Magazine article Variety

Made in Oakland

Magazine article Variety

Made in Oakland

Article excerpt

A phenomenon like "Hamilton" has a way of changing the careers of everyone involved. Doors open; offers flood in. In the case of Daveed Diggs, who won a Tony for his dual roles as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the hiphop Broadway musical, it meant finally getting to make his dream movie project, "Blindspotting," a script he'd been developing with his longtime creative partner Rafael Casal well before he met Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Set in Diggs' hometown of Oakland, "Blindspotting" features him in his first leading screen role, playing an ex-con with three days left on parole, whose volatile best friend (portrayed by newcomer Casal) could jeopardize his freedom.

This incredibly timely cultural powder keg of a movie about race relations in contemporary America will kick off the dramatic competition at Sundance, premiering Jan. 18, the opening day of the festival. It will be the first time U.S. distributors get a look at the low-budget film, financed by Culver City-based indie production company Snoot Entertainment. To direct the feature, Diggs and Casal tapped firsttimer Carlos López Estrada, who had masterminded several of the pair's more ambitious video projects.

Enlisting their musical talents, Diggs, a biracial rapper, and Casal, a white spoken-word artist, use the film to address the everyday racial tensions and class differences aggravated by gentrification.

In addition to its simmering socioeconomics, "Blindspotting" also serves as a powerful indictment of the broken dynamic between police and people of color, both in Oakland specifically and in America at large.

"The best way to make a piece about something like race is to understand that you're not an authority on the subject," Diggs says. "The thing we are an authority on is our vision of what Oakland is, so we let that dictate everything."

True to the way hyperliterate, politically engaged Bay Area residents express themselves, Casal's and Diggs' characters find it possible to riff and sometimes even joke about such weighty subjects in everyday speech. "Because [something like police shootings] is so normalized for them, it's no longer a serious subject to bring up," Casal explains. "It's like bringing up the weather. You're not complaining about the cold, you're just stating that it is."

Diggs was living four blocks from the Fruitvale BART station when Oscar Grant was murdered there in 2009, which inevitably filtered into the screenplay - though "Blindspotting" doesn't presume to have the solutions to such complex social problems, which was one of the things that excited López Estrada about directing the film.

"I think the movie asks a lot of very direct, complicated and sometimes uncomfortable questions," says López Estrada. "And although all the characters in the movie have really strong points of view, they're leaving it up to you to decide."

oday, thanks to "Hamilton," Diggs, 35, may be the more established half of the "Blindspotting" duo, but that wasn't the case when he moved back to Oakland after earning his theater degree from Brown. Though four years younger, Casal had already made a name for himself on the Bay Area spoken-word scene, from which he was plucked to appear on HBO's "Def Poetry."

Casal had set up a recording studio with the aim of finding other musicians to collaborate with, reaching out to Diggs on the strength of a demo CD the rapper had recorded in his college dorm room. The friendship took hold almost immediately: That first night, they created a few songs, which led to albums, live performances (with a group they dubbed the Getback) and countless sketches and online videos.

"Rafael was the most famous person I knew," Diggs recalls. "He had really tapped into the YouTube audience pretty early."

Casal's videos caught the attention of Jess Calder (then Jess Wu). The young producer, partnered in Snoot with her husband, Keith Calder, had seen a couple of his spoken-word performances and was struck by both Casal's charisma and the fact that he appeared to be a natural-born storyteller. …

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