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Oakland in Their Bones, and in Their Films

Oakland in Their Bones, and in Their Films


Leading the Oakland filmmaker charge has been Ryan Coogler, whose wrenching “Fruitvale Station” (2013) told the story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black man fatally shot in the back by a white transit system police officer on an Oakland train platform. Most recently, Mr. Coogler directed “Black Panther,” which was set partly in Oakland and shattered a Hollywood myth about the overseas viability of movies rooted in black culture. “Black Panther” took in $1.3 billion worldwide.

“To have all three — Boots’s film, ‘Blindspotting,’ ‘Black Panther’ — contributing to the cultural conversation at once is remarkable,” said Rajendra Roy, the chief curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mr. Roy, who grew up in Northern California, said “Blindspotting” was particularly timely because it grapples with a range of issues affecting American life: racial profiling, toxic masculinity, fear of change.

Still emerging are Oakland-rooted filmmakers like Anthony Lucero, whose “East Side Sushi” (2015) focused on a Latina woman in East Oakland. Oaklander Nijla Mu’min received a special jury award at the South by Southwest festival in March for “Jinn,” her first feature, while Evan Cecil created a stir at the 16th annual Oakland International Film Festival in April with his horror movie “Lasso.”

It’s not as if Oakland just discovered cinema. The Afrofuturist fantasy “Space Is the Place” (1974) was partly filmed in “the town,” as locals call it. The documentary filmmaker Shakti Butler has been active here since 1998, when she released “The Way Home,” featuring 64 women from diverse backgrounds talking about racism in America.

But it is striking that Oakland is only now gaining serious traction in film, particularly given the city’s huge contribution in other cultural areas — most notably music, through a thriving jazz and blues scene in the 1940s; the rise of soul and funk bands like Tower of Power in the ’70s; and hip-hop and R&B rap artists in the ’80s and ’90s, including Too $hort, MC Hammer, En Vogue, Tony! Toni! Toné! and Tupac Shakur.

Oakland has been such fertile cultural ground for a variety of reasons. Geographically isolated on the east side of San Francisco Bay, the region became a center for African-American liberation in the early 20th century, with people moving from the rural South as part of the Great Migration. The subsequent influx of Latino and Asian immigrants “made the area an unusual confluence, a place that offered a collective safety — a unique cultural opportunity to be free and imaginative,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Bay Area-based arts activist and performer.



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