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'Blindspotting' Delivers A Brutal Conversation About Interracial Friendship

Diggs and Casal at the Oakland Premier of Blindspotting.
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Our NorCal friends in Oakland are having a moment in the film world. Sorry to Bother You, Oakland-native Boots Riley's surrealist political commentary, was both set and shot in the city. Now Blindspotting is in wide release -- it's a modern ode to one of America's most rapidly gentrifying cities.

The co-writers, co-stars, and longtime friends behind Blindspotting describe it as "a buddy comedy in a world that won't let it be one."

The movie tackles police brutality, gentrification, and the uncomfortable reality of never fully understanding another person's experience -- even your best friend's.

Blindspotting's a collaboration between Daveed Diggs -- of original Broadway cast of Hamilton fame, along wiith appearing in shows ranging from black-ish to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt -- and Rafael Casal, a musician and poet. They grew up together in Oakland, and the script is as much an ode to their hometown as it is to their friendship.

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KPCC's The Frame spoke with Diggs and Casal at Sundance about the making of their film and its resounding cultural relevance. (To listen to the full interview, subscribe to The Frame's podcast.)

Diggs said that gentrification especially changes what it's like for someone who leaves the city and comes back, as you don't see how the area got there.

"You just come back and the corner store you used to go to is a SoulCycle place," Diggs said. "These things that are real landmarks for you in your life all of a sudden don't exist. And it's not so much that the replacement thing is bad, it's like you wonder if anyone remembers what was there before."

Casal agrees, adding that SoulCycle isn't there for the people who lived in that neighborhood -- it's for the people replacing them.

"It feels so violent for the people it's happening to, and it feels so shrugged off for the people who are getting a SoulCycle," Casal said. "And that conflict is so interesting to stare at. It's why I love talking to people after they see this film. Because people just see it totally differently."

Police brutality also plays a major role in the film. Diggs said that they look at how it resonates with the black community in the way that, after experiencing it, Diggs' character Collin can't let it go.

"Being able to very palpably feel unsafe when you already have these strikes against you, when you're already trying so hard to remain above the line -- adding another pressure onto it affects everything," Diggs said. "That's not unique to Collin. I think what we are trying to present was a character that could be sympathetic to everybody, so you could understand some of the fear that black people walk through life with. There is a different value on our bodies than there are on other bodies. It's scary, it makes regular-ass s--- scary sometimes."

Another issue that plays a central role is "the talk" that many black parents have with their kids about interacting with police. One viral video that Casal saw had parents having that talk with their kids on camera.

"There's a line that we put into the end of the movie that says, 'You may think you know what's happening, but to feel it, it has to be you,'" Casal said. "I think sometimes we are consciously aware that these things exist, and people outside of the immediate consequence of that problem are aware that that exists. But it's a very different thing to make that a central point in the film [that pops] up at unexpected moments."

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That aspect catches affluent white older audience members off-guard, according to Casal. White people forget about that talk -- black people don't, he said.

"That conversation is so prevalent to a few groups of people in this country, and completely absent in other households," Casal said. "And that's an awareness that people don't have. You know, you're having the birds-and-the-bees conversation and that's your big stressful talk. And other parents are like, That talk is the easiest talk. I'm trying to keep my kid from dying."

The movie embraces tonal shifts between beauty and ugliness. Diggs said that they're one of the characters of Oakland that's most prevalent in the movie.

"It's very intentional. I love the way that [director Carlos Estrada] and Robby [Baumgartner], our director of photography, managed to capture that. Just by really dialing all the way in to the dark, gritty stuff -- and to the truly beautiful lyrical stuff," Diggs said. "And having them coexist right up against each other. And never commenting on the fact that that might be weird. I mean, that's a very Bay Area thing, to just never comment on the fact that this is exceptional."

Casal said that, when they sent out a summary of the movie, they didn't describe it other than saying "It's a buddy comedy in a world that won't let it be one."

"That, in a lot of ways, was the only framework we wanted people to come in with," Casal said. "When I grew up watching buddy comedies, which generally star predominantly white actors, I go, This is ignoring the rest of the world. And it's funny, but it is ignoring the rest of the world in order to be funny. And I want to see a buddy comedy that doesn't, that is trying to be funny amidst a world that is still in existence while the film is happening."

By the end of the movie, Casal said, it's strayed far away from being a buddy comedy.

"And that's the world's impact," Casal said. "And I think that what we're trying to do is remind people that there's people trying to have joy, but also people are getting dragged down amidst that joy."

Blindspotting is in theaters now.

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