Two of this summer’s most intriguing and controversial movies — both depicting racial tensions and class divides in Oakland, Calif. — each started with a small germ of an idea.
“All I knew is it would take place in the world of telemarketing, and [the main character] would be in a struggle,” writer-director Boots Riley said about his absurdist comedy, “Sorry to Bother You.”
For Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, the writers and stars of the urban drama “Blindspotting,” the seed was a story from the headlines: the 2009 police shooting death of Oscar Grant at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland. “[The movie] would be written by and starring Daveed and I, it would be in the Bay Area, and it would deal with a police shooting,” Casal said.
Both movies won plaudits and distribution deals when they premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. And both movies are arriving in theaters nationwide this month: “Sorry to Bother You” debuts this Friday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City and the Megaplex Jordan Commons in Sandy, and “Blindspotting” lands in Utah theaters on July 27.
“Anytime it feels like Oakland is having a moment, it’s a celebration,” said Casal, who noted that the two films were filming there at the same time. The economic benefit of shooting on location was “one of the big reasons we had to have ‘Blindspotting’ set in Oakland,” Casal said. “In many ways, that’s the catalyst for Boots as well.”
It’s also a moment for thought-provoking, confrontational movies centering on African-American characters and themes. Besides the two Sundance hits, there are Spike Lee’s dark-humored crime drama “BlacKkKlansman” — which won the Grand Prix (second place) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — hitting theaters in August, and “The Hate U Give,” an adaptation of a YA novel about a black teen (Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses the police shooting death of her best friend, arriving nationwide Oct. 19.
Films that focus on issues like police shootings and economic differences “are hitting upon this kind of real-life situation, but from a storytelling perspective,” said Paul White, associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah.
Where stories about African-American life once had limited audiences, White said, recent successes like “Get Out” and “Black Panther” have helped bring them into the mainstream.
“That’s what’s causing some of the nervousness and tension” in this new crop of films, said White, who is African-American. “I think people believe they know about the police harassment and brutality, about the threat to black and brown bodies, … but I don’t think they truly get it.”
For Riley, a rapper and the brains behind the hip-hop group The Coup, tackling big issues through satire was familiar territory. “It’s just part of my approach,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It took me a couple of [Coup] albums for me to realize they were humorous. … They’re full of humor. It’s not because I’m calculating that’s the best way. Humor is probably one of the reasons that I started understanding what I understand about the world.”
With “Blindspotting,” it was Casal’s fiery spoken-word performances on YouTube that drew the attention of producer Jess Calder, who wanted to use that kind of heightened language in a screenplay.
Casal teamed up with his longtime friend and collaborator Diggs, whose rapid-fire rap style has made him a star — after he played the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton,” winning a Tony for his efforts.
Collaborating “makes the work stronger,” Diggs said in a phone interview. Casal agreed: “We were vibrating at a higher frequency when we worked together.”
In both films, the notion of voice plays an important role.
In “Sorry to Bother You,” the lead character, Cassius (played by Lakeith Stanfield), gets a job in telemarketing and soon learns that the key to success is to use his “white voice.” Riley picked “the whitest voice possible” to dub in as Cassius’ “white voice”: comedian David Cross, one of the stars of “Arrested Development.”
The over-the-top humor wasn’t in Riley’s plan before he wrote the script. “I took the journey with Cassius,” he said. “I didn’t know it would be fantastical or absurd until I needed it to be.”
Diggs’ character in “Blindspotting,” Collin, at first stays silent for his own protection. An ex-con with only a few days left on his parole, Collin one night witnesses a police officer (Ethan Embry) shoot a fleeing suspect in the back. His decision about whether to speak up about what he’s seen is complicated by his best friend, Miles (played by Casal), whose big talk has gotten Collin into trouble before and could do so again.
Collin’s rage and heartache come together in the movie’s climax, as Diggs delivers a torrent of words — “this heightened language,” as Casal calls it — to reveal Collin’s frustrations at the death and oppression he has seen and experienced.
White said he thinks “Blindspotting” and “Sorry to Bother You” both have a good chance of resonating with mainstream moviegoers this summer.
“There is an audience for these stories,” he said. “These stories are more than just entertaining. I think they are very informative, if people are willing to allow themselves to learn.”