Teri Orr: A Hollywood backlot in our funky ski town
It was that “just right’ Opening Night. Redford approaching the mic with no intro … reminding us to see the stories, find the stories and create new ways to tell those stories. Festival Director John Cooper followed like a proud papa speaking of the selection of the most coveted film spot — the Opening Night Film At the Eccles Theater. “Blindspotting” was an inspired choice — it rode in on the coattails of Daveed Diggs, who played both Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton” and won a Tony for his efforts. And his real life friend and creative partner Rafael Casal, formerly of HBO’s “Def Poetry.” The film takes place in Oakland, California — a place Gertrude Stein famously referred to as — There is no there there. With the dot-com folks having completely over run San Francisco — Oakland has become the ugly half sister suburb in the gentrification endemic in all kinds of towns.
The lyrical rap/hip hop/slam poetry style bordered on being musical, but there was enough straight dialogue and serious acting you never felt folks would burst into song — like in a moving van or a warehouse parking lot — the rhythmic conversations propelled the story along.
There was a scene — where as girl who grew up about half an hour from Oakland (always a city deemed dark — home of the Black Panthers and Angela Davis) I felt the writers captured with wit and the precision of gun shot at close range. The two male friends — one uncomfortable black man and one wanna be black, white man, lifelong friends who work together in a moving company. The black man is three days away from ending his probation due to a physical altercation involving a flaming drink. The pair end up at a party familiar to anyone who lives in a formerly authentic, slightly rundown city that has undergone a quick take over by hipsters. The white guy shows up forgetting he is wearing a T-shirt given to him earlier — it says “Kill a Hipster — Save Your ‘Hood.’”. The party house is an ultra modern/sleek lines/Dwell magazine multistory structure built — lot line to lot line. It dwarfs the two Victorian style “Painted Ladies” as we used call those homes in San Francisco. Inside for the monthly tech mixer, says the large black woman Collin (Diggs) recognizes, are about 150 white people, and she looks at her companion and now Collin and says, “Oh, and about three black people.”
As the black woman starts to set her drink down on the hunk of raw wood/faux coffee table, the host grabs the drink mid air and admonishes them that only drinks with “sleeves” can be set on the table. It is, after all, a slice of an “actual Oak tree from Oakland” — 142 years old. And you get it. The trees that once were everywhere became the homes that grew the people who can no longer afford to live there and have given way to folks who “wear wooden ties and drive Vespas and shop at Whole Foods.”
And the rage Collin’s friend, the displaced, disenfranchised, wanna-be-hood, white guy Myles feels, at the disloyalty of the contract of community, is palpable.
What follows is a slam, hip hop, freestyle rap soliloquy about cultural appropriation. And friendship. And in the end, when Collin and Myles are driving to another moving job — the girlfriend of an Oakland Raiders player because the team is moving to Las Vegas — you understand this was a story about male friendship and loyalty and ties that unravel only to hopefully, bind again — differently and maybe stronger.
When the movie was loading in, a lovely young woman in the film entourage gently grabbed my arm … “Hi there,” she grinned in her giant TED recognizable smile. And I kinda squealed — “What are doing here?” and she said she was in this movie. And then she laughed — “but only for about 10 seconds.” She said her fellow actors were all talking about what a big deal it was to be in the Eccles Opening Night screening. And she smiled and said, “And I just told them — I’ve performed ON that stage.” Three years ago, we had slam poet Sarah Kay on our stage (and in our classrooms) perform and teach the art of expression through the spoken and written sassy word.
The film’s title — “Blindspotting” — refers to those picture puzzles psychologist types love — what do you see first? The old woman or the young woman? The black vase or the two faces? And what you see first is perhaps what you cannot unsee — always after from that first perception.
It would be easy to think of the film as just a slice of what is happening in The Bay. The pushing out of longtime generational folks who created a place and space of their own home and style created by their authentic lives, long before we called how and where we lived a lifestyle.
After the film, I caught up with a bunch of visiting friends having a family-style dinner in Old Town. The street was abuzz with musicians and folks in puffy coats on the warmish winter night and tight knit hats waiting in a long line to get in the Alamo — er, No Name Saloon. The street had all kinds of augmented lighting casting ghostly hues on old brick buildings. I entered the restaurant to greet my friends and just for an instant I remembered moving to town in late ‘70s and coming into the same brick building to pay my power bill. Standing in line there with two young kids in tow waiting my turn. It was one of the few buildings on the street back then open for business. Most were abandoned. I sat at the table and took the glass of wine poured from a bottle I suspect was far more expensive than my shoes, and I settled into easy conversation in the packed restaurant with dear friends who have helped this town grow remarkably in the past decade. Sometimes living here is just like living in a movie … not everyday but certainly this Sunday in the Park…