‘Hamilton’ alumni shine in timely dramas
PARK CITY, Utah – You won’t find two better companion pieces this year than Blind spotting and Monsters and Men.
The urgent new dramas — which recently had back-to-back public screenings at the Sundance Film festival — are the feature directorial debuts of filmmakers Carlos López Estrada ( Blindspotting) and Reinaldo Marcus Green ( Monsters and Men). Both evoke imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement as they grapple with weighty issues of racism and police brutality, following biracial protagonists who witness cops gunning down unarmed black men.
And coincidentally, both movies star cast members from the original Broadway production of Hamilton, LinManuel Miranda’s smash hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton.
Daveed Diggs won a featured-actor Tony Award in 2016 for his dual Hamilton roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. But he’s top-billed in Blindspotting, which he co-wrote with his longtime collaborator Rafael Casal.
The hyper-stylized buddy comedy highlights the underlying racial tensions between Collin (Diggs), a convicted felon days away from getting off probation, and Miles (Casal), his ghettotalking friend who appropriates parts of black culture while enjoying the privileges of being a white man.
Diggs and Casal started writing the film — which is bookended by acts of racial violence and features characters slipping into spoken-word freestyles mid-conversation — in 2009. At the time, Diggs lived four blocks down from the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, where unarmed black man Oscar Grant was shot to death by a transit cop.
“That (police brutality) story line was a lot more front and center when we first started talking about it, but this (script) has gone through so many different iterations,” Diggs said at a post-screening Q&A. “There were some versions that were almost entirely in verse. But as we started to revisit ... (the theme of ) gentrification kind of took the driver’s seat.”
Hamilton’s Jasmine Cephas Jones, who originated the role of Peggy Schuyler on Broadway, appears in both Blindspotting and Monsters and Men, playing girlfriend to Casal and Anthony Ramos (another Hamilton alum).
In the latter film, Brooklyn resident Manny’s (Ramos) life is turned upside down when he records a smartphone video of an police shooting and posts it online. Soon he’s jailed on a trumped-up gun charge, leaving behind his pregnant partner (Jones) and daughter.
Monsters draws heavily on the 2014 death of Eric Garner, whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a Black Lives Matter rallying cry after a video of his forceful arrest by NYPD officers went viral. The sprawling drama aims to show the complexities of police violence by adopting the perspectives of a black cop (John David Washington) whose friends turn against him and a star high school athlete (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who’s frisked by officers.
For Ramos, being a part of Monsters was deeply personal. At 16, he said, he lied to a police officer about forgetting his ID and was handcuffed and held for 20 minutes.
“I felt humiliated,” Ramos said. “I was with my family, and they were standing there, waiting to see what was going to happen to me.”
Eventually, “the cop let me go and said ‘I had to teach you a lesson,’ ” he said. “At first I was like, ‘Thank you.’ And then I was like, ‘What the (expletive) did you just say? You could’ve just had a conversation with me. I wasn’t resisting arrest.’ But instead, he chose to handcuff me and humiliate me.
“I will never forget that, and that’s why I did this movie.”
Manny (Anthony Ramos, left) and Dennis Williams (John David Washington) find themselves on opposite sides of a controversial police shooting in Brooklyn in “Monsters and Men.”
Lifelong friends Collin (Daveed Diggs, left) and Miles (Rafael Casal) come face to face with systemic discrimination in modern-day Oakland in “Blindspotting.”
Jasmine Cephas Jones