotting, grounded in the storytelling form they know best: spoken verse.
“We started in verse and in poetry and in music,” Casal told The Hollywood Reporter at a New York special screening on Monday, hosted by distributor Lionsgate. “It’s the first medium we ever tried to tell stories through, so making our first film, that had to be the spine.”
The Oakland-set film is the brainchild of Diggs, who won a Tony for his role in the Broadway musical Hamilton, and Casal. The real-life best friends co-star as fictional duo Collin and Miles in the movie that follows the last four days of Collin’s probation, potentially compromised by Miles’ propensity for trouble.
Directed by the pair’s frequent collaborator Carlos Lopez Estrada, Blindspotting is sprinkled with comedic moments. Much of it, however, is overshadowed as Miles and Collin grapple with race, class and police brutality in an ever-gentrifying city.
When the emotional toll of dealing with these subjects becomes too great to contain, the dialogue shifts to spoken verse. This was producer Jess Calder’s vision when she first reached out to Casal nine years ago.
Calder wanted to execute a film that employed rap in such a way, with a structure resembling that of musical theater. After watching Casal perform on HBO’s Def Jam Poetry, Calder called him up to discuss how his stories might complete her initial concept.
“I strongly think that if you’re a talented storyteller, being able to tell a story can translate across many different genres,” Calder told THR.
This became the film’s mission, Casal said.
Diggs and Casal’s characters rap within the context of their world, rather than outside of it. Casal’s character, Miles, shifts to verse when hustling on the streets, claiming that potential customers hanker for the “bounce” of a rhythm.
The characters are aware of their ability to use heightened language, strengthening their messages in both light-hearted and contentious moments, according to fellow producer Keith Calder.
The first installment of the three-part soundtrack to the film has been released. The three EPs — The Collin, The Miles and The Town, respectively — include raps featured in the film, as well as new material and collaborations with Bay Area rappers E-40 and Mistah F.A.B.
Between the film and the soundtrack, Diggs and Casal tell Oakland’s story as they know it.
“We had never seen it on film in a way that felt like the Oakland that we grew up in,” Diggs told THR. “That was a big part of the impetus for it.”
While not autobiographical, the characters in the film are a composite of the people Diggs and Casal grew up around.
“We’re of the community that Collin and Miles are from, we know those guys, we grew up with those guys,” Casal said. “A lot of the stories [in the film] are based on stories that either happened to us or close friends of ours.”
In the nine years since the first conversation between Calder and Casal, the film’s face has changed numerous times, with multiple rewrites to better reflect the current issues Oakland faces.
Diggs said that over the years of changing and reworking Blindspotting, he never stopped believing in the importance of telling a story that is relevant to the city.
“It being close to the heart is the only reason you can keep coming back to it for nine years,” Diggs said.
Casal said he went to great lengths to “check every box” when writing the film, which he sees as both a testament to his community and an examination of gentrification.
“We know how critical we are of other people’s work about where we’re from and how much we’ve said our whole lives that if we ever got to do it, we would do it right,” Casal said. “There’s a lot of responsibility there.”
Oakland is just one of the many urban centers that has been hit hard by gentrification, with a wealthier and predominantly whiter population moving into the city and forcing out those who have lived there for generations.
With the release of Blindspotting, Diggs and Casal join a number of Oakland-based filmmakers who have paid tribute to the city in 2018, including directors Ryan Coogler with Black Panther and Boots Riley with Sorry to Bother You.
Calder attributes this uptick in Oakland-set films to the obvious changes Oakland natives witness as they return home.
“There’s a vivacious quality to Oakland that is so unique, and is starting to be silenced and overwritten by people moving to this community and forcing out the people who live there,” Calder told THR. “I think a lot of artists have been seeing that and wanting to capture it for its spirit.”
Blindspotting opens in theaters on Friday, July 20.
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