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‘It’s Not Black People’s Problem to Undo White People’s Racism’

Berkeley-born poet and hip-hop artist Rafael Casal on writing his first film and working to understand black pain.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Rafael Casal
Occupation: Hip-hop artist, poet, and actor
Age: 32
Residence: Berkeley

San Francisco: Your new film, Blindspotting, which you cowrote and costar in with Daveed Diggs, deals with two Oakland friends, one white and one black, locked in a cycle of crime. How did you, as a white man, approach telling this story about race and police violence?
Rafael Casal: My character, Miles, is a composite of people I grew up around…. He’s not unaware of those questions about ownership and appropriation. He doesn’t shy away from conversations about race. His blind spot is what he’s not living with constantly. Even progressive white people who are immersed in black and brown communities still can’t feel that on a day-to-day basis: what it’s like to be black in a space where you’re being hunted. Miles is provoked in different ways—he’s a minority in his community—but that’s very separate from the feeling of, like, police violence.

And you felt comfortable telling that story?
My writing partner is black, so that helped. Diggs and I talk about it a lot. There’s a line in the movie, “You might think you know what’s happening, but you don’t feel it like we do; to feel it, it has to be you, cut you.” I wrote that. We might not be able to feel it personally, but we have the capacity to understand that it’s happening. That’s the only thing you have to understand—that you can’t understand it. That’s OK. But you can’t stop doing the work.

What is the work?
I’m an artist, so my job is to reflect the times, to provide language for the conversation. But you can’t be all talk, man. A lot of white folks are afraid of putting themselves in harm’s way. Like speaking up to the other parts of white America who might hate you for it. That’s just a fraction of what people of color deal with every day. But it’s somewhere to start: not making it black people’s problem to undo white people’s racism.

I understand this film has been more than 10 years in the making. What has changed about it since you first started writing?
The thing that’s changed, which is unfortunate, is that when we first wrote this, it was a jarring experience that a cop killed someone. And in the newest version of the film, nobody really cares. It happens, and it just goes away. That’s the horrifying evolution of the material. Like, today—today—10 kids got killed at a school in Texas. I can’t even read the damn articles. I don’t have the bandwidth. I’m exhausted; we’re all exhausted. And the fact that we’re getting this trauma fatigue is the horrifying evolution of where we are as a country.

Both you and Diggs occasionally break into verse poetry in the film. What were you trying to convey with that device?
One of our producers found my poetry videos on YouTube 12 years ago and asked if I wanted to write a film that was centered in verse. It’s like musical theater—when the moment is full of tension and demands it, it goes into verse.

There’s a ton of Bay Area slang and references in the film. Will people from outside the area be able to relate?
I think specificity is great. Our movie has so much slang and so much heightened language. Everything is dialed to 11. We want to drop you into this hyperreality version of the Bay Area and just watch you tread water…. It’s like the Pink Man. Everybody in Berkeley knows him, but if I tried to explain it, it’d sound absurd. We’d rather just have Pink Man ride by than take five minutes to explain it.

How has Berkeley changed since when you were growing up there?
My memory of Berkeley is so different from what it is now…. Like, we were townies. It was this watering hole for kids from all over, from Oakland and Richmond. I was like the truest version of a Bay Boy. It was like having a European passport for the Bay, floating to all the cities.

A lot of your old rap crew, the Getback, have gone on to big things: Chinaka Hodge with her poetry, Diggs with Hamilton…
The Getback was a great time. We put out albums and did a bunch of shows and got on the radio and shit. It was an incubating time for a bunch of artists…. It’s so fun to see that this melting pot of artists are doing all this dope shit all around the country. It’s a testament to the DNA of the Bay Area, at least pre-gentrification.

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco 

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