Blindspotting – Cinema-in-verse

A chance to experiment with a fresh form that is an offshoot of Diggs and Casal’s prior experiments meshing theatre, verse and rap:  cinema-in-verse.

Lifelong friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and star in Blindspotting, a timely and wildly entertaining story about the intersection of race and class set against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrifying Oakland.

Bursting with energy, style, and humor, and infused with the spirit of rap, hip hop, and spoken word, Blindspotting, boldly directed by Carlos López Estrada in his feature film debut, is a provocative hometown love letter that glistens with humanity.

A story about a man trying to stay out of trouble for just three days in a rapidly changing, and charged, Oakland, Blindspotting walks a tightrope. From its hilarious but hellaciously tense opening moments, the film pulses to the vibrant beat and energy of Oakland, yet bristles with urban fury and fears that can explode at any moment. From that incendiary mix of opposites comes something unexpected.

In tackling issues like race, class and police brutality, Daveed Diggs (‘Hamilton’) and Rafael Casal want Oakland-set ‘Blindspotting’ to inspire audiences to embrace empathy.

The film is an excavation of race, class and manhood, and a rap-fueled story that at times busts out into its own rhymes.  But more than all of that, Blindspotting is a reminder of what we miss when we look at one another without seeing the full picture.

Where It All Started

Much as Blindspotting feels immediately urgent in 2018, it began with a series of accidental encounters that started 9 years ago.

It was producer and co-founder of Snoot Entertainment, Jess Calder, then Jess Wu, whose instincts would set things in motion.  In her early days of developing films with fellow producer Keith Calder, she’d been struck by Casal’s charisma while watching him on Def Poetry Jam. “Rafa was able to convey truth and honesty in a way I had never experienced,” recalls Calder.  Casal’s skills compelled Calder to start following him on the internet, and then to reach out. “I said to him, ‘This will sound crazy, but I feel like you might have a really great film idea in you, and I’d love to be a part of the process.’”

Casal had never seriously entertained writing for film before that but was up for exploring the idea. He sent Calder a poem he’d recently written called “Monster.” “It’s a piece about how he was growing numb to the fact that so many of his friends were dying violent deaths at a young age,” Jess Calder explains. “I’ve always traced the origin of Blindspotting back to that one poem.”

Not long after, the Calders had occasion to call upon their new friend Casal.  They were screening the documentary Thunder Soul for the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington DC and looking for a compelling spoken-word performer. But Casal couldn’t make it so instead he sent an equally gifted friend — Diggs.  “Daveed did 20 minutes of freestyle at the event and it blew our minds,” Keith Calder remembers. “We said to Daveed and Rafael, ‘What we want is to make a movie that reflects the two of you and your relationship.’”

Casal and Diggs began to move forward with a comic-tinged story about two dead-loyal childhood friends:  Collin, the parolee aiming at starting again as a free man if he can just hold it together for 3 more days … and mischief-making Miles, a wild card whose unpredictability threatens to blow up Collin’s chances.

They had something specific in mind for the characters.  They wanted the duo to be brash, rollicking and deeply Oakland in their lingo.  They wanted to create a natural comic tension between an unrepentant hothead and a former felon trying to make amends.  But they also wanted to carve out detailed portraits of two imperfect, very real men facing up to how race, masculinity and identity plays a role in what society expects of them, and what they expect of each other and themselves.

That Collin is black and Miles is working-class white allowed them to dig deeper into the oft-unseen reality of everyday racial tensions.  These tensions, which often go unremarked upon in daily life, become the underpinning of a story that also tackles more visible divides between police and African-American communities, between wealthy and blue-collar, between the way things were and the way things could potentially be.

Underlining the differing stakes for the two friends, the story kicks off with Collin witnessing a police shooting just when he’s doing all he can to avoid the police –an even that not only imperils his parole but also haunts him. Collin drives away, but he can’t let it go.  The guilt, confusion and anger at the disproportionate impact on the black community set off a slow-burning fuse inside Collin that will ultimately lead to a reckoning both with Miles and with his own bottled fury. “There’s been ongoing police brutality in Oakland since before the 60s,” notes Casal.  “It was something we always felt had to be central to this story.”

Casal continues:  “Before Collin even sees a man get killed, he’s so used to the idea of police violence it feels normal to him.  The fact of it doesn’t surprise him—it’s the personal way it hits him that surprises him.  But he knows the history.  And while Miles, as a white kid who grew up in a black and brown neighborhood is just as in tune with those hostilities, at the end of the day it just doesn’t affect him in the same way.”

Early on, they made another key decision that would stick — to ground the story deep in the Oakland soil.  “When you talk about race in a movie it’s best to recognize that you’re not an authority on the subject,” says Diggs.  “But the thing that Rafa and I do know well is Oakland and so that was the way in.”

“From the start our story was always these two characters telling the story of a changing Oakland,” Diggs says. “And we made Miles and Collin movers because it was a good way to have them directly interacting with the Oakland landscape as it is changing.  I’ve never seen Oakland portrayed on screen before the way that I know it, so we had a chance to do that.”

The origins go way back, to a life-long friendship as potent as the one between the two trash-talking, tag-teaming Oakland movers in the film.

Rafael Casal, a white-Hispanic spoken-word artist, educator and playwright, and Daveed Diggs, a black rapper and actor who came to the fore in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon Hamilton, first met as two Bay Area kids with a lot to say at Berkeley High School.

Growing up freestyling with their friends, they cut their creative teeth in the Youth Speaks program, a non-profit focused on youth education, civic engagement and encouraging kids to spit their truth in slam poetry performances.

The program not only bonded the two tightly as friends, it also sparked the direction of their futures, making art, expression and a passion for community an everyday way of life for both.

Diggs went on to study theatre at Brown University, to start the experimental hip-hop group Clipping, to become an early collaborator with Miranda on Hamilton (ultimately spending 18 months on Broadway and winning a Tony) and to star on television’s Black-ish while also teaching and running workshops.

Rafael Casal


Casal became a two-time National Slam Poetry Champion, then got recruited by HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, emerging as a rare teenaged standout on the show with his fearlessly candid work.  Through his spoken-word performances, he became an early YouTube star and began touring nationwide, often on college campuses (“I couldn’t get into those colleges but I could do shows there,” he quips.)  Casal also released several rap albums, served as Creative Director for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s First Wave undergraduate arts program, staged dozens of productions and all along was developing his own contemporary take on the marriage of theatre and verse.

As each of their careers took off in their own ways, Diggs and Casal continued collaborating whenever they could.  “We both had this huge passion for verse-driven work,” says Casal.  “But when met up again, we found we had this immediate, natural chemistry because we both love theatre, we both love poetry, we both love music and we just started putting all of those things together.”

Their other mutual love was Oakland, the city affectionately known to locals simply as “The Town.” But the Oakland they’d grown up with, a place of equal parts defiant grit and revelatory grace, was changing so fast it made their heads spin.  Hipsters had invaded the boulevards, healthy foods (and prices) had hit the bodegas, and business was booming … but what was being erased in the process?

Daveed Diggs

Coming 17 years into their friendship, Blindspotting would become a tale of the two Oaklands—the old Oakland and the new Oakland, the white, working-class Oakland and the black Oakland, the slangy, arty, spirited Oakland and the violent, angry, rebellious Oakland—by exposing the hidden divides between two thick-as-thieves friends. Collin and Miles are not directly modeled after Diggs and Casal, but they are as close.

“These are guys we know from our community, guys people probably know from their communities,” says Casal.  “We knew their voices because it’s a part of Oakland, so we knew how to inhabit them.”

“These are guys we know from our community, guys people probably know from their communities,” says Casal.  “We knew their voices because it’s a part of Oakland, so we knew how to inhabit them.”

Blindspotting would also become Diggs and Casal’s chance to experiment with a fresh form that is an offshoot of their prior experiments meshing theatre, verse and rap:  cinema-in-verse.

Putting their own stamp on the idea, they set out to forge a world that feels viscerally real, but where the most private thoughts and intense feelings can suddenly spill over into lyrical poetic meter.

Following in the slam poetry tradition, the film is unflinching when it becomes confrontational. Yet that shift is also part of the point.  Collin and Miles are laughing and ribbing with each other right up until the moment they hit a nerve of unspoken truth that has to be reckoned with.

At bottom, Casal suggests, the film is about putting our preconceived notions about other people—friends as much as foes—up for interrogation.

“The movie isn’t about the wide divide between black and white—it’s about the incredibly narrow divide between two people who grew up in the same circumstances with the same hostilities, attitudes and ideologies surrounding them, but one is black and one is white and they have to walk through the world differently,” points out Casal.

“It’s not a canyon between them, it’s a hair splinter between them.  But what’s a minor distance for Miles is cavernous for Collin.  On the surface they’ve had a lot of the same experiences growing up in Oakland but inside they’ve learned very, very different things about the world.”

The Oakland setting also seemed to demand the script’s fresh form.

The urban flows and word-play that are so woven into the fabric of Oakland culture had to be infused into the core of the script.  The question was how to do that in the most potent way?  The answer for Casal and Diggs was to look to cinematic history—to the upbeat tradition of the movie musical.  As in a traditional musical, their script would break away from flat reality at the most heightened moments—but instead of bursting into classical songs it would bust out into spellbinding rhymes.  And unlike the romantic language of the musical, the language here would mirror that of the most unflinching rappers and slam poets—ribald, dexterous, assertive and heated.

Says Diggs:  “Just as you crank the colors and the sound effects in a film we do the same with the language to make it more exaggerated, so you really get a flavor of how it works in Oakland. The trick was to make it feel like it’s organically coming out of the drama.”

The pair carefully let the mechanism of inserting rhymes evolve in the film, so that the audience would go with the flow.  “The first time we hear Collin rap, it’s very literal,” notes Diggs.  “But as it goes on, it gets more subtle and you’re not entirely sure how much of it is in his head and how much is real, which was purposeful.”

Meanwhile when Miles gets his hustle on by selling junk left behind in for-sale houses, he displays his own talent for bombastic rhymes.  Casal loved the chance to explore Oakland’s linguistic roots. “Miles speaks in a slang-driven speech pattern that has dominated street culture in Oakland since the ‘70s, derived from pimp culture,” Casal explains.  “This same braggadocious demeanor made its way into music and trickled down into the basic vernacular of the region.”

Casal and Diggs continued honing the script whenever they could.  But by 2017, the film felt so urgent that the motivation was intense to get it made.  “We’ve had different reasons for this script’s urgency at different moments,” Casal says.  “But I think the country has never been more polarized than it is right now.  So when someone gives you the opportunity to have a big stage at a phenomenally heightened moment of public discourse — and at that same moment you and your best friend feel you have something that may warrant people sitting in a seat for 90 minutes — that’s a dream cocktail for art that has a purpose and an urgency of story.”

There was one obstacle to moving fast.  Diggs had only 25 days off in 2017, less than a month’s window.  That felt to Casal like a now or never challenge. “Daveed said we could wait until later,” Casal recalls. “But there’s something about ‘later’ that always feels like the enthusiasm could just pass. If there’s an open window, you jump through the window.”

Because Diggs wasn’t available to write some of the more verse-heavy scenes, Casal wrote the majority.  He took it as a challenge.  He’d attempt to write Diggs’ rhymes in Diggs’ voice, seeing how well he knew his friend. “I got to ghostwrite raps for my best friend who is also an amazing rapper,” he muses.

Casal looked to his roots as a slam poet, creating something quite different from say what Miranda did meshing rap cadence into Broadway tunes. “I wrote all the raps in the film as poems in bar form,” Casal explains.  “They’re not really freestyle raps because that’s a specific term for a certain improvisational form.  It’s just written as super-heightened poetic verse that is perhaps all in the character’s head.”

Casal knew Diggs would fully make it his own in the final performance.  “I was thinking it’s going to have to feel as good as Daveed’s raps, or he’ll change them,” Casal says. “But in the end, we only changed eight bars in the final moment.”

The pressure was great for them all, and not just because of the timeline. Even though Diggs was heart-first into the project, Casal knew his friend had reached a new level of success as he finalized their script.  Suddenly, Diggs was a GRAMMY® and Tony Award® winner under pressure to live up to his reputation in his first major film lead.  When Casal delivered the final draft to Diggs and it was something special — raw, gripping and exuberant. “Oh shit,” Diggs recalls thinking.  “This might happen.”

A first-time director goes bold

Even as Casal was pushing to finish the script, the search was on for a director who could combine a high-flying sense of fun and style with the depth and passion the story’s subject matter demanded. Diggs and Casal had another upstart creative friend and collaborator in mind — Carlos López Estrada, an up-and-coming young director who had worked with them on music videos and made some short films showcasing the #BARS project at New York’s Public Theater.

Estrada was also intrigued by making a film that he saw as a fresh twist on the American musical tradition —that erupts into rhyme at emotional climaxes just as other films break out into song.  “The challenge,” says Estrada, “was to know when to use and when to not use verse so that it felt integrated into the story.”

Most exciting to Diggs and Casal was that Estrada loves to think outside the cinematic box, bringing in techniques from music video, from theater and from his own imagination that give the movie a kinetic, immersive feel.  “Carlos is super unconventional in his approach, and that was important to us,” says Diggs.  We knew he would just figure out how to make each shot tell the story and not be hung up on what was supposed to work.”

As the script was completed, Estrada’s ideas were non-stop. He brought in split-screens and tracking shots—and decided he would shoot the 9-minute climactic confrontation scene with two cameras in a single take all the way through, capturing the explosive back-and-forth between Collin and Miles in real time. And he decided to shoot Collin’s dream sequence to look like a modern music video, replete with flashing colors, choreography, and dollying cameras, while employing theater tech to time everything perfectly. “It was really fun to figure out how to do all these things and incorporate ideas that we’d been using with the theater project and music videos and apply them to traditional, character-driven storytelling,” Estrada says.

The director worked closely with a team including cinematographer Robbie Baumgartner, production designer Tom Hammock, costume designer Emily Batson and sound designer Jeffrey A. Pitts.

Estrada was especially gratified to be give audiences a chance to get to know Casal and Diggs, knowing that both might be relatively new but are not likely to stay that way.  “You see such incredible range from these two actors,” the director notes.