Oakland’s Hollywood moment: films glisten light on city’s ‘grit and beauty’

Movies like Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, set in the city and made by local directors, have brought global attention to a hub of art and activism

The film-maker Nijla Mu’min’s debut movie was based on her upbringing as a black Muslim girl in Oakland, California. Although Jinn was inspired by their own lives, she had to go to Los Angeles, 350 miles south of her hometown, to shoot it.

Mu’min said there wasn’t enough industry support to stimulate filming in Oakland financially sustainable. But now that’s changing.

The northern California city is having its Hollywood moment this month with the release of two acclaimed movies made by Oaklanders and set in their hometown. Sorry to Bother You, the debut film of the musician Boots Riley, offers a satirical anti-capitalist portrait of labor exploitation, protest motions and American racism. Blindspotting stars the locals Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who co-wrote the dark comedy about police violence and gentrification.

Following the extraordinary success of Black Panther, directed by the Oakland native Ryan Coogler and partly set in his hometown, the city is attracting global attention, seen as a complex cultural hub where art, activism and inequality intersect.

Marvel’s
Marvel’s Black Panther was partly set in Oakland. Photograph: Matt Kennedy/ AP

” A plenty of people have been stimulating cinemas in the Bay Area for a long time, but lacked the exposure or the resources to really get this kind of national and international attention ,” told Mu’min, who debuted her film at the SXSW festival this year and plans to set her next project in Oakland.

” Oakland is having a cinema renaissance ,” told Matthew Riutta, a local film-maker who worked as the locating director for Fruitvale Station, Coogler’s debut film, shot in Oakland and based on the police killing of Oscar Grant.” I always thought that Oakland was just this goldmine … The whole remainder of the world is realizing that now .”

The spotlight can be a double-edged sword given the city’s severe housing crisis, spurred in part by the influx of young professionals and artists, the astronomical rents in neighboring San Francisco and the region’s booming tech industry. Black households are facing displacement at alarming rates, a subject both feature films showcase.

At the same time, some say the mainstream recognition and industry subsistence of homegrown talent, especially black film-makers, is long overdue. Oakland, home to a” Harlem of the West” music scene in the 1950 s and later the birthplace of the Black Panther party, has suffered through decades of racist policies that have torn apart artist and activist communities.

Considered one of the most diverse cities in the US, Oakland is home to guerilla film-makers and projects featuring populations often omitted in Hollywood narratives, said Mu’min, who built her first short cinema in Oakland in 2006.

” It’s normal for them to tell a story the hell is unconventional and not like any other narrative you’ve seen ,” she told, adding that local inventors were” just trying to hold on and preserve the histories of this city through these films “.

A decade ago, the Wayans brothers, the actors behind the Scary Movie franchise, had proposed building an Oakland movie studio, but the efforts fell apart. Still, producers have increasingly shot in Oakland, which experienced a 38% increased number of filming days in 2017, the busiest of recent years, according to city data.

” We’ve got everything from the grit to the beauty ,” told Jim MacIlvaine of the Oakland movie office , noting that film-makers were drawn to the city’s architecture and old Victorian homes, the picturesque redwood trees and lake, and the appearance of urban “blight”.

Heather MacLean, an Oaklander who has long worked in the industry and was the locating director for Sorry to Bother You, said it was refreshing that film-makers were no longer coming to the city for a” bombed-out slaying township” look, but were instead drawn to the the Town, as local residents call it, for its” art and resistance and political activism “.

Nijla
Nijla Mu’min. Photograph: Courtesy of Nijla Mu’min

” It’s written for Oakland. They bring it here. They shoot it here. It’s a love affair ,” told MacLean, who is working on a Netflix feature film scheduled to shoot in the city soon. Following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, people of color were becoming ever more opportunities and that translated to more work in Oakland, she added.

” In a well established city, there are more rigid traditions, protocols and pecking orders ,” added Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California.” In Oakland, people can breaking the boundaries .”

Oaklanders embrace films when the shooting takes over neighborhoods- much more so than San Francisco, where people complain and are less interested in the projects, said Ryan Wylie, location director for Blindspotting.” In Oakland, the arts still have a lot of value .”

Both new features capture striking contradictions of Oakland as it rapidly gentrifies. Blindspotting, directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, follows two Oakland friends, one white and one black, navigating a changing city where the neighborhood corner store now sells $10 kale beverages and residents of shiny new developments sandwiched between old houses host parties with fancy appetizers and only 3 black guests.

Daveed
Daveed Diggs, left, and Rafael Casal in a scene from Blindspotting. Photo: Ariel Nava/ AP

Sorry to Bother You, Riley’s ambitious sci-fi comedy, chronicles miserable telemarketers fighting to unionize a call center while executives in an upstairs office build millions off of a new dystopian form of exploitation.

The cinemas have a kind of universal appeal in Trump’s America, but they also feel distinctly Oakland, set in a city that helped result the Occupy motion and has repeatedly stimulated national news for its fights against gentrification and racism.

” People want to stand up and defy the ways in which we are being subjugated. Oakland is one of the poster children for this ,” said Shakti Butler, a longtime Oaklander and documentary film-maker.” These cinemas … help people find the situation more clearly and help people find a voice .”

Tyrone Stevenson Jr, whose household has been in Oakland for multiple generations, said it was emotional to insure real images of his city on the big screen in Sorry to Bother You, including the homeless encampments he passes daily and the block where he lives.

” That movie actually proved the true character of Oakland from its best to its worst ,” told Stevenson, who is also known as Baybe Champ and is the founder of the Scraper Bike Team, a group that has a cameo in the film.” That’s my hood … This is what Oakland really looks like .”

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