In Fandor’s When Art Imitates Life series, we discussed Oakland’s place in recent Hollywood films—it’s the city that is the intersection between the Black Panther Party and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. In Sorry to Bother You, Oakland is the scene of the clash between art and activism, while in Blindspotting, the city implores us to check our privilege in light of gentrification and police violence. But we’ve said enough; it’s time to hear from the filmmakers themselves, namely Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, and Blindspotting co-writer, co-producer, and star Rafael Casal.
Riley, a member of the Bay Area rap group The Coup, found critical acclaim for his social satire (and debut feature) Sorry to Bother You, which follows a young black telemarketer named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who discovers the power of his “white voice” to become a top seller. He must now weigh his newfound success against his social conscience when his friends start unionizing against the company he works for. The story could take place in many American cities, but Riley decided to shoot it in Oakland.
“They say you write what you know, so I just shot the movie in a place I know,” Riley said in an interview with Fandor. “I started wanting to write about telemarketing, drawing from my own experiences working in that field. I think I always try to be honest about my views, so I write about what I know instead of putting my influences out there. You can always tell when someone writes a song, or a movie and doesn’t put himself into the writing. It becomes cliché.”
While Sorry to Bother You is seemingly set in present-day Oakland, it becomes crystal clear that it is an alternate version of the city, with its real problems exaggerated for satiric purposes. Riley planned from the beginning to make a social satire, and he also knew the best way to do that was to bend the reality of the world he created. “If I made the film hyperreal, it would have ended up looking cliché,” Riley affirmed. “Instead, the alternate reality of this Oakland makes the reality of the world of the film stand out, and make it more real. The weirdness of the movie makes it easier to explain the reality of it.”
Shooting the film in Oakland was also a practical choice, as he knew he could call in favors: “There was lots of love and free help from the community, they came together to make this film,” Riley said. “Artists who contributed to everything from music to the earrings [Tessa Thompson’s] character wears.”
Although many of the issues featured in Sorry to Bother You feel “of the moment,” Riley wrote the script back in 2014. And after all, issues like racial tension, gentrification, and the mishandling of power and money have always been there. “It was relevant then, and it is still relevant now. Things have just gotten worse because there are worse people in charge, but the machine is still the same,” Riley said.
Despite the continued relevance of long-time issues, it’s undeniable that Oakland is currently facing upheaval. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s screenwriting and producing debut, Blindspotting, deals with the influx of tech industry workers and wealthy hipsters moving to Oakland, the once funky, affordable alternative to the city across the bay. A seemingly throwaway gag in the film shows Diggs and Casal being astounded that their corner bodega now sells green juice for ten dollars a bottle. Gentrification isn’t just a problem for the characters in the film, but also for the real filmmakers. Co-writer, co-producer, and star Rafael Casal said that they ran into problems during production, losing certain shooting locations because the businesses changed by the time that they went to shoot. But the problems didn’t end there.
“There were locations that we couldn’t secure because the concept of a film shooting [in Oakland] was so foreign and new to some people there,” Casal said. “So little gets shot there that we just couldn’t communicate properly with the owners of the space why the movie was important and why showcasing the real authentic Oakland is important to us.”
Despite the problems, Casal says the response from the people was overwhelmingly positive. “It was very exciting because this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often there. You turn a corner and there are cranes and cameras and actors, it feels very legitimate for a community that often feels invisible. Especially because in the national conversation, the only narratives we hear about are how expensive everything is, and political issues like BBQ Becky. It is exciting to hear about local artists at a national level,” Casal added.
Listen… I been going down the bbq Becky rabbit hole on twitter the last hour and dyyinnnnn pic.twitter.com/J3JoD7yYgh
— C. Victorious (@CuffinVictory) May 15, 2018
The film’s central conflict has been compared to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—Digg’s character Collin is trying to survive his last three days of probation while working with his best friend Miles (Casal), who is enraged by Oakland’s gentrification. One day Collin witnesses a police officer shoot an unarmed black man, and his world slowly falls apart. The film is simultaneously funny and tragic, and it presents thoughtful discussions about race, class, and gentrification with the delicacy of a song.
For Casal, setting the film in Oakland was a no-brainer. “The project first started as a desire to make a movie with spoken word and verse because that is important to me and Daveed,” Casal said. “And the Bay Area has a deep rooting in verse and heightened language so we felt like if we were going to play with verse, then it should take place where a lot of that originated for us, which is the Bay Area. So many cultural references can be traced back to the Bay Area, but seldom do we see any long-form stories that do a deep dive into where those reference points come from.”
But ultimately, Rafael Casal called into question the “Hollywood moment” happening in Oakland, saying that it is very overdue, and not nearly enough. “I think the more accurate way to talk about this is to look at how hard it is to get movies made in the Bay Area,” said Casal. “Boots worked on his film for so long, and Daveed and I worked for so long on Blindspotting. It is a small step forward for bringing films to the Bay Area, and I hope there are more to come because it is the beginning towards getting more unique and untold stories told in the Bay Area.”