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East Bay Filmmakers Are Having a Moment

With a new wave of Oakland-centric movies coming out of the Bay Area, local directors are shining a light on the city and making a splash in the entertainment industry.


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“In the Bay Area, people just seem to be going for it,” says filmmaker Boots Riley. “People are creating … because they feel like they need to make a statement.” Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images.

 

Not every film released in 2018 was shot in Oakland; it just seems that way.

The talent of East Bay directors exploded in a variety of successful movies on screens around the world this year, confirming what many residents already know: Despite its low-key image, the area brims with a distinctive depth of originality and creativity.

Among the recent movies shot or partially filmed in The Town are Black Panther—which was written and directed by Oakland-born Ryan Coogler and is the biggest box office success of 2018 (earning more than $1.3 billion worldwide, making it one of the highest-grossing films of all time)—and writer-director Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, one of the year’s most talked-about films. Add in the critically acclaimed Blindspotting, written by and starring Oakland natives Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, and you have a filmmaking phenomenon.

All of these movies purposefully reflect the region and its sensibilities. From Beat poets and independent hip-hop to the rise of organic seasonal food and Black Power, the East Bay has always confidently gone its own way. Riley says it’s no coincidence that East Bay–based films feature diversity in their casting and contemporary issues in their plots.

“Many artists from the Bay Area have something to say about the way the world is,” Riley says. “And that has to do with the different movements that have been here.”

The movies also offer something beyond entertainment value, bringing a perceptive social consciousness and cultural diversity that come from a proud sense of place.

The 47-year-old Riley has been a celebrated personality in the East Bay for years; he’s the cofounder and lead rapper of The Coup, an internationally known and fiercely political Oakland hip-hop group. He has also put his progressive social instincts on full view, working with Occupy Oakland and as a community organizer pursuing affordable housing for low-income residents.

“Around the world, people are asking for art that addresses issues they are facing, and it’s all meeting up in the right time and place here,” Riley says.

Orinda’s Julie Rubio, producer of the 2014 indie drama East Side Sushi, feels the area gives her the best possible creative home. “Oakland has been a dream of energy and opportunity,” Rubio says. “[There’s] such a melting pot of different nationalities and different ways of thinking, and I really feel a commitment to Oakland and Berkeley—to the East Bay.

“I have a tribe of people I trust that I work with in Northern California,” Rubio adds. “I find it a little more grounding. [The region] has its finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world and has a conscience.”

Similarly, Riley wanted to continue living and working in Oakland because he felt nurtured there. Despite the seductive lure of the entertainment-industry hub in Southern California, he says, “I did a lot of maneuvering so I didn’t have to move to L.A., because I knew [Oakland is] where my art came from, and I knew everyone.”

Boots Riley (right) chats with actor Lakeith Stanfield on the set of Sorry to Bother You. Photo by Peter Prato/Annapurna Pictures.

Riley leaned on those connections while making Sorry to Bother You, featuring local artists in his thought-​provoking satire about a telemarketer living in an alternate-reality version of Oakland. Riley has deep artistic roots here; his grandmother ran the Oakland Ensemble Theater in the 1970s and ’80s, and a 14-year-old Diggs was his student in an arts and activism class he taught at a Berkeley cultural center in the ’90s.

“This idea that you can make stuff [and] people can take it in and it can affect [them] is definitely part of it,” Riley says of the current zeitgeist.

There are other East Bay films on the horizon—including Jinn, a teen coming-of-age drama written and directed by the Oakland filmmaker Nijla Mu’min, and the throwback horror movie Lasso from Evan Cecil (who attended Oakland’s Concordia High). Joe Robert Cole, a UC Berkeley graduate and Black Panther cowriter, is currently directing his first feature film, All Day and a Night; it’s set in and around the East Bay.

Nonfiction films are also seeing a resurgence. Documentarian Peter Nicks (best known for his Sundance Film Festival award-winning work, The Force) is completing a trilogy of Oakland-based films focusing on health care, criminal justice, and education. Another documentary heavyweight is Dr. Shakti Butler, the provocative filmmaker and founder of Oakland’s World Trust Educational Services, who has made a series of powerful films about race in America, including Cracking the Codes. And Abby Ginzberg, president of the Berkeley Film Foundation, has been directing documentaries about race and social justice issues for more than 30 years—including the Peabody Award–winning film Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.

David Roach, cofounder and director of The Oakland International Film Festival, says the East Bay has a singular cultural vibe. “There’s a little attitude that comes with Oakland, whether it’s our sports teams or [our politics]—a rebelliousness,” Roach says. He feels a progressive spirit unites the region, one that is historically rooted in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Black Panthers, and environmental leadership.

“It does all connect somehow to the uniqueness we try to preserve and we’re proud to say is Oakland,” Roach adds. “We have a lot of love and diversity.”

Read on for snapshots of contemporary filmmakers with East Bay roots.

 

Black Panther director Ryan Coogler (left)—pictured with star Chadwick Boseman—was just 30 years old when he made the blockbuster film. Photo by Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios.

Ryan Coogler

The creative force behind the global sensation Black Panther, Coogler was born in Oakland and raised in Richmond. He attended Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga and Sacramento State University, where he developed his interest in filmmaking. After earning praise for his student films, Coogler convinced actor Forest Whitaker’s production company to support his first feature, Fruitvale Station. The low-budget drama about the shooting of unarmed black man Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in 2009 propelled Coogler into the mainstream; he went on to direct Creed, a thoughtful spin-off of the venerable Rocky films that reinvigorated the franchise. (There will be a Creed 2,
though Coogler isn’t directing.) Coogler was subsequently tapped to direct Marvel Studios’ Black Panther—which made history as the highest-grossing film ever helmed by an African American and cemented Coogler’s position as one of the most sought-after directors in the business.

 

Jonathan Dayton

Dayton—who co­directed the indie hit Little Miss Sunshine with his wife, Valerie Faris—was born in Alameda, raised in Grass Valley, and graduated from Ygnacio Valley High in Concord before meeting Faris at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television in the mid-1970s. They began directing music videos in the late ’80s, working with bands such as R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, Jane’s Addiction, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 2007, the pair made their feature-​film directorial debut with Little Miss Sunshine, which earned a best-picture Academy Award nomination (and won Oscars for best supporting actor and best original screenplay). Bringing an old-school, unpretentious style to quirky material, the husband-and-wife team went on to direct the eccentric romantic comedy Ruby Sparks in 2012 and the critically acclaimed 2017 drama Battle of the Sexes, about the Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs tennis grudge match.

 

Cary Fukunaga

Director, writer, and cinematographer Fukunaga was born in Alameda and grew up in and around the East Bay. While a student in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film Program, he made the 2004 short Victoria para Chino—which won numerous honors, including a Student Academy Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Five years later, he made his feature-film debut with 2009’s Sin Nombre, about a young couple trying to escape gang violence in Honduras. But it was in 2015 that he rose to national prominence with the award-winning Beasts of No Nation, an Idris Elba–fronted film about child soldiers in Africa. A stylistic expert known for smart action sequences, mood, and atmospherics, Fukunaga also directed the acclaimed first season of the HBO series True Detective in 2014. His latest projects: the Netflix series Maniac, starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, which is now available to stream, and the next James Bond movie.

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?—directed by Marielle Heller (left) and starring Melissa McCarthy—is due out this month. Photo by Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Marielle Heller

Born in Berkeley and raised in ​Alameda, Heller married another filmmaker with East Bay roots: Jorma Taccone (son of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s outgoing artistic director, Tony Taccone). Her career has had a dizzying trajectory. One of Heller’s first directing credits was Diary of a Teenage Girl, about a young girl’s sexual and emotional awakening. The indie film, released in 2015, won the Grand Prix of Generation 14plus at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Best First Feature honor at the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Heller’s latest, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, stars Melissa McCarthy and hits theaters on October 19. Her upcoming projects include the J. J. Abrams–produced fantasy thriller Kolma and a feature adaptation of the HBO documentary The Case Against 8, which details the legal struggle to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Heller has also signed on to direct You Are My Friend, a film about legendary public-​television host Fred Rogers that stars Tom Hanks.

 

Boots Riley

Writer and director Riley first gained recognition as the leader of the influential Oakland hip-hop group The Coup. For anyone familiar with The Coup’s politically charged and literate lyrics, Riley’s highly praised debut film, Sorry to Bother You, comes as no surprise. The revelation comes in realizing that a visionary filmmaker was lurking inside the charismatic rapper. (Riley originally studied film at San Francisco State but left school when his musical career began to take off.) Sorry to Bother You and its self-​assured script break all manner of boundaries in a well laid-out plan of subversive sense and sensibility. Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, and Danny Glover, the movie recalls racial satires of earlier eras but ultimately reflects Riley’s singular imagination.

 

Julie Rubio

Orinda-based producer, director, and writer Rubio has been involved with numerous short films—including the 2010 local love letter Oakland B Mine—in various capacities. 

Trained at the Lee Strasberg acting institutes in London and New York, Rubio wrote and directed her first feature film, the noir murder mystery Six Sex Scenes and a Murder, in 2006. She made her mark as a producer of the critically lauded indie East Side Sushi; the 2014 film about a young Mexican American woman who wants to be a sushi chef was shot in Oakland. Rubio—who has her own production company, East Meets West Productions—is currently working on the movie One, which she wrote and will direct. She is also developing a television show about empty nesters who seek adventure through travel and is producing music videos for her son, rapper Elijah Kahleo Stavena.

 

Justin Tipping

Born and raised in Oakland, Tipping made his first feature, Kicks, in his hometown. Released in 2016, the low-budget drama follows the journey of a precocious teen­ager who has his prized Nike Air Jordans stolen and convinces his friends to help him get the shoes back. Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (who grew up in Hayward and graduated from Saint Mary’s) costars in the film, which Tipping based on his own teenage experience. Tipping was a business major at UC Santa Barbara whose studies abroad in Rome led him to fall in love with Italian cinema. He later attended the American Film Institute, where his short Nani won a Student Academy Award medal and the Director’s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award. Tipping—who has gained a reputation as a filmmaker with street authenticity—also coproduced the film Lowriders, which was based on Chicano car culture, and recently directed an episode of Showtime’s edgy series The Chi.

 

Oakland’s Starring Role

East Bay natives Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal shine a light on the city in Blindspotting

 

Longtime friends Rafael Casal (left) and Daveed Diggs cowrote and star in Blindspotting. Photo by Robby Baumgartner/Lionsgate.

Within the first five minutes of Blindspotting, viewers familiar with the East Bay will realize they may be watching the most Oakland movie of all time. The title sequence provides a blur of The Town’s residents, streets, landmarks, Golden State Warriors victory parades, and Oakland Raiders parking lots. The film that follows is packed with issues that are both specific to the city and relevant to larger American society: gentrification, police brutality, gun violence, cultural identity, redemption, and friendship.

Blindspotting is the creation of Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, a pair of Berkeley High graduates. Diggs went on to win a Tony Award for his performance in Hamilton, while Casal became a national slam-poetry champion and a performer on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. Their film is a love letter to, and a time capsule of, Oakland. Diggs and Casal play friends who work for a moving company and ponder crucial decisions as they drive from job to job.   

“From the start, our story was always these two characters telling the story of a changing Oakland,” Diggs says.

“These are guys we know from our community—guys people probably know from their communities,” Casal adds. “We knew their voices because [they are] a part of Oakland.”

Every texture of the movie exudes the city, including a soundtrack packed with music by local artists—such as Tower of Power, Mac Dre, E-40, The Federation, and Diggs and Casal themselves.

The film received rave reviews following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and during its theatrical release in July. Blindspotting’s local premiere was held in front of a rapturous crowd at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, an experience that Diggs and Casal called “surreal.”

When asked to name their favorite Oakland movie, Diggs cites Fruitvale Station—Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film that detailed the final day of Oscar Grant’s life. “I was living two blocks from the Fruitvale BART station the night Oscar was shot,” he says.

“I have to tell you, I think it’s ours,” Casal responds. “We made the movie that we had been waiting to see all these years.” —Peter Crooks

 

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