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Daveed Diggs Shines in Blindspotting

The Hamilton actor’s latest film is a love letter to his hometown of Oakland

Where the Oakland of the early aughts regularly ranked as one of the country’s most dangerous cities, in recent years, it has seen a renaissance as artists and writers—even the next gen of startup entrepreneurs—have come to the area for affordable housing and a culturally rich community. “In the last decade, Oakland has started to become a very attractive place to live,” says actor and Bay Area native Daveed Diggs. “It’s problematic for a lot of us who are from here because we think the story that’s being told about what makes it a great place to live isn’t the actual story, so there’s this weird sense of false advertising going on. You got a bunch of people moving into something and creating a culture that isn’t actually the one that we know to be here.”

This crossroads of cultures is the center of Diggs’ latest film, Blindspotting, which revolves around his character, Collin, an ex-con who witnesses a white police officer shooting a black man. The drama comes from his character’s struggle with what to do next. A major talking point for viewers, who have seen Blindspotting at film festivals such as Sundance where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, is what you would do if you were in the same situation. “My response is so different from Collin’s response,” says Diggs. “If I saw that right now, I’d be all over the Internet, but I have half a million followers and I’m lightweight rich—I’m not going to jail, I’m not on probation. I have a platform and people will listen to me, so I can affect the kind of change with relatively little impact on my wellbeing. The consequences for Collin are so much greater.”

One of the challenges Diggs and his cowriter, lifelong friend Rafael Casal, faced in crafting the script was capturing the change in history—early drafts, written around the time of the Oscar Grant shooting in Oakland, centered around “the fantasy of that time that through our action and through our protests and our marches, something would change,” says Diggs. “The thing that changed in our script is early on there were protests and the city’s response to the tragedy was really palpable. In this version, the only person who can have a really palpable response to it is Collin because he witnesses it, but everyone else around him is relatively numb. Collin has to struggle with the PTSD associated with this event on his own.”

While Blindspotting has been compared to other films that captured the zeitgeist of race relations like Do The Right Thing, it wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention to make a movie about a bunch of hot-button issues. “We were just trying to tell the story of these guys honestly and show off our city a little bit,” says Diggs. “The topics of conversations are not ones that necessarily we came up with. People want to talk about the guns in the film—there are lots of guns in this film because there are a lot of guns in the world, that’s just the truth of the situation. Art is best when it’s a tool, or at least becomes a touchstone for conversations.”

The script had been a decade in the making with a number of starts and stops before the stars finally aligned last February. The only caveat: Diggs was only available for a short window of time four months later, so Blindspotting was shot in just 22 days. While Diggs and Casal’s careers have grown exponentially since they wrote the first draft—Diggs, for example, was one of the original Hamilton cast members—this is director Carlos López Estrada’s first feature-length film. “I don’t think we would have got as beautiful a film with anybody else,” says Diggs of the director, another longtime friend who produced videos for Diggs’s band, Clipping. “We have this great shorthand and we can be really, really collaborative about it whereas giving it to some of the bigger name directors who were part of the discussion, it would have been their film and not our film.”

To further cement Blindspotting’s Oakland authenticity, the filmmakers used as many local talents as possible—nearly all of the music in the film are works by Bay Area artists; eight of the songs are originals written for the film. “A lot of the script is in verse partially because that’s the community Rafael and I grew up in, but also because language is important to us in the Bay Area,” says Diggs. “We pride ourselves on the invention of slang and being conversationally virtuosic so that’s all woven into the script,”

It was also important for Diggs to open the door for other new voices. “I’m in rarified air for an artist—I go into meetings and people ask me what I want to do next; that’s crazy,” says Diggs who will be seen next in Velvet Buzzsaw opposite John Malkovich, Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette, as well as the next season of Snowpiercer. “That feels rare and I don’t take it for granted and so a big part of my process right now is make sure I can hold the door open for some other artists who have been working as long and as hard as I have. There’s this weird disconnect in this industry where every meeting I go to, people claim they want content from new voices and some voices of color, but I know a ton of new voices who are well deserving and well trained who aren’t being seen. A big part of my mission right now is just going into meetings and start dropping names. There are artists out there who are ready, and working and deserve every bit of the same attention I’m getting and I know because we grew up exactly the same. It’s like Amazon recommendations: because you purchased Daveed Diggs, you might also like… Just trying to exploit those algorithms a little bit.”

Main image credit: @blindspotting

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