With New Films, Hollywood is Finally Giving Oakland Its Day on the Big Screen

On the heels of "Black Panther," real-world tensions in "The Town" are providing filmmakers with rich fodder for their art

What to Know

  • Two new films are the latest to feature Oakland and its real-world problems on the big screen
  • The filmmakers say the success of "Black Panther" has opened the door for major studios to support films about communities of color

By some accounts, it all started with "Fruitvale Station" — the 2013 film about the life and untimely death of Oscar Grant III, the unarmed black man who was shot and killed on a BART station platform by a white police officer.

That film's director, Ryan Coogler, went on to direct the Marvel blockbuster "Black Panther," partially set in Oakland, which film critics say finally dispelled the age-old myth that films about black culture don't do well overseas. "Black Panther" took in $1.3 billion at the box office.

Now, two more films set in Oakland dig into the very real issues confronting that community: the simmering racial and economic tensions that come with gentrification, and the increasingly sour relationship between police and young men of color. Both "Blindspotting" and "Sorry to Bother You" are portraits of "The Town" painted by creators with deep Oakland roots.[[488946191, C]]

"Blindspotting," a comedic drama set in Oakland that opened in theaters on July 20, was written by Oakland natives Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who also star in the film. The two said the film was their response to the alarming changes they saw in Oakland's culture: an influx of tech workers and high-priced businesses, along with a rapidly declining African-American population.

The film is a story about two friends: a recent parolee trying to stay out of prison, and a mischief maker whose antics threaten to send his buddy back to the slammer. Throughout the story, themes of gentrification and a heavy-handed police force feel a little too real to the screenwriters, who concede it's an angry movie aimed at getting people to see things from a different perspective.[[488946551, C]]

"Sorry to Bother You," also set in Oakland, is an absurdist dark comedy about a black man who takes a telemarketing job and rises to fame and fortune by learning to sound like a white man over the phone. Filmmaker Boots Riley said many of the most absurd details came from real life: driving around Oakland and looking out the window.

In fact, driving around was a major pastime for Riley in his younger years: years in which he said much of the other entertainment available for black youth had been shut down by local officials — from the closure of skating rinks and pool halls to the banning of hip hop parties and lakefront barbecues in the 1990s.[[488946361, C]]

Here, too, undercurrents of real life in Oakland run through the film. Homeless encampments, graffiti and police in riot gear all play a prominent role in the movie's visual tapestry. Riley said he didn't need to make anything up to show the deep divisions between the "haves" and the "have-nots." He merely had to turn on the camera.

The makers of both films credit shifting attitudes in Hollywood for giving them a platform to tell Oakland's story. Just a few years ago, they said, the will to publish films that were racially and culturally diverse simply wasn't there. Now, on the heels of "Black Panther" and others including "Get Out" and Best Picture-winning "Moonlight," they believe Oakland's time to share the spotlight is finally here.[[488946711, C]]

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