Daveed Diggs rose to fame as a prominent Tony-winning actor in the original Broadway cast of musical phenomenon Hamilton, so it’s no surprise that his lead turn in this film incorporates some hip-hop flow. The real revelation is the acting talent of his largely unknown long-time friend and co-star here, Rafael Casal. Their close friendship provides them natural chemistry that is successfully utilized by debut feature-film director Carlos Lopez Estrada in a tale about race relations in rapidly gentrifying Oakland. While the finished product occasionally feels like a collection of calling-card scenes for demo reels instead of an actual feature film, it mostly works and clearly offers an informed insider’s perspective on the changing dynamics of Oakland life.
Working from their own script, Diggs and Casal play best friends Collin and Miles struggling to get by in the rapidly disappearing lower class in Oakland. Collin is a parolee in his final three days of probation, desperately trying to stay away from all of the potential criminal elements in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, Miles is one of those elements, still causing trouble and carrying an illegal gun even as he knows his friend has to stay totally clean.
When Collin witnesses a police shooting of an unarmed black man (inspired by the same real event covered in Fruitvale Station), he becomes even more paranoid about his chances of successfully completing parole, knowing that he can’t report what he saw and yet wanting to somehow seek justice. Meanwhile, Miles has his own struggles as a white man who identifies more with the incumbent African-American community than the rich white Silicon Valley types moving into his neighborhood. The simmering racial tension rises to a boil, affecting even the relationship of the two best friends as they both have to come to terms with their evolving community and the horrific police shooting.
The film proposes that the friends are so intertwined with the hip-hop culture of their hood that they sometimes use freestyle rap to communicate with each other rather than, you know, just talking. While it’s likely true from their own experience, in practice in a feature film it feels like a preposterous contrivance, especially during an equally mesmerizing and bewildering final confrontation with the killer cop.
Diggs and Casal are both great in their roles, with Casal in particular exhibiting a natural screen presence and real depth to what could have been a one-dimensional character. Lopez Estrada does serviceable work behind the camera, not really adding any visual pizazz but thankfully giving the leads the space to fully deliver on their characters.
The Blu-ray features a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that does a fine job of enveloping viewers in the sounds of the mean streets of Oakland, along with an alternate Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio option. Bonus features include a selection of deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, as well as a unique video diary filmed by Estrada throughout the production, mostly a collection of the crewmembers introducing themselves but also a very personal peek into the production process.