'Blindspotting' Co-Writer And Star Rafael Casal On His Hothead Character And The Gentrification Of Oakland [Interview]

Rafael Casal has a lot to say in limited time. His film Blindspotting premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and was released in theaters in late July. The Oakland artist, in every sense of the word, co-wrote the film's script with his friend, collaborator and co-star Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame). Casal plays Miles, a hilarious, violent, white Oakland native, who in Casal's eyes "is built on what he thinks of the way you are supposed to best care for your people." Just like the complexity of his character, Casal is a person with much insight, emotion and passion for this project and his city.

I had a chance to chat with Casal about Oakland slang, what The Miles EP will sound like and how gentrification is its own breed of violence.

The character Miles is both very agitated and light-hearted at the same time. Can you talk about what fuels both sides of his personality during the film?

We tried to do our best to write every character as bold and as complicated as the people that they're based on. Every character in the film is sort of a composite of a few different people that we grew up around. Miles is many things: He is a family man, he is fiercely loyal, he deeply loves the people that are closest around him, he's trying to do right by everyone and we see that in so many different ways. In the way that he shares his money with his best friend, trying to get his kid into a better pre-school, trying to figure out where the family might move if they have to get out of that neighborhood, trying to build this culture around his house [with] dinner over there and bringing Collin in, and trying to support him when he goes to prison.

Like, everything about Miles is built on what he thinks of the way you are supposed to best care for your people. Whether or not you agree with his choices, but if you have anyone like that in your life it's so easy to love that. If that person has ever been in your corner he's probably one of your favorite people when they're on your side.

The other side of Miles is true of so many men in low-income, poor, potentially dangerous areas. Which is: violence for a lot of men is the currency in which we trade with to survive. And that is true of Collin and true of Miles, Collin is just as much a part of that culture as Miles. In fact, it's the reason that he went to jail, and on his own accord. Miles punched somebody and Collin got dragged into it, Collin picked the fight like the grown man that he is. And Miles as his friend jumps in and supports him there. That's why there's a big fight at the end when it doesn't get reciprocated in essentially the big situation, but reversed role.

And that violence is really dangerous for his family and for Collin in a different way than it is for Miles. Like Miles' danger is about his surroundings and people, and just a little bit outside of them. He's worried about violence from his neighbors, from people from rival neighborhoods, from people in his peer group that are coming around to test him. And he's on the offense and has been for his entire life because he's been picked on more than everyone else. He's a minority among minorities, his defensiveness is very much a reaction for the way in which he's had to learn to survive. So it means more to him than it does to Collin. Because Collin isn't questioned or tested in those same ways in that neighborhood.

However, that violence that Miles cherishes so much as his way of surviving invites attention from police now that maybe didn't happen before, when Oakland wasn't under the national eye as the new hotbed for white America. And so now that that's happening, Collin, between that and the fact that he's on probation, is under a new kind of danger that Miles isn't. So there's threats on their bodies from different places. And Miles doesn't fully understand Collin in a way that he needs to, and the consequences may be potentially much greater for Collin than Miles.

And the other side is that Miles is raising a son the best way he knows how. We dropped a few times in the film that Miles didn't grow up with a father. He's a part of that lineage of men who don't have good positive male role models, and he's trying to be a father and sticking around and has created this family with this girl. But he's teaching his son to be a tough guy, which has different consequences in this area for a Black boy than for Miles growing up there. And so I think the film is trying to investigate all of those complicated conversations that land somewhere between Collin's changing identity and Miles' changing identity and context.

In mentioning violence and that Oakland being a new hotbed for white America, gentrification should be viewed through a violent lens because it aggressively and harshly displaces people from their homes. Did you, Daveed Diggs, and director Carlos Lopez Estrada take into consideration that this film would potentially be an archive of what Oakland looks like now as it's rapidly gentrifying?

There were locations that two weeks after we shot there, were gone. That time capsule element has only gotten more important to us over time in waiting for the right funding and moment and support to get this movie made. And we watched this city change, it's only gotten more important to capture the way we know and love it. So much of my context as a young person is gone or different, and I struggle sometimes to find the language to explain the nature in which I grew up because I don't have many references to point to. Growing up in the Bay Area is in itself unique and then growing up in particular communities within the Bay Area is like a double down on strange.

And so we need a reference point to invite people into that. And there's so few movies about the Bay Area. We are so constantly the source material for other people's stories, but so few stories get told about us in full. And so I think in watching the speed in which gentrification is happening in Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco and Richmond, we desperately wanted to capture it the way that we know and love it. That 20 years from now when those cities are different cities we have something to point to and go, "There was a place once called Oakland that looked like this, not like that."

Blindspotting review

My favorite scene in the movie was when your character is trying to sell the sailboat to a fellow local. When talking about archiving the history and the culture of Oakland, how important was that scene in terms of grounding it in nuanced Oakland slang?

Oh, I mean, paramount. There's a really clear through-line between slang and heightened language. The Bay Area is most known in popular culture for contributing language and slang to the national and international conversation. And so the genesis of the film was to write a film with a spineless verse, with a spinal heightened language. And so it felt so natural to not only write these sprawling verse moments that sort of progress over the film, that are essential to sort of Collin and Miles' reconciliation, and in many ways, Collin's therapeutic salvation by this final sort of climactic scene.

But that the way in which playing in a derivative, and metaphor is derivative are intrinsically related in the zone. That a word, a word can mean two different things to many different people but it stems from an understanding that we're all trying to grapple with. So in that sailboat scene is that moment of them sort of going back and forth and mostly saying the same thing and trying to negotiate for sale, and Miles sort of walking away and jokingly being like "I'm not entirely sure what just got said, but we got to the point."

It's sort of the relationship that Collin and Miles are having about race and class, right? That the goal is not that Miles is ever going to feel, physically feel what Collin is going through. And Collin can't ever physically feel with Miles is going through either, but they have to know and understand and accept it to be true. And we try to use every convention possible for the Bay Area to demonstrates the necessity for language in the conversations about progress. And so then comes the use of slang and the use of verse to condense sort of metaphor and symbolism as a way for us [to get across] the density of information.

The beauty of verse, from Shakespeare to contemporary music, is how much information you can pack into something and make it fun and exciting to listen to. And the reason I love that scene so much is it's so fucking fun to listen to, but you can unpack it for hours. There's so much laying there, there's so much history there, there's so much culture there. Where do those words come from, who uses them, who gets to use them?

That dude pulls up, him and Miles are like kindred spirits immediately because of this localized colloquial language that they both speak. It's so much about Miles and it tells anyone around him how deeply ingrained he is in the place that he's from. And I just think there's so much power in the way in which we use language to contextualize ourselves. And the whole film is about Miles unknowingly encouraging and teaching tolerance, how to complete the process of utilizing language to vocalize what he needs to express in order to give himself some relief from all of this trauma that he's holding on to.

Music is so ingrained in this film, whether it'd be Collin and Miles freestyling back and forth, or dramatic moments of verse. That music also extends out into the soundtrack. I saw you tweet that The Miles EP is coming up next, and then there's a unified EP at the end (named The Town EP), what can we expect from The Miles EP that's different from The Collin EP?

I think we tried to theme these music projects to be the soundtrack for the character's arc in the film. They're written in first person, they're written as Daveed and Rafael. But the spirit of them, the energy of them is completely catered towards the characters that they're based on and for. So I think because Miles walk through the city in a different way, it's going to be a little bit grittier and it's going to be a little bit more in your face. I think The Collin EP, and we're both on that EP so much, but it's a much more cerebral EP because we spend so much time in Collin's head, right? We get a sense of the stylistic way in which the both of them sort of exist. Always dialed to 11 but it's very fun and loving and showy.

I think at the moments where we're going to get into Miles's part of the soundtrack come through as much more somebody who feels that they're carrying the responsibility to maintain the neighborhood on their shoulders. I'm sure this exists everywhere else, but like back home we talked about that in terms of mob music. Like, music to drive around to, music to mob around to, music that the street kids want to listen to. I think that's more an experience through Miles' head, like he thinks of himself as an ambassador of the neighborhood, as an enforcer of the neighborhood. And so I think the boom bap, like classic Bay Area, like 808 slapper shit that was started by Mac Dre, and E-40 and more recently by the HDK gang, and those folks that's out right now. I think Miles listens to a lot of Too Shot. I think he grew up on that Oakland old school pimp shit. And so we're going to let that bleed into the soundtrack.