By Pat Mullen
VANCOUVER – “The great thing about shooting in the city,” says Daveed Diggs, “is that it gives you everything that you do.” Diggs and lifelong friend Rafael Casal return to their hometown of Oakland as stars and writers of the new film Blindspotting. It’s an entertaining and streetwise film told with the beat and energy of slam poetry. Blindspotting is a love letter to Oakland, but also a potent essay on race and class in America.
Diggs, best known for his Tony- and Grammy-winning work in Broadway’s Hamilton, plays Collin, an Oakland native who emerges from prison to find his city in a state of gentrification. When Collin witnesses a police shooting, the incident explodes the racial divide between Collin and his friend Miles (played by Casal), and Oakland more broadly.
While bringing Oakland to the screen, Diggs says the key element to capture was the “casual virtuosity” of everyday language and action. “Everything’s a little bit more flashy and a little bit more fun and a little bit more playful,” he says. “And it’s not commented on every day.”
Diggs and Casal discovered spoken word poetry together in high school and continued along different paths, each finding success while honing their voices. Scenes between Diggs and Casal spark with creativity as Collin and Miles make sense of their changing community by dropping beats.
“There are stories to tell here that have a different slant to them,” says Diggs. “They’re slices of America that we don’t see represented so much in popular culture.”
Despite the air of improvisation, Diggs says the only adlibbing arose when Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar delivered his own take on the story that sent Collin to jail. “We gave him a script and he ignored it, which was for the best,” laughs Diggs. “All the verse sections were meticulously written.”
The actor/writer dismisses romantic ideas that screenwriting mirrored the scenes where Collin and Miles riff words and rhymes. “We only had one pirated copy of Final Draft and we shared one laptop back and forth in the early days,” admits Diggs. However, he adds that their friendship did fuel the story. Much of Blindspotting came to fruition during car rides and recording studio jams. “So much of the process happens in conversation and not on the page. It’s about living in this world and talking about these characters for years.”
Despite Blindspotting’s powerful beats, Diggs doesn’t plan to bring it to Broadway à la Hamilton. “Blindspotting is nothing like a musical. The framing is different and the music functions differently,” he says.
“I wouldn’t even categorize them in the same world,” he adds. “Hip hop is a vast genre. Saying anything that represents hip hop is similar to each other is like saying all jazz or classical music is the same.”
Diggs makes a good point about nuance, which is Blindspotting’s central theme. The title references the optical illusion Rubin’s vase, which lets people see either a white vase or two black faces but not both simultaneously. When the film reaches its climax, Collin confronts the offending police officer in a defiant poem that asks audiences to open their eyes to their surroundings.
“As storytellers, we’re required to dig deeper,” says Diggs, adding that he and Casal revised characters constantly to understand them from all angles. “To have characters that are simple like that ignores the complexity of the world that we live in, which is a convenient way to take the responsibility off of yourself.”