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How two movies portray Oakland’s rapid change

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With the city as a muse and backdrop, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting look at the way neighborhoods change—and why

Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) in Blindspotting.
Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) in Blindspotting.
Photo by Ariel Nava

What does gentrification look like? Filmed in rapidly changing Oakland, California, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, two of the summer’s most talked about movies, articulate what it’s like to watch your familiar city become virtually unrecognizable.

(Spoilers ahead.)

An early scene in Sorry to Bother You—director Boots Riley’s anti-capitalist story told through the lens of sci-fi and magical realism—sets the tone for the whole film. Cassius, the main character, played by Lakeith Stanfield, drives down West Oakland’s Wood Street in an old Toyota that looks like it’s been frankensteined together from a chop shop’s scrap pile. A serial number is scribbled on the windshield, none of the wheels have hubcaps, the paint is faded, bed sheets cover the seats, and yellow pom-poms are tacked onto the roof.

But what really steals the scene—and sets the tone for the film—isn’t the car; it’s what’s in the background: block after block of homeless encampments that are cobbled together from campers, cast off wood pallets, scrap metal, tarps, and other salvaged items.

For the team who made Sorry to Bother You, the homeless camp was a daily reminder about the economic and cultural critique in Riley’s film. Soundwave Studios, the 25-year-old recording studio where parts of the movie were filmed and produced, is right across the street.

“Al [Luchessi, the studio’s owner] kept telling us people kept knocking on his door asking to develop the building into condos,” Jason Kisvarday, the production designer of Sorry to Bother You, tells Curbed. “He would say, ‘This is Soundwave Studio this is where we record. We’re not selling.’”

Doug Emmett/Sundance Institute

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the country’s wealthiest regions—and also one of the most unequal. While the Bay Area’s booming tech and biomedical industries are adding high-income jobs, there’s a severe housing shortage. The three most expensive areas in the United States for renters are in the Bay Area. It’s a recipe for displacement and gentrification. Longtime residents—typically lower-income people and people of color—are forced to leave, rising commercial rents price out established businesses, and the cultural composition of neighborhoods changes leading to tensions, like the infamous incident where a white woman called police on black men barbecuing, legally, at Lake Merritt.

Oakland is feeling these pressures acutely and could be the poster child for the dual phenomena of displacement and gentrification; however, you’d be hard pressed to find any metropolitan area in the country that isn’t dealing with affordability issues and their ripple effects. It almost comes as no surprise, then, that two of the summer’s most buzzed-about movies are set in Oakland—and include gentrification as major plot points.

While Blindspotting centers on the effects gentrification has on people living in a hyper-specific neighborhood and Sorry To Bother You takes broader aim at capitalism as a system, production design turned the city of Oakland into one of the most exciting characters in each film.

A neighborhood in flux

The majority of Blindspotting—a film about race, privilege, police brutality, and gentrification—takes place in the Lower Bottoms section of West Oakland, the neighborhood where Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who both starred in and wrote the movie, grew up.

Blindspotting’s main characters, Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), work at a moving company and we see most of Oakland through their eyes as they drive through the city in their truck. (Commander Moving is a real company and it’s located across the street from where the film’s production studio was based.) Collin, who was recently released from prison, returns to a city that looks and feels alienating since so much has changed during the time he was incarcerated—a sentiment made palpable by what ends up on screen.

When Thomas Hammock, the movie’s production designer, scouted locations to film, he had one rule: “We made a conscious effort to show an Oakland that locals would know and recognize and not show sort of those couple of tourist spots... Essentially anything that would be on a postcard, we avoided. And anywhere one would’ve gone to hang out in the ’90s formed the basis of the locations.”

Since the film was about a specific Oakland neighborhood, most of it was shot there, too. Locals might recognize The Alley, a dive bar, and Top Dog, a hot dog chain from the 1960s, in the movie. Old Victorian houses, industrial streets, highways, graffiti, and shipping cranes become the backdrop for the story. Then, there were the new elements in the area: the condos, the cafes, the shops, and more. As much as possible, the film showed the juxtaposition of new and old Oakland.

Hammock scouted places with construction underway, or recently built aberrations on an otherwise untouched block. To film a vignette of a brand-new modern house between untouched Victorians, he ended up on Wood Street a half-mile south of Soundwave Studios and the homeless encampment filmed for Sorry to Bother You.

“We picked specific streets that said something,” Hammock tells Curbed when asked how he used the city to set the film’s tone. “To communicate something [like gentrification] visually, you have to simplify it. You leave the complexity and interpretations to the actors and what they’re doing. We tried to treat our version of the city like we were documenting the change—block after block of Victorians with a loft on one end,” he adds.

“On a design front,” he goes on, “it was really about those base visuals that would get change across but we didn’t try to sort of ‘vibe’ it with good or bad. To us, it just was. And the characters play off that with their own assumptions and feelings.”

A scene where Miles (right) confronts newcomers to his neighborhood takes place in a recently built modern house.
Ariel Nava

Gentrification was an important catalyst in Sorry to Bother You but it’s a major point of tension in Blindspotting.

In one scene, viewers see Miles and Collin moving an art gallery owner who can no longer afford rent. At a party in a recently built modern house, Miles becomes agitated when an Oakland newcomer accuses him of being a poser and starts a fistfight. When Collin and Miles are parked in their truck, a man in a Prius blocks them in and proceeds to slowly unload Whole Foods grocery bags, ignoring their honks. Miles’s corner store starts selling $10 green juice.

The movie’s opening sequence takes place at Kwik Way, a shuttered Oakland fast food chain. When Miles and Collin drive up, it’s celebrating a grand re-opening under new ownership; Miles becomes flummoxed by vegan options.

In order to create the scene, Hammock commissioned neon signs to look like the original Kwik Way neon but couldn’t actually film at a Kwik Way establishment since they were in such a state of disrepair after metal scrappers stripped the buildings’ copper wiring. He had to use a Pup Hut (another fast food establishment) in Richmond as a stand-in. When they were building the set, passersby stopped and asked, hopefully, if Kwik Way was reopening; Hammock had to break news that it wasn’t—a sad truth about beloved establishments that now only exist in memories.

There’s no “there” there

The Oakland in Sorry to Bother You is, geographically, larger than Blindspotting and spans the hills to the flats. You see affluent residential neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, middle class single-family homes, commercial downtown strips, aging and brand-new offices, and renovated lofts. It’s a cross section of Oakland with archetypal elements you could find anywhere in the country.

“The setting of my film is Oakland, but the location is every city in the United States,” Riley told Vanity Fair.

The movie was filmed in many of the places and spaces close to Riley. When Jason Kisvarday began working on the film, Riley—who’s lived in the city since he was six years old—drove him around the city and showed him both the new and old Oakland.

“A lot of what’s happening there now—and there is a lot happening now—wasn’t happening 10 years ago or even five years ago,” Kisvarday tells Curbed. “So part of [the movie] was a snapshot of Boots’s Oakland and part of it is a snapshot of what’s happening right now.”

While Blindspotting’s production team was taking a documentary approach to Oakland, the production team on Sorry to Bother You created their own world using bits and pieces of Oakland.

Cassius lives in his uncle’s garage—which was filmed near Riley’s own house near Mills College in East Oakland—and is late on rent. After his uncle falls behind on his mortgage and is threatened with foreclosure, Cassius ends up taking a job as a telemarketer at a company called RegalView—whose headquarters was filmed at Kaiser Permanente in Downtown Oakland—before receiving a promotion to become a sales specialist.

As Cassius moves up the ladder, less grit and color appear on screen and more sterile, “new” Oakland comes into play. He leaves his converted garage apartment—furnished in warm tones and comfortable textures—for a slick, black-and-white luxury unit in the Cathedral Building, a former office building that’s now condos. He moves from a windowless office with offensive fluorescent lighting (filmed in an old government services building in West Oakland) to a bright, and airy upper floor office (filmed in the photography app company VSCO’s downtown Oakland headquarters). While he once went to bars, restaurants, and art galleries with his friends—The Layover, one of Riley’s favorite bars, appears in the movie—he now gets invited to a billionaire’s mansion—filmed at Spring Mansion, in Berkeley.

The specific places in Oakland aren’t as important as what they represent to the film’s cautionary and surreal tale about corporate exploitation.

“We wanted [the city] to be accessible to anyone, where this could be ‘Anytown USA,’” Kisvarday says. “We didn’t go out of our way to show city skylines or a lot of landmarks and hit people over the head with ‘This is Oakland and it’s supposed to be Oakland.’ We made [our city] just a little overly designed and a little quirky where it’s not exactly real Oakland—it’s ‘Alternative Universe Oakland.’ In that way, we took some creative liberties.”

A simulacrum of the city

A rapidly changing Oakland is reflected behind the scenes, too.

Much of Blindspotting takes place in private homes and spaces, like the home Miles shares with his partner and son, and Collin’s mother’s house, which is brimming with art, ephemera, and personal belongings collected and layered over decades. The irony of it all was each of them were recently converted Airbnbs, which the team chose due to filming constraints.

Hammock and his team completely emptied these spaces—removing the new light fixtures, door handles, curtain rods, and, in one of them, bunk beds—and created homes for the characters, sometimes borrowing pieces from friends of Diggs and Casal.

“The people who had lived there were recently forced out,” Hammock says. “Those were brand-new Airbnbs. It seemed strange and authentic to go to a place that had been known by a family and rented by a family that was forced out. It added an extra layer and it meant a lot for the crew to be in a place like that.”

If cities don’t address the discrepancy between housing costs and income, they’ll lose the people and places that give them their uniqueness and culture, and only to seeing them again recreated on screen.

While scouting in Oakland with Riley, Kisvarday became aware of the imminent threat toward decades-old businesses and tried to show as many of them as possible in Sorry to Bother You.

“The things I loved were the older spots that had been there for decades and were still hanging on,” he says. “I think those are the hidden gems that aren’t going to be there forever. Those are the people—whether it’s their business or their home—who are getting priced out right now and unfortunately in 5, 10, or 20 years looking forward [probably won’t be there]. That is to me, and what Boots was showing me, what Oakland was and that’s what’s slowly disappearing now. That culture and history and it’s happening faster and faster and it’s sad.”

One of those older spots that did make it into the film was Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant on 19th street in Downtown Oakland—one of Riley’s personal favorites. Between shooting the film and its release in theaters, it closed down.