Merchants of Empathy: Carlos López Estrada, Rafael Casal, and Daveed Diggs’ Blindspotting Taps Into the Cultural Consciousness

Artistic expression feeds on hardship, thrives on restrictions, adjusts to turbulence, and withstands setbacks.

That’s the philosophy that assembled the alliance between director Carlos López Estrada and co-writers/co-stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal on Blindspotting. The three men behind the hard-hitting Sundance-premiering feature that upends racial biases in style chiseled their moviemaking trail by carving spaces for themselves elsewhere first. 

Growing up, writing a movie with a budget in the millions was outside the realm of possibility for Diggs and Casal, two young Oakland, CA natives with storytelling aspirations in a poverty-stricken community plagued by deep-rooted systemic injustices. Instead, “We gravitated toward theater and music,” Casal told MovieMaker alongside Diggs and López Estrada. “There were local theaters where we could put up a play, and I could build a recording studio for just $2,000 and invite people to record there. Those things were more tangible, and very much the building blocks for this process.” 

Hear No Evil: Miles (Rafael Casal, L) and Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones, R) try to keep their son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger, C) out of trouble in Blindspotting. Photograph by Robby Baumgartner, courtesy of Lionsgate

 Although Diggs—whose roles range from Hamilton on stage to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix—confirms that their economic woes made immediate success less likely, they remained undeterred. “I never thought I’d be anything but an artist,” Diggs says. “I didn’t think I would make any sort of good living at it, but being poor wasn’t a big thing. I’d always been poor, but I knew I was going to be able to make art for the rest of my life.”

In between his theater work, Casal honed his camerawork by shooting shorts on tape, then moving to DSLRs while editing on early versions of Adobe Premiere, entirely self-taught. As his skills naturally progressed, he began writing sketches that he and Diggs would upload to YouTube—“the closest we had to writing a film project. Our m.o. was to create as much as possible and hope that would lead to bigger opportunities to create more,” he explains. In 2006, producer Jess Calder (Anomalisa, Blair Witch, You’re Next) contacted Casal via direct message on YouTube—two years before Calder and Diggs would even meet—to propose turning Casal’s performances of poetic verses into a narrative. Twelve years later, their then-budding relationship would culminate in the making of Blindspotting.

An experimental dramedy with musical and spoken word elements, Blindspotting is centered on convicted felon Collin (Diggs) and his loose-cannon childhood best friend Miles (Casal), as they navigate the three remaining days of Collin’s year-long probation. Though not strictly autobiographical, Blindspotting’s pair of protagonists had been brewing in Diggs and Casal’s minds for a decade prior to writing the script. They laced the backstory of Collin and Miles with tall tales they heard from friends growing up, and imbued their perspectives with the experiences of displacement they witnessed their neighbors endure as a result of gentrification. 

“It was a lot less work for me to act in Blindspotting than it usually is for me in other movies,” says Diggs. “Since we had essentially been embodying Collin, Miles, and everyone else in the film for so long, by the time we got to shoot it was pretty easy to drop into.” 

Chain Smoke: Collin (Daveed Diggs, C) has three more days before probation is up as Miles (Casal, L) and Dez (Jon Chaffin, R) share a joint in Blindspotting. Photograph by Ariel Nava, courtesy of Lionsgate

In many ways, Collin is a symbol of the persecution men of color who’ve served time in prison face when reintegrating into a society that refuses to acknowledge them as anything other than irreparable monsters. “With the weight of having been to jail, whatever your circumstances are, you come up against these labels that you can’t control all of the time,” says Diggs. In one of the film’s most arresting musical sequences, Collin appears before a judge and jury, while Miles spits an incisive rap about race, class, and second chances in America. “There was a kind of tennis match between writing the dialogue and writing the visual possibilities,” says Casal of scripting the scene. “We were excited about getting to do this rhythmic piece, and it played into our strength, which is shooting something that feels like a theatrical scene in verse. It’s as close as we get to a musical number while still staying in that area of abstraction we love. We weren’t sure that it was possible, but we were dedicated to making a swing for it.” 

Making that swing didn’t come without the risk of a miss. Indeed, what most film journalists and others who’ve seen Blindspotting on the festival circuit tend to discuss most—with as much criticism as praise—are its slippery storytelling modes, tonal shifts, local flavor, and elaborate set pieces. Diving into that kind of moviemaking, however, was a challenge for which López Estrada was uniquely prepared. Born and raised in Mexico City and molded by peak-era MTV programming, the director honed his audio-visual chops by making no-budget productions in his garage. First hired to direct music videos for Diggs’ experimental hip-hop group Clipping, and then to shoot Casal and Diggs’ public theater productions in New York City, López Estrada went on to make nearly a dozen stylish videos with Casal and Diggs, solidifying the approach the three would employ for their largest undertaking yet. 

“I couldn’t think of a better first movie to cross over into the narrative world with,” López Estrada says. “Blindspotting borrows from a lot of different disciplines. If you look back at all the projects we did together, it feels like we were gathering all these puzzle pieces we didn’t know existed. Many scenes are rhythmic, and in some ways it was about allowing the content and the story to drive the images. That’s essentially what music videos are. Obviously you need a lot more money for a movie than you need for a music video, but this was a low-budget movie. When you divide the budget that we had into 27 days of shooting, you’re essentially shooting 27 low-budget music videos, back-to-back.”

Despite being kindred creative spirits with Diggs and Casal, López Estrada was sensitive toward Blindspotting’s regional specificity, and questioned whether he, as a non-native, was the right person to take on a project set on the co-writers’ home turf. “I had to love Oakland from the outside and learn to understand it through Daveed and Rafa’s eyes,” says the director, who pined over how the authenticity of the film’s setting would need to be captured through slang, dress, and soundtrack choices, and more.

Regardless of the differences between López Estrada and Collin’s respective off and on-screen struggles, “The starting place was finding what about this story speaks to me as an immigrant, as a person of color living in the States,” says López Estrada. “I am an immigrant, and I did have to find my place in this world. I had to learn the language, and I’m used to being an outsider. The movie is about identity and about a man finding his place in the world, trying to understand what role he plays.”

Moving With the Times: Collin’s (Diggs, L) ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar, R) gets him a job with a moving company as he adjusts to civilian life in Blindspotting. Photograph by Robby Baumgartner, courtesy of Lionsgate

The film’s insights into outsiders of all stripes, López Estrada adds, gives Blindspotting an added layer of topicality. “If you can have empathy for a totally fictional person undergoing very real circumstances, why can’t we do that for the next victim of police violence that appears on the news? Or for any other ex-convict who’s out there looking for work?,” he asks.

Casal defines “blindspotting” as the process in which your life experiences are constantly pointing you in the direction of what you are most inclined to see first. “If you’re looking at something that is both a vase and a silhouette of two faces, and for whatever reason the experiences of your life make you more inclined to see the faces, you’re going to always see those first every time you look at that picture,” he explains. “And there are other people who will always see a vase first.” For ex-cons like Collin, the chances of rehabilitation and redemption often depend upon which version of them Americans are more inclined to see. 

“We wanted to create a concept and through-line for the film to provide some new vocabulary to the ongoing conversation we’re having in this country about empathy. We’re trying to see things from a more constructive perspective, to the benefit of the disenfranchised and the oppressed,” Casal says. “We just hope that, like all great art, Blindspotting is a merchant of empathy, a vessel for compassion. If this moves the needle in any way, we’re happy.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issueBlindspotting opens in theaters July 20, 2018, courtesy of Lionsgate. Featured image photograph by Ariel Nava, courtesy of Lionsgate. 

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