‘Hamil­ton’ alumni shine in timely dra­mas

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Pa­trick Ryan

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.”

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF SUN­DANCE IN­STI­TUTE

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

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