Must Reads: Beyond ‘Black Panther’: Thanks to a wave of homegrown filmmakers, Oakland is having a Hollywood moment

"Sorry To Bother You" filmmaker Boots Riley, photographed near the historic Grand Lake Theatre, leads a new wave of Oakland-centric films coming out of the Bay Area.
(Peter DaSilva / Los Angeles Times)

The morning after the Warriors swept the Cavs to claim their second straight championship, the Town was still buzzing with Oakland pride as Boots Riley stepped out in the early summer sunshine.

Smiling strangers did double takes as the rapper, activist and filmmaker moved down the street. A Bay Area icon known to hip-hop heads since he put out his first record in 1991 with local rap outfit The Coup, Riley is a radical voice of anti-capitalist resistance whom many came to know during the Occupy movement.

He strolled past the small businesses that line Grand Avenue, past florists, Thai and Chinese restaurants, longtime local watering holes and the newer, hipster-leaning coffee shop that moved in this year, toward downtown, the city skyline towering in the distance.


Along the way, Oaklanders of all stripes stopped him: a cyclist out for a mid-morning ride; a businessman on his lunch break; a group of off-duty firefighters waiting outside a sandwich shop, all shaking his hand and greeting him warmly, as if he was the mayor.

They’d heard so much about his new film, “Sorry To Bother You,” set in and shot all over the city last summer. They thanked him for repping Oakland, for writing a movie about Oakland, for making it here and celebrating the dimensionality of one of the nation’s most diverse cities.

Long in the shadow of the city across the bay and nestled between liberal Berkeley and the exploding tech expanse of Silicon Valley, Oakland (pop. 425,000) is in the midst of a long-awaited movie moment, and Riley is helping put it on the map. (Its nickname, “the Town,” is a nod to Oakland’s standing relative to San Francisco, known locally as the City.)

His nervy social satire “Sorry to Bother You,” about a young black telemarketer named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who must weigh his ambitions against his growing social conscience, could take place in many American cities. But setting it in Oakland adds razor-tipped specificity.

When Cash discovers his sales super power, for example — a “white voice” that sends commissions through the roof and alienates him from his coworkers and friends — he trades budget digs at his uncle’s soon-to-be-foreclosed home for a high-rise in downtown’s Cathedral Building, where the penthouse views bisect the city.

When Riley wrote “Sorry to Bother You” years ago, he assumed he’d have to stage the homeless encampments he wrote into the script. Filming last summer in Oakland, he found them already in place.

“There are some artists that can move around from place to place, and I traveled a lot in my time,” said Riley, outside the historic Grand Lake Theatre movie palace built in 1926, where “Sorry To Bother You” is touted on the East Bay’s most recognizable marquee. “But I’d always come here, because it actually makes my art make sense.”

For all its versatile locales and proximity to Hollywood, Oakland has rarely been portrayed onscreen as vibrantly or as urgently as it has this year in films including Marvel’s superhero blockbuster “Black Panther,” Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” and the upcoming “Blindspotting,” from Oakland besties Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal.

Don’t mistake it for San Francisco, whose tourism-friendly streets most recently played host to the lighter shenanigans of “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Smaller, half as populous and more ethnically diverse, the product of a 20th century industrial boom and now a nexus for working class families, artists, multicultural communities and new-tech transplants, Oakland has always defiantly held its own on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay.

Now, the city’s socioeconomic complexities and seismic battles over gentrification serve as microcosms for the times, allowing the Oakland-centric films of 2018 to start wider conversations and, possibly, wind up in the Oscar race this fall.

It’s certainly neither commerce nor convenience drawing movies to the 510 area code. According to Film Oakland, the city’s film office, feature production was down in 2016 and commercial shoots consistently dominate over film productions. Rare are the filmmakers who shoot narrative movies here, but those that do tend to inscribe the Bay Area they know and love onto the screen.

Five years ago, Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler was one of the first of his generation to put his hometown on Hollywood’s radar with his award-winning debut, “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant.

The 2016 drama “Kicks,” a coming-of-age odyssey from East Bay native Justin Tipping, tracked a sneaker-obsessed teen’s trek from Richmond to Oakland with plenty of local flair and a cameo from Bay Area legend Mistah Fab.

Few films have translated the local love into cinema on the scale of Coogler’s “Black Panther.” When he and cowriter Joe Robert Cole penned the origin tale of superhero-king T’Challa, they placed an important plot line in Oakland, birthplace of the Black Panther Party, as a vivid juxtaposition to an idealized Wakanda that bears the scars of black America as well as the promise of its future.

“It really wasn’t a question that the Bay was going to be represented in the movie,” said Cole of the role Oakland played in the film, one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial successes. “It was a very personal movie, and it made sense to root it there.”

Ironically, “Black Panther’s” Oakland scenes were filmed in Atlanta, thanks to Georgia’s enticing tax credits. A few months later, however, “Sorry To Bother You” and “Blindspotting” came to Oakland, filming at the same time across the city.

For the makers of “Blindspotting,” the story of two Oakland BFFs — one black, one white — set against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving Oakland, filming on location was a must.

“From the beginning, it was always meant to be about Oakland, about the experience of growing up in Oakland and about how much Oakland has been changing,” said producer Jess Calder, who came across spoken word artist Casal nearly a decade ago and started developing the project with him, Diggs and producer Keith Calder.

Changing so fast that over the course of the film’s development, the filmmakers found that many of the locations they had scouted were being developed so quickly they were no longer viable shooting locations for their movie about race, privilege and gentrification.

“Sorry To Bother You” takes audacious aim at many of the same targets, as well as corporate exploitation of labor, a complicit and frivolous media and urban economic displacement in Oakland and beyond — in Riley’s view, it’s all related. The film is an expression of the activism he’s been waging for decades as a musician and organizer, and one way he sees to effect wide-reaching systemic change.

“I started out being like, ‘I’m going to make art that helps with social change and gets people to do things,’ and I think I still do that,” said Riley. “But I’ve realized it just has to come from a more personal place and that also you can’t do it all with the art — you have to be connected to movements that are actually trying to change material situations.”

Not far from the downtown locations where much of “Sorry To Bother You” was filmed, along the Lake Merritt shoreline dotted with midday pedestrians, is the serene patch of public park where a white woman dubbed “BBQ Becky” went viral in May for calling the cops on two African American men grilling in the park. Last month, an irate jogger was filmed dumping a homeless man’s possessions in the water.

Oakland’s housing crisis, mirroring similar patterns of gentrification and development in Los Angeles and other California cities, is exacerbated by the exploding tech industry that has become a defining characteristic of the Bay Area. From 2015-2017, documented homelessness in Alameda County increased 39%, while many artists have been pushed out of the long-term residences and neighborhoods they once called home.

It’s no surprise that local displacement is on the minds of filmmakers.

“On the one hand I love good bourbon and good coffee, interesting restaurants and things like that, which we didn’t have for so many years,” he said. “On the other hand, so many people that I would have liked to enjoy that with are not around anymore.”

The current film moment is also about examining the diverse and under-told stories of the region. Nijla Mu’min, who grew up between Oakland and Hayward, made her feature debut this spring with “Jinn,” about a black Muslim teenager wrestling with her faith, family and budding sexuality. The film won a special jury award at SXSW in March.

The writer-director drew on her own unique Bay Area upbringing but transplanted “Jinn’s” setting to Southern California, filming in Los Angeles where more resources were at her disposal.

“I always found myself straddling these different worlds,” said Mu’min, who now lives in L.A. “And the Bay Area is so diverse, it has so many different types of people. I wanted to tell the story where you see a slice of life that you don’t get to see when it comes to mainstream portrayals of black girls.”

Joe Robert Cole first connected with the East Bay while attending UC Berkeley and purposefully returned to Oakland for his next project after “Black Panther.” He wrote and will direct “All Day and a Night” for Netflix, about an Oakland man who arrives at prison; the film then flashes back through his life “to show that he’s the sum of his parts and not just the end result.”

“I fell in love with the heart and the uniqueness of the people and the place,” said Cole. “The film is inspired by things that I saw, folks that I met and spent time with, a sense of family and life that’s there regardless of your socioeconomic status or neighborhood, but also by the challenges that those in underserved communities face and how that can shape someone.”

Before Netflix came onboard, Cole kept hearing the same refrain from potential backers. “The conversation always went to, ‘Why don’t we shoot somewhere that is more cost-effective?’” He insisted on filming his Oakland-set tale in Oakland.

“I explained the importance and the value of shooting on location in Oakland; the unique rhythm, the personality of the city, how the city is a character in and of itself,” said Cole, who is in pre-production for a summer shoot in West and East Oakland. “[Netflix was] all for it.”

Mu’min sees this wave of Oakland-centric film “as a form of preservation, in a way, for us to be telling stories specifically about the city and about the Bay Area right now — especially for filmmakers of color to be controlling the narrative, when the city’s narrative is changing.”

She has written a script she’d like to get made that is set in Oakland’s Mosswood Park. She hopes to shoot it on location, all across the East Bay.

Riley, meanwhile, has no plans to leave; he’ll continue to tell stories out of the Bay Area, hoping that art that talks about changing the world will be a precursor to actual change.

“But that’s only going to happen with actual organization,” he added. “And organizations — people are scared of those. Hopefully that’s changing and I think that will make the art more effective. Because without it, if all we do is encourage more art-making, then it’s going to be like me trying to stay in Oakland: I’ve done it, but a lot of people have not been able to.”