'Blindspotting': Daveed Diggs and Carlos López Estrada on Their New Oakland Classic
An Oakland-set murder mystery in which the only mystery is why a police officer was able to get away with murder.
Sure to be heralded as one of most thrilling motion picture experiences of the year, Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting is as funny as it is heartbreaking, as sociological as it is psychological, as literal as it is figurative, as site-specific as it is universal, and as musically gifted as it is profound in crafting head-spinning dialogue.
A film with this many moving parts has to be carefully constructed by a team with a shorthand communication: co-written and co-starring long-time friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal—and directed by Estrada, another collaborator who here makes his feature debut—the film feels lived in, and there's a reason for that.
Taking place on the West Coast, Blindspotting is set in an Oakland, California rampant with NBA titles courtesy of the Golden State Warriors and police brutality courtesy of the Oakland Police Department. As Collin (Diggs) is released from prison on an assault charge and subsequently placed on probation, he re-connects with his buddy (MIles) as the two resume work as local furniture movers.
One evening, as Collin is waiting for a traffic light to turn green at an intersection, he witnesses a cop shoot down and murder an African-American man. The cop tells him to drive away. Does Collin, so close to being off probation, tell his friends of the crime? Does he report the murder....to the police, (i.e. those responsible for the injustice)? Does he search for new ways to protect himself?
Whether threatened to be pushed out or killed off, our lead characters fight for a city that now views them as outsiders.
In an era of highlighting of police misconduct, the flashing blue-and-red lights atop a cop car provide unease for both the characters and the audience, and the film hones in on that ingrained trauma throughout. If the subject matter sounds extremely serious and dire, that's because it is, but in the hands of Diggs, Casal, and Estrada, it's an extremely quick-witted, bantering back-and-forth buddy comedy that consistently makes a statement while providing a knowing laugh.
The film doesn't shy away from the ugliness of gentrification and local gun violence, but it's how it's addressed—through nightmare sequences posing as music videos, through flashback scenes that in any other hands would be more heavy-handed that hilarious, through negative but knowingly shortsighted discussion of incoming hipsters, through a child who plays with her father's gun unaware of the dangers it possesses—that make the film, made by Oakland natives, feel like a comedy with very real repercussions. Whether threatened to be pushed out or killed off, our lead characters fight for a city that now views them as outsiders.
After screening at SXSW last week, Diggs and Estrada spoke with No Film School about representing Oakland on screen, why story was allowed to dictate the style, and how a history of working together provided the team with an opportunity to experiment creatively.
No Film School: Blindspotting has been described by yourselves as a “buddy comedy that doesn’t ignore the environment the characters live in.” At times, it also feels like an American horror story, a drama with music, an old-school throwback, and more. How did you craft the screenplay to bring forth a number of genres that accentuate this serious story?
Daveed Diggs: I think it was mostly about telling a story that felt true to Oakland, and those tonal shifts you mentioned—the extreme highs and lows, and the treating of the virtuosic as if it's normal—is a very Oakland feeling and thing to me.
That's one of the things about the film I feel is most representative of the Bay Area, because it's a place that's comfortable existing in the midst of these extremes, and so I think it's nice to show that. That was something we were intentionally baking into the screenplay, and then Carlos translated that into his shots. it was really nice, after we were done, to see it and be like, "Holy shit, it worked!" That to me does feel like Oakland, and part of it is about how it shifts tonally.
"It was nice to work on something where the barometer of authenticity is yourself."
NFS: The film incorporates Oakland culture and sports iconography throughout—it’s clear that the Warriors and Raiders reign supreme in the Bay Area—beginning with the split-screen introduction that invites us into the story. When making a film about a particular city, how do you determine the collective voice of a city through these signifiers, even if we’re following one story in particular?
Diggs: We were aware that this was our lens and our take on Oakland, and it was nice to work on something where the barometer of authenticity is yourself. You don't get to do that often, and so we'd constantly be checking in, being like, "Does this feel right?” And we drew on all of the characters, too. While they're not specifically one person that we know, or either of us, they're all compilations of people that we grew up around, and because we grew up in the same place, they're very real to us.
It was easy to create these things. Well, I shouldn't say easy, as the execution of it was very difficult, but it made sense to create these individuals that, even though maybe at times, to somebody who's not from there, may feel totally out of left field or larger than life or whatever, that Oakland is a place that encapsulates that and can support these characters. And we know that because we were living there.
NFS: Did non-locals you worked with feel similarly?
Diggs: We had these great experiences when we were going there with the crew for the first time, and some of the crew wasn't from there, and they got to start spending some time in Oakland. They would tell these stories about people they met out at the bar, and being like, "These people are so much more intense than anybody in your script!”
NFS: Carlos, I’m a big fan of the videos you’ve directed for clipping., which Daveed is featured in. What did you take away from that experience and how to did help you shape several nightmare sequences in the film that feel very much inspired by a binary relationship between hip-hop and film editing?
Estrada: I had the privilege of working with both Daveed and Rafael Casal [the film's co-writer and co-lead] a number of times for a number of years, and I think everything we learned, and everything we tried, and everything we liked about the things that we have done together, somehow made its way into the movie. That's in part because the projects we've done together are obviously very music driven and very visual. We did some poetry performances in New York for a program called #BARS that these guys started, and there's obviously a lot of heightened language in the movie.
And so it felt natural to do many of these things, just because it wasn't like we were exploring completely new territory. It was like we were visiting things that we had already sort of started experimenting with, and now we just got a chance to put them all together, combine them, and distill them to figure out what was helping the script that these guys wrote.
More than styles or techniques, I think it was more about the creative relationship we had been building for years. I'm sure if you see clipping. videos and I'm sure if you see #BARS or other projects that we did, you will notice a lot of visual and thematic parallels, but I think what was most important was the fact that throughout the years we learned to trust each other. They knew how I worked and I knew how they worked. And that allowed us to start completing each other's sentences, and just getting the trust that we needed to do it, to get creative.
"The split-screen ended up becoming the perfect metaphor for everything that the movie talks about."
NFS: Did the material dictate when to get creative with that style? One memorable confrontation between Collin and Miles is illuminated by a single light placed on the side of a building as each throw biting, verbal jabs at one another. Was that a moment of really wanting the words to speak for themselves?
Estrada: Yeah, the whole movie is about perspective and about angles and different people's understanding of the same events. So, I think this movie, more than most, lent itself to very deliberate choices of how we were gonna shoot things, how we were gonna light things, when we were gonna use a close-up, when we were gonna use a wide shot or two shot, etc. Even simple things as an eye line, there's a progression to how viscerally we'd do, how close to the lens the actors would be looking.
It's choices that we made collectively, but it's all really just developed from the script, and there were so many motifs and so much symbology that these guys incorporated in it, that we just tried visually to support that as much as possible. We wanted to make choices that felt deliberate, and to visually depict what was happening in the story.
NFS: I’d like to ask about your use of split-screens for several phone calls Collin has with his former girlfriend, Val. The effect really accentuates a need to see both faces in a phone conversation and the power of the close-up. What made you choose split-screens rather than a shot-reverse shot for these calls?
Estrada: Well, full transparency…
Diggs: Those were decisions made in post!
Estrada: Those weren't originally planned like that, and I think this is a good place to give a shout out to our editor, Gabe Fleming, who was experimenting here and presented this idea of the split-screens. I remember when he did, I was like, "Oh man, there's no way we're gonna have this split screen in this movie," but as we kept editing and finding motifs and figuring out what worked, and what didn't, the split-screen ended up becoming the perfect metaphor for everything that the movie talks about.
After that, we reverse-engineered it into the intro of the movie, where you also have it split-screened. And yeah, now I don't really see what the movie would feel like without those.