Daveed Diggs: "[Thomas] Jefferson would not f**k with Trump, period"

The "Hamilton" star and his "Blindspotting" co-star Rafael Casal talk gentrification, class & our polarized country

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 20, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in "Blindspotting" (Courtesy of Lionsgate)
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in "Blindspotting" (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

"Hamilton" star Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal brilliantly tackle the ills of gentrification, how it’s plaguing America and destroying communities, in their new film "Blindspotting," which opens this week and goes into wide release on July 27. The collaborators, who co-wrote and also star in the film, sat down in Salon's studio with me earlier this week to introduce their project and further the conversation.

"Blindspotting" is an extremely important film. It touches on some topics that we hear a lot about in the media, but they don't really get fleshed out the way they did in the movie. So you guys did a great job. You attack gentrification, re-entry and just how Oakland is changing. It took you guys a while to get this project off the ground. Now it's here, what does it feel like?

Daveed Diggs: It's amazing. We’ve so far exceeded all of our hopes for this film, right? Our expectations. We thought maybe one day we'd actually get to make it and that was it. That part took nine years, and now that it's out, it's actually coming into theaters. It's got the support of Lionsgate behind it, and we've had two incredible premieres — one in Oakland, which was one of the more special nights of my life, then one here last night in New York. That was also just really incredible. It's great to be finally sharing it with the world.

This story had to be told right now, right?

Rafael Casal:  Yeah, and ten years ago, and seven years ago. The reason we kept coming back to it and kept trying to make it happen is we weren't seeing the nuance in the conversation that we wanted. I keep saying we’re the clap back generation — like, everything is a quick response and then move on. There aren't a lot of spaces for the conversation to incubate, and one of those places that's available to us is a movie theater, right? It's a bunch of people sitting, essentially quiet or laughing together, feeling tension together, whatever it is, watching a story unfold for 90 minutes. We don’t have a lot of spaces that require that kind of focused attention. So it felt like a good medium for us to talk about the complexity of some of those things you listed there.

Watch the full interview with Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal

"Hamilton" star takes on gentrification in "Blindspotting"

Yeah, because even comedy shows now, they make people put your phone in a bag and lock them— 

Diggs:  It does do something. I mean, we saw Chapelle not too long ago in Highland Park and that was the deal, right? It does zero you in on the material, man, because if you've seen Chapelle recently, he's getting in to that shit a little bit.

He's going in. Actually like some of the content in his stand-up was very real to me and it resonated the same way your film did, so I would definitely put "Blindspotting" on that level. I knew you guys were friends since you were in high school. Are you guys from a neighborhood that's been gentrified?

Diggs:  All of the neighborhoods we have lived in.

How'd you know?

Diggs:  The first neighborhood I lived in, in East Oakland, isn't quite there yet. It's getting there, but that was —

RC:   Any minute now.

I remember my first one was in Berkeley. I remember growing up, my parents did a good job of never letting us know that we didn't have a lot. I t's only looking back at photos, like, ooh, we weren't doing so great. I remember at our corner, it was like donut tire marks all the time and that was like, you knew the area.

We are right by the train station and then they started hiring neighborhood kids to walk, now I realize, more affluent people to their cars and their houses and make it feel safe. Then the first wave of tech in the East Bay was the Pixar movement, right? Like the first big studios coming in.

I remember those people moving in the crack house down the street, getting flipped for three, four times the value that it ever was before. Then flipped again and flipped again, and just the city feels different when you're in it now. The same has been happening in Oakland for the last 10 years and continues to go that way.

What are the first signs. Do you, like, wake up one day with wi-fi or like the little ...

Diggs:  We already got wi-fi.

Does the corner store turn into like a gluten-free bagel spot?

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Diggs: It's more gradual than that. It's a little more tricky, right? Not always bad and if you follow sort of the trajectory as it happened in Oakland for most of the time when we were young black teenagers and stuff, [in] downtown Oakland there was nothing to do there. It was kind of a ghost town. Some money started being poured in and businesses started coming up. They were local businesses that were really great things to have there. All of a sudden people are starting to go out in downtown again. Jacqueline Square's getting kind of popping.

There were things to do at night that hadn't existed before and these were local. That drove attention to it. Now all of a sudden people are coming into town seeing dollar signs, seeing potential for greater growth more quickly, and then you have new investors coming in, buying out those businesses and putting in stuff that's there without any attention to the community that's been around. Then you start to get things like differences in policing, right? When you start to get a new demographic of people moving in with more money. Realistically, the way your neighborhood is policed often depends on who is creating the most capital in the neighborhood, right?

It's just financial capital, not cultural capital. It becomes, as you know, cities are not in the business of turning down money, and shouldn't necessarily have to be, but what we're trying to grapple with and I think a lot of cities are grappling with is there a way to invest in a community that's been here and get returns.

I think there is a way.

Diggs:  I've been talking about this a lot lately. Michael Tubbs in Stockton is trying a bunch of interesting things, and the mayor of Stockton who we've become friendly with, but he's pouring a lot of money into — [he] wants to be able to pay for every public school kid in Stockton to go to college, things like that.

That’s a lot. That’s a lot. Creating an initiative where every resident gets $500 of free money a month to do whatever you want, just to see what that will do in terms of investment.

This is a part of Oakland?

Diggs:  No, this is Stockton. Actually a lot of Oakland residents have moved to Stockton because it's a way out and still somewhat affordable there. His imagination around this is that if we invest in these kids' future when their economic level rises, because of the advantages of going to college, they will want to come back to this city and reinvest in the city.

Pay it forward.

Diggs:   The new business that we get coming in is actually old business. It's actually with an eye on the context that they grew up in and we’re trying to preserve the great things about Stockton while also bettering it at the same time. Initiatives like that are super interesting to me and I think ones that sit who are really paying attention will be trying to do more of.

I'm anti-gentrification 100 percent. I saw the dangers and what it does to neighborhoods and family and community, but I would be a liar if I didn't say that gentrified neighborhoods didn’t have the best cocktails.

Diggs: You are showing off right, man.

I'm fond of the farm to table food, come on. It's so good.

Diggs:  Yeah, it's real talk.

Where's the lie? Is is a $40 plate with like a $60 cocktail, but . . . 

Diggs:  They're delicious.

Are there any perks to it? Or was it all negative?

Casal:  No. This is why it's hard to paint this with some broad brush. There's so many great things that come with trying to enhance a neighborhood and an area, right? It's just done with no consideration for the people there. It's so violently economical and such a cash grab that there's no investment. It's the polar opposite of what we're talking about Stockton doing, which is there is no investment in the existing community whatsoever. We always say it's not the SoulCycle, it's that the SoulCycle don't want you there. That SoulCycle is for the influx of new people that are coming in.

That's the painful part about it, is you've invested your life and identity into a place that you've prayed and hoped and pushed will become better for you and your family and your children, that you've worked in that way to promote the state. The thing about Oakland is people there are so prideful of the city. The best PR is the community, and that's the slap in the face. It's like they've made the city that you are out promoting to get new people to come in and push them out. It's so offensive in that way mostly because those are the people who deserve the new stuff, who've endured the poor leadership of the city to make it to this moment and then to have to uproot and leave when the city is finally doing something that you deserve.

One thing I really like about your character, Rafael, is you expanded the conversation. A lot of times when people think gentrification, they think displaced black residents, but they don't understand that a lot of oppressed white people in this country kind of go through the same situation. You grow up in a place and you're part of a culture and you're heavily influenced by that culture and you're there, but you still go through the same thing if you don't have the resources.

Casal:  Yeah, this is great thing that sometimes when we talk about poverty, we try to racialize it to separate and sort of keep voting white Americans away from voting in their own best interest by cutting programs and sort of demonizing the poor as just black and brown people, right? This idea that what we love about Miles . . . even though he's growing up predominantly in a black and brown community, and that's where he is. He is very much a representation of poor white folks, and the shit that poor white people go through. You're still dealing with displacement.

You're still dealing with that economic disparities. You're still dealing with schools and raising children. When we start talking about all the other issues in the film, it's easy to forget that just economic disparities alone are enough to drive people crazy. Poverty is problem enough before you add on all of the other things that are going on in the world and subsequently in this film. Miles complicates in it in a few different ways, but we would really like to say, it's also just that we didn't make Miles up. He's a person that we know and love for all of the problematic things that Miles has.

He was a lawyer and social worker friend of ours who came and saw the film last night and he was like, he came up to me afterward and was like, “I know I've worked with Miles as a teenager.” That's a broken home, poor white kid who struggles to find his place and identity, has trauma from that upbringing that's unresolved. That is to a certain degree, part of toxic masculinity and unstable mental health.

Which is another conversation that really needs to be pushed to the front all of these issues. Daveed, your character's interesting because he's opposite. He's not as gangster as Miles and he deals with— 

Diggs:   Anymore.

We aren't doing spoilers, but he deals with these stereotypes and these generalizations. It's kind of like when he's right, he's wrong. When he's wrong, he's wrong. He doesn't really get a shot, and one thing I took away from that was this whole idea of perception, can the way society views African American men change? Can people change or is this so woven into the fabric of this nation that our kids' kids' kids are going to be dealing with this until everybody is khaki colored?

Diggs:    Then even then . . .

Casal:  That's it, interracial relationships will cure it up.

Diggs:  We've got to start.

Casal:  Get to f**king it.

Diggs:  Collin has a number of different sort of things that he's dealing with. The reason he's less gangster anymore is because he's on probation. He's not trying to go back to jail. If you've been on probation or you know anybody who has been, it's a trap. It's a series of traps set up to send you back to jail so they can make more money off you while you're in there. They are extremely difficult to navigate. Collin is adapting and changing in the interest of that. The thing that he runs up against is no matter what he does the perception of it's not his community and it's not white people, right?

His best friend does not misread him at all. He's been accepted. His best friend is mad at him for changing because he doesn't fully understand the context yet, but the new people who don't have the same context as the two of them are always seeing them, seeing him by whatever their first instinct to see him as is. The concept that the film talks about is about that whatever you thought about anybody at first, you're missing something and in order to see the other part, you're going to have to work. You have to look in your Blindspot. That's where the term came from.

Casal: The thing that excites us the most when we… to answer your question about whether or not we feel like perception can change, the thing that I think we find most fascinating, and this is when we look, we look for change. We look for any kind of evidence that it can evolve. The conversation can evolve. Our small piece of evidence that excites us is usually, but there's pivotal scenes towards the end where Collin is in a bit of danger. A danger that is usually a very polarized conversation in the news. In those moments, in a theater of a few hundred people, everyone is rooting for Collin, the ex con.

That means something that if you can find the empathy in the first hour of the film to be rooting for him in the last 30 in this room, that it is absolutely possible to do it when you're watching the news and when it's time to vote on legislation to have the empathy enough to see the nuance of the conversation and not paint it with such a broad.

It's humanizing. You get a chance to see that, this guy has fears like everyone else. I don't want to give anything away, but he has fears like everyone else. He's going through the same thing. He wants to be successful.

Casal: To see someone you identify with who has flaws and recognize that you are a flawed person as well, and that's actually what you have in common, is that you made a mistake. Collin goes to jail for a violent crime that a lot of people are guilty of to some degree, whether it's a violent crime or just a crime. If you can see that the stakes are something that so many of us can fall into regardless of circumstance.

That can be you with that mistake. You just may walk through the world differently with that mistake on your shoulders or you may have never had to pay the consequence for that mistake because of the way that you walk through the world, but I think in finding that path to empathy, that path to relatability we have the capacity for evolving the conversation.

On the topic of gentrification, I'm guessing we were gentrified by Russia yesterday. You played Thomas Jefferson in "Hamilton." From your perspective, what would Jefferson — who I'm not a fan of at all in real life for obvious reasons — think of that?

Diggs:  Oh man, that is down a deep rabbit hole.

A lot of Jeffersonian ideals are upheld by the Republican Party sometimes. Jefferson would not f**k with Trump, period, on so many different levels.

What's happening right now is crazy, and to watch a president just get away with treason is, who else would be allowed to do that? Only right now, it's the moment we're living in, and that's the blind spot.

Is it because everyone's checking their phones?

Diggs:   I think it's more complicated than that, but I think —

Casal: A lot of unaddressed things over a long time that have led to a very polarized country. When people are polarized and frustrated and angry, they make stupid choices.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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