Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal on Blindspotting and the Power of Poetry

The Hamilton actor and the Def Poetry alum, who co-wrote and star in a new film about two friends in Oakland, talk about hip hop, social injustice, and what it takes to heal collective wounds.

Rafael Calas and Daveed Diggs as Miles and Collin in 'Blindspotting'
Rafael Calas and Daveed Diggs as Miles and Collin in Blindspotting (Lionsgate)

This story contains some spoilers for the film Blindspotting.

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs believe the right words can dress wounds. The Oakland-bred duo, who wrote and co-star in the new movie, Blindspotting, speak of poetry as both craft and balm.

Directed by Carlos López Estrada, Blindspotting is half social drama, half choreopoem. The film follows two lifelong best friends, Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), as they adjust to changes in their immediate lives and in the city that shaped them. Blindspotting’s protagonists have grown alongside one another for years, but the story finds them—and a rapidly gentrifying Oakland—at a crossroads.The film oozes with Bay Area vitality. It booms and rattles. It bounces and bends. Oakland is both backdrop and character.

Blindspotting could have easily dramatized the gore of the violence its characters witness and enact; but it differs from other works that address similar subjects (police brutality, gentrification) in its choice of form. Casal and Diggs, who pull from backgrounds in poetry and music, imbue the film with a distinctly rhythmic cadence. The poetry of their characters’ friendship is a constant refrain. Collin and Miles speak in ciphers; their banter is layered, complex, lyrical. The way the two men wrap language through, around, and between the difficult moments in their lives is at once reflective of their upbringing and of the depth of the traumas they face.

In one of Blindspotting’s first scenes, Collin witnesses a white police officer fatally shoot a young black man. With three days of probation left (and with an attendant curfew hanging over him), Collin must race back to his court-mandated dwelling after seeing the shooting. He’s unable to intervene or even react immediately, but the effects of what he saw weigh on him throughout the film. He has nightmares. He fights with Miles. He tries to quite literally outrun his demons. In one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, Collin confronts the police officer not with violence but with verse. The effect is jarring for Collin, Miles, the officer—and the audience.

Ahead of the movie’s release, Casal and Diggs spoke with The Atlantic about Blindspotting, the distinct power of poetry and hip hop as tools of addressing injustice, and the undying spirit of Oakland. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Where does the story of Blindspotting begin for the two of you?

Daveed Diggs: It starts with Jess Calder, one of our producers, discovering Rafael via his poetry videos on YouTube and sliding into his DMs and saying, “Would you like to write a movie that uses some of these same techniques?”

We knew the movie was going to be in verse, we knew it was going to be set in Oakland because that’s what we wanted to do. We knew it was going to star us because that’s what we wanted to do. And then right after that, or right around that same time, Oscar Grant was [killed] at Fruitvale BART station, and so the discussion in Oakland was centered around this event.

Rafael Casal: The video that Jess Calder saw was a poem I wrote called “Monster,” and it’s about the numbness that comes from an abundance of death early on in your life. Numbness plays heavily into the film as well and it’s a through line of what happens when you sort of have trauma fatigue. Diggs’s and my backgrounds are both in poetic verse and music, so expressing complicated ideas in short amounts of time, in compressed language through metaphor was the exciting part of storytelling that we were most comfortable with.

We had to learn how to write a screenplay. We didn’t know how to do that. That was Jess and Keith [Calder] giving us scripts, asking us questions, saying let’s all go out to the movies, let’s talk about the movie afterwards. After about five years we realized we had been in a master’s program via mail and phone.

This last year, when we finally made the movie, I think we really felt like peers for the first time. We had gotten to a place in our careers that we were really excited about and, like, really became stronger writers and had other script-writing opportunities and other acting opportunities. Diggs had a fucking Tony.

It’s interesting to hear that the form came first.

Diggs: We’re always trying to make it part of the fabric of the world, because it is. Because that’s how Oakland feels to us. It’s a place where there’s a premium on language and where you score points by being innovative. You score points, even just conversationally, by speaking pretty, you know? So we try to bake that in enough to justify these more overt verse sections, so it never felt as if the stakes of the world or the reality had to be shifted in order to have a song or whatever. Like what musicals sometimes do, you know? Part of the escapism of a musical is that this is not how life works. People don’t break into song like this. You frame the whole thing that way, and then we accept it. It’s all about framing.

Our framing in this was that we wanted to still feel super grounded in this contemporary reality. We also needed [the poetry] to serve the purpose it always does, to take big ideas and condense them into metaphor, both for the audience but also for these characters, to help wrap their minds over things. So much of [the filmmaking process] was about setting up this thing where verse just felt very natural.

We knew Carlos [López Estrada, the film’s director] could do that. … We have a theater and verse workshop that Carlos directs the final project for every year, and so we’ve watched him do it. So when they asked who we wanted to direct, he was the person who we knew could actually pull [it] off.

What went into the decision of having your character Collin, who witnesses a police officer kill a young black man, later confront that cop in verse?

Diggs: It was always there. It’s probably the oldest thing in the film. Part of that is that we both came up through Youth Speaks, a spoken-word youth program. You teach your kid poetry because nobody cares what they have to say unless they make it sound pretty. So we wanted to get to a point where Collin has to be heard. The stakes are life and death. What he needs is to be heard by the object of all of his trauma; this person is the nightmare that’s been haunting him. So he’s going to have to make it sound real and use all the lessons he's been learning from Miles over the course of the film about salesmanship to really sell this idea of understanding. That’s why we learned how to write poems in the first place was in order to be heard.

Can you speak a little bit about the relationship between Collin and Miles? There’s a willingness to engage one another that seems rooted in a sort of shared concern, even if their experiences and circumstances are a little different.

Casal: Collin and Miles essentially are siblings. They’ve always been around each other. They’ve helped each other survive for so long. They’re a little two-person gang, right? Even when they’re with a different group of people, it’s them two. And they’ve, to a certain degree, developed as adult men entirely together. Their context is changing—that’s the catalyst for the film. They don’t have an issue with each other. It’s the rest of the world that is treating them in these new and destructive ways, and they’re both trying to reconcile those internally and how that affects [their] relationship.

They’re composite characters. They’re based on people that we know very well and love. Collin’s not based on a bunch of black dudes; Miles is not based on a bunch of white dudes. But energetically, [they are drawn from] interesting examples of men from those neighborhoods in Oakland, that are from Northern California, born and bred, and what that looks like in a changing landscape. How humor and pain work in a long-standing friendship.

How do you get two men who are only really comfortable with anger and humor as their two most accessible emotions, how do they have an intimate conversation about fear and pain? That’s something that even in our most intimate friendships is not always immediately accessible. Diggs and I have access to something that a lot of people don’t because we come from the art space, which is inherently very vulnerable. And even in that, it took me probably a lot longer than Diggs to get that way. It was really in becoming a teacher that that opened up for me, but that is the most fascinating conversation about men—the lifelong journey of unlearning this negative connotation toward any kind of vulnerability.

Diggs: That would literally never happen with two people, with two men, who didn’t love each other as much as these two.

When you were constructing the film’s vision of the Bay, were there specific artists whose music you knew you needed to incorporate? What were some of your influences?

Diggs: We wanted to make sure there was a range of Bay Area music in there to really paint this site-specific [picture]. It was 40 needle drops and 36 of them are Bay Area artists (and two of those that aren’t [are played during the scene of] that hipster party). … It was important to paint this so we get everything from Tower of Power all the way up to…  “Born in It,” that Chippass song, which is the song that plays when we first get into the car at the beginning with the gun deal. That song was king.

Casal: A lot of the cadence of that original “Monster” poem is sort of this [layered] conversation, which we kept up. ... Stylistically, there’s just one poet named Amir Sulaiman who does verse work in that way, who among a bunch of other poets, is a big influence for me. ... Saul Williams, obviously, with slam was a major influence on a lot of that kind of work, and then our own work in experimenting with how verse works in conversational ways has always been really fascinating to us. Kendrick Lamar last year at the Grammys had a big influence on some of that shit.

Diggs: But also E-40 and Suga Free, these sort of rappers that straddle the world between rap and just pimp talk, where if you took the beat away, it would just sound like someone talking fast, you know? I’ve always been fascinated with rappers like that because it’s foundational where we come from.

Casal: It’s all fly talk.

How do you see Blindspotting falling into the larger landscape of “protest art” now?

Diggs: I think the stakes felt high when we started working on it. It unfortunately still feels very high, sort of differently, in that our capacity for apathy is so high these days. … But for us as artists, it was just about telling the story and being honest about the space and circumstances. And then when we step back from that, when we get to hold a mirror up to the world as close to exactly as it is, all of a sudden you’re like, That’s fucked. We should probably do something about that.

Casal: It’s not my expression, but I agree that all art is inherently political. You are either holding or challenging the status quo. Generally, the thing that gets us out of bed is challenging it, because I think that the status quo is fucked.