How does gentrification look from the other side of ‘Hamilton’?

Daveed Diggs’ new movie ‘Blindspotting’ takes a stark look at a changing Oakland.

How does gentrification look from the other side of ‘Hamilton’?

Daveed Diggs’ new movie ‘Blindspotting’ takes a stark look at a changing Oakland.

In 2009, Daveed Diggs was living blocks from an elevated subway platform in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland where, shortly after 2am on New Year’s Day, a transit cop named Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed black man.

“We were protesting, we were rioting — Broadway got fucked up,” Diggs recently recalled in Oaklandish, an apparel shop, referring to the bustling downtown artery just outside. The Hamilton actor, stubbly and lanky in shorts, had arrived while on the phone with E-40 (“Some people you don’t hang up on,” he said), before sitting with Blindspotting co-writer and co-star Rafael Casal for a standing room only Q&A. Grinning, he jokingly blamed the Grant protests’ window breaking on marauding suburbanites. “Well, Broadway got fucked up by kids from Pinole.”

Diggs went on to explain that they initially wrote scenes of citywide civil unrest into his writer-actor debut feature, Blindspotting, a tale of two stridently anti-“transplant” Oaklanders — one black, one white — with differing experiences of gentrification and policing. But Diggs’ life changed as fast as new money transformed Oakland, and the eventual script, started nearly a decade ago and completed in 2017, abandoned the theme of collective rebellion. “The early drafts were about a town’s response to tragedy,” Diggs said. “The final draft is about a changing town and a friendship that’s affected by tragedy.”

Blindspotting, out July 20, portrays two professional movers who’ve adjusted to encroaching gentrification in different ways: Miles (Casal) buys one cigarette every morning from the corner store, while Collin (Diggs) develops a fondness for the new $10 kale juice. Features of their upbringing — sideshows and scraper bikers, Black Panther parents and trunk rattlin’ slaps — are disappearing, or being co-opted by affluent newcomers. We first meet them in a two-door purple muscle car full of guns; Collin, stuck, begs to be let out of the backseat. (Twist: It’s an Uber.) He’s a few days from the end of a yearlong parole stint, and soon he’ll witness a fatal police shooting.

Instead of the city erupting, though, the characters greet news of the killing with muted dismay. “The fantasy of the time [of Grant] was if we draw enough attention to these things, if we voice our outrage, something will change,” said Diggs. “10 years later, nothing’s really changed. We have a pile of bodies and circumstance and places — like, who was strangled in what city? There’s a hesitation to react strongly to these events.”

The title of the movie refers to a coinage of Val (Janina Gavankar), Collin’s ex-girlfriend and manager at the moving company, as she describes an illusion known as Rubin’s vase. “It’s either a vase or two faces,” Casal said. “Not that you can’t see both, but you see one automatically. The way you fill in a story depends on your life and experience.”

When Diggs spent a month in Oakland filming the movie last summer, it was the longest amount of time he’d been in the city since 2011. In the interim, the 36-year-old former track-star’s experimental hip-hop group Clipping signed to Sub-Pop Records, and he earned Tony and Grammy awards for his roles as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Broadway smash Hamilton. Living in Washington Heights, he talked brunch with The New York Times, growing “generally less angry” about gentrification, he said, even as his parents were priced out of his hometown, resettling in nearby Richmond.

“The thing is, when you move into a place, are you going to be respectful and participate and learn about the existing culture? Or are you going to pave over it?” Diggs continued: “The reason cities don’t turn down money is, in theory, right, if that shit works the way it’s supposed to, it means there’s money for you too. Then you can buy up some shit.”

Blindspotting’s red-carpet premiere occurred that night at the Grand Lake Theatre, near the site of a recent racial-profiling incident that immortalized “BBQ Becky,” a white woman who called the police on a group of black people trying to have a cookout. Oakland ranks among the country’s least economically even cities; local government stores homeless people in repurposed tool sheds while median rent exceeds $3,000. In a climactic scene, Collin and Miles attend a party thrown by an employee of Pandora, a company that foreran Silicon Valley’s Oakland takeover. It’s shot in a two-story house that, in 2016, became the first in the neighborhood to fetch more than $1 million.

The movie is lately grouped with Sorry to Bother You, longtime activist and Coup rapper Boots Riley’s set-and-shot-in-Oakland debut. But the screenwriters’ goals differ: Riley presents a militant labor struggle as pushback to systemic inequity. Casal and Diggs cast local tension in interpersonal terms, as misunderstandings. At Oaklandish, Diggs posited authenticity as an antidote to cultural erasure. “The product we’re selling is ourselves,” he said. “If we can sell as close to our real selves as possible, then maybe you don’t have people coming in and disrespecting tradition.

“That’s just a theory.”

Daveed Diggs as “Collin” and Rafael Casal as “Miles” in ‘Blindspotting.’

Daveed Diggs as “Collin” and Rafael Casal as “Miles” in ‘Blindspotting.’

Diggs, who lives in Los Angeles, grew up in family-housing for graduate students near UC Berkeley with his mom, who was once a soul and funk DJ. His dad drove a bus in San Francisco. Childhood friend and Clipping bandmate William Hutson said in a phone call that the two of them would draw imagery from Parliament songs. “Sir Nose, Star Child, the Mothership — in our head we were trying to make a comic book or an animated movie out of the cosmology of George Clinton,” he said.

“We didn’t have a model for being filmmakers,” Diggs said. “There were lots of rappers. That was the thing we knew.” Hutson said they were as interested in Cash Money Records as they were in local groups such as Hieroglyphics, but they didn’t realize how marginal the Bay Area was to national hip-hop. “I remember going to a college party in LA. I was like, so when they play ‘I Got 5 on It,’ does everyone yell, Beeotch?,” he said. “But people didn’t even know the song.” (The track, by Oakland duo Luniz, had yet to migrate a few hundred miles south.)

In 2004, Diggs graduated from Brown University with a theater degree and returned to Oakland. He became a middle-school teacher and pursued theater at the San Francisco Playhouse. “It was also the prime hyphy era,” he said. “Everyone was ghost riding.” With rappers such as Keak da Sneak scoring hits, Diggs glimpsed his hometown garnering national clout. “Radio stations played local music,” he said. “People would hop out of cars to celebrate that monumental achievement: Clear Channel playing local artists.”

But hyphy’s commercial promise fizzled, hurting the likelihood of Diggs launching a music career from Oakland. By 2010, Diggs and Casal were living together with a pit bull named Jasmine and self-releasing music online. The hyper-local tales on their collaborative Bay Boy Mixtape, from 2010, could be breezy subplots about Collin and Miles. Casal had also turned his spoken-word notoriety (via Def Poetry Jam), into a following on YouTube, which attracted upstart film producers Jess and Keith Calder.

“We didn’t leave Oakland because we got successful. We left because we couldn’t make money.”
Daveed Diggs

“Jess and Keith visited when we all lived together,” said Hutson, referring to the producers who’d help develop the script and ultimately finance Blindspotting. “They’d made a few movies, so it was a big deal — Hollywood producers paying a visit.”

Diggs moved to Los Angeles, snagging a part as a teacher in the 2012 drama Wonder. Diggs also joined Hutson and Jonathan Snipes in the newly formed Clipping. Diggs’ solo music had a didactic bent, anticipating the maternal chiding tasked to the women in Blindspotting, but in Clipping he uncoiled knotty, staccato verses of stark imagery atop steel-wool scree. “Honestly, the reason I made the rule of not saying ‘I’ or ‘me’ was to distance us from rappers telling true stories,” said Hutson. “No lessons, no preaching.”

The story of Diggs’ break in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton — scouted for his rapping ability, he at first thought the play was a bad idea — is well known. His first experience in musical theater, the roles called for the sort of verbal agility he’d honed in Clipping. It hit Broadway in the summer of 2015 to near-universal praise. Within a year, Diggs was positioned to call Thomas Jefferson a “piece of shit” in a Vogue profile.

Still, Diggs used his platform to endorse contemporary politicos: He appeared in a video supporting Hillary Clinton, calling her a “badass.” He produced a television show about a young rapper becoming mayor; in interviews, he often references Michael Tubbs, the 27 year-old Black mayor of Stockton, near the Bay Area. Rapping at the BET Awards, he savored the way he ascended the cultural summit: “Playing these dead presidents / Getting my reparations.” In 2016, Diggs performed for the Obamas at the White House.

“Because of this Hamilton fairy dust, I have so many doors open to me,” he said that year.

One of Diggs’ first major projects in the post-Hamilton limelight was Blindspotting (he used 22 of his 25 free days in 2017 to film), a story set in the city he had to leave behind. Some locations he wanted on screen were gone, supplanted by upscale businesses, but Diggs brought a new point-of-view as well; visiting to promote the movie in June, Diggs and Casal stayed at a luxury hotel in Berkeley and traveled in a chauffeured SUV.

The day after the movie’s premiere in Oakland, Diggs and Casal took questions over lunch in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. “We didn’t leave Oakland because we got successful,” said Diggs, lamenting the lack of music and film industry infrastructure in the East Bay. “We left because we couldn’t make money.”

“Bay folks have gotten really good at putting the Bay in our bag and taking it anywhere we go,” added Casal. “If anything, we get more Bay the further we get from the Bay.”

They emphasized the lack of “villains” in the film, remarking on the “empathy” elicited by actor Ethan Embry in his performance as a killer cop. It was a measured, diplomatic perspective, casting racism as “implicit bias.” Diggs, drinking green juice, then returned to his view that genuine cultural appreciation eases the tension of gentrification, but he added a note of defeat. “There’s this urgency for artists and filmmakers here,” he said.

“It’s like, before you destroy it completely, this is the thing we know and love, so there’s at least a statement of that in the cultural consciousness.”

Sam Lefebvre is a freelance journalist in Oakland who has contributed to publications including The Guardian, Pitchfork, and The Fader.