In 2017, the United States’ police force shot and killed 987 people. That staggering number eclipses the rate of fatal shootings by police in other well-to-do nations. The public cries out for gun law reform, better police training, and fixing the criminal justice system but not everyone agrees we need a fix. Too many people opposing change aren’t affected by America’s gun-violence problems. If steps towards change start with empathy for the other side, director Carlos López Estrada’s new film, Blindspotting, is just what the doctor ordered. Blindspotting takes a felon with three days left on his parole and watches him dodge one perilous hurdle after another as he races to the finish line to reclaim his “freedom.”
Right from the jump, Estrada shows us we’re in for an over-the-top exploration of American life. As the credits roll, the film unleashes a parade of split-screen images showing the wide cultural gap between Oakland’s residents. The intro juxtaposes tech company bros and kombucha-sipping hipsters with young black men wearing Warriors jerseys and blasting rap music. Oakland comes across as one city but two different worlds. And right then it’s clear that Estrada isn’t dissecting racial politics with a scalpel; he’s using a machete.
We meet Collin (Daveed Diggs) while he’s in court receiving a jail sentence, though, for what remains a mystery. He gets 2-months in the slammer and a year on probation in a half-way house. Flash-forward about a year and Collin is 72-hours away from becoming a free(ish) man. But clearing parole isn’t guaranteed because he surrounds himself with knuckleheads. The worst offender; his childhood friend Miles (Rafael Casal). He’s problematic company for a man on probation. Miles smokes weed, starts fights, and packs heat, but Collin just can’t quit him. Miles stood by Collin during hard times and now they’re co-workers. Now they’re almost inseparable and it’s a recipe for disaster. One night, Collin sees a cop shoot a young black man in the back and the experience leaves him shook. After the incident, Collin questions his identity, friendships, and his place in the world.
Blindspotting plays like a hangout movie (Friday, Carwash), though a politically-charged one. It sets up a protagonist and then ping-pongs him off nutty characters and wild circumstances while throwing in life lessons along the way. For Blindspotting’s formula to work, it needs a compelling main character played by a charismatic actor – we must feel Collin’s pain, even if we can’t relate to his situation. Blindspotting has not one but two intriguing performances driving the film. Diggs, the emotional anchor, holds our attention captive while his co-star Casal is simply electric.
As Collin, Diggs speaks volumes even when his character says little. He’s tall with an imposing build, wears his hair in long braids, and loves rocking clothes that shout out his hometown, Oakland. He looks like “the guy” who causes women to clutch their purse once he steps onto an elevator. But pay enough attention, and Collin’s sad eyes, soft voice, and thoughtfulness betray that problematic association. Yes, he has a criminal record, but he isn’t a hardened man of the streets. He’s a kite lost on the wind, looking for something to ground him. He struggles with figuring out who he is in a world set on telling him what he must be.
In a nod to Diggs’ days starring in the phenomenon known as Hamilton, Collin works through his feelings out loud by rapping. And boy is it a treat. Early on his rap flow is choppy and awkward as he verbalizes his thoughts. But as the film goes on he sharpens his rapping into piercing verbal blades and it’s a breathtaking transformation. Collin’s final rap verse strikes a blow that hits as hard as a punch from any Avenger. By the end of the film, Diggs makes us understand Collin is a man desperate for change and not a guy going through the motions. We watch him scratch and claw his way out of the hole he dug himself even as outside forces keep piling on the dirt.
Casal captures my attention every time he shows up on screen. In real life, he’s a poet and his verbal dexterity bleeds into his performance. He speaks in lyrical rhythms that put me in a hypnotic stupor. Miles’ words don’t roll off the tongue, they pirouette. Despite his oafishness, he is more than a thuggish sidekick or comic relief – ala Smokey in Friday. Miles’ skin may be white but urban culture projected an identity onto him as restrictive as Collin’s dark skin. In his search for an identity, Miles latched on to the hyper-masculine persona urban culture values. But during our three days with Miles, he confronts his life-long beliefs. It’s an entertaining, though simplified journey, and I’m not sure it works without Casal in the role. He delivers a delicate balance between bravado and humility to create layers of introspection in a man working through being a hood-caricature.
Blindspotting went to great lengths to create an authentic vision of Oakland. Estrada’s vibrant depiction crackles with frenetic energy. There are loads of subtle and not-so-subtle nods that will breeze by you if you aren’t hip to the ways of Oaktown. Things like ghost riding (an act where drivers leave their seats and hang outside their moving cars and pose), Too $hort music, and a Kwik Way burger joint prove that this movie is authentically Oakland. You can feel the love that went into every small detail. This version of Oakland feels like a living breathing world, even when things get over-the-top silly. But most importantly, these grace notes give Blindpotting’s message credibility and reassure us we’re in the hands of a storyteller with conviction.
Estrada and Blindspotting’s screenwriters, Diggs and Casal, want to tackle a lot of issues. Perhaps too many for one film. Blindspotting touches on police brutality, identity, hyper-masculinity, gentrification, urban culture, and the criminal justice system – and I’m leaving some out. Rather than homing in on a subject with laser-like precision the film’s messaging, at times, sprays out like when someone puts their thumb on a garden hose. Some topics are referenced so briefly that they’re barely more than a shout-out. And mentioning a thing isn’t the same as moving the conversation forward. Instead, it clouds the film’s core themes. More often than not, Blindspotting delivers meaningful insights into topics we’re still uncomfortable discussing with each other.
Blindspotting’s biggest problem is that it’s too on the nose. There’s a scene where someone explains the movie’s theme to another character. The film stops short of finger-wagging, but the material and its blunt delivery will turn people off. This film about Americans and their messy coexistence wraps up too cleanly. Strong turns from Diggs and Casal breath nuance and vitality into what could be cookie-cutter characters. Given the border-line dystopia we now live in, maybe more films should drive home blunt moral truths. Despite what our neighbours to the south’s Declaration of Independence states, truths are no longer self-evident and all (wo)men aren’t endowed with unalienable rights. It’s too bad that we need a movie like Blindspotting to remind us – but I’m glad it’s up to the task.