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Blindspotting

Posted August 11, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

As I type this, everybody’s eyes are on BlacKkKlansman, the latest Spike Lee joint. I do want to get to that eventually, but there’s another socially conscious auteur project that I want to address first. And I assure you, it deserves way more press than it’s getting.

Any discussion of Blindspotting has to begin with Daveed Diggs. The man shot to fame stealing every scene in “Hamilton”, he built a career out of lesser-known rap singles and acting appearances (seriously, see Wonder if you haven’t already), and he’s in almost every second of screen time through this picture. Hell, he also produced and co-wrote this picture. But there’s another co-star/co-producer/co-writer who should not be overlooked: Rafael Casal, who grew up with Diggs on the hard streets of Oakland and fought just as hard to get this movie made.

Diggs and Casal respectively play Collins and Miles, two best friends who grew up together on the hard streets of Oakland. Now, they’re working together for a moving company, and the picture follows them from one moving job to another as they deal with the everyday stresses of their lives. The plot is kind of formless and it’s comprised of so many little moments that have nothing to do with each other. But there are many strong unifying threads that hold the film together beautifully.

First and foremost, Collins is a convicted felon. The film takes place roughly a year after he was released from prison, and he only has three days left on his parole. That’s a solid year of staying within the county limits, keeping away from any altercations with law enforcement, and getting back to his halfway home before curfew.

Complications arise near the start of the film, when Collins witnesses a black man getting shot in the back four times while running from a white cop. We never get the full story of what happened, and all we ever hear is what the TV news tells us. Suffice to say that watching a stranger getting murdered right in front of him — knowing full well that it could’ve been him who died, and knowing there’s nothing he can do about it — left Collins with severe PTSD that he has to struggle with throughout the movie.

But easily the most prominent running theme is in the contrast between Oakland of the past and Oakland of the present. From start to finish, we see the culture clash of black ghettos and white gentrification. Trees are used as a recurring motif, symbolizing everything that gets cut down to make way for the modern and sanitized.

On the one hand, “old Oakland” is comprised of history and culture that’s getting ruthlessly tossed away. It represents people from all walks of life, all struggling to make a living if they’re not already dead and forgotten. Then again, it also represents the “rap culture” of black people using drugs, guns, excessive shows of wealth, and aggressive verbal art. All of which arose to show dominance and defiance against the White America who would prefer poor black people to sit down and shut up.

In the other corner, we have rich white people too caught up in their cell phones to care about anyone else. People with no regard for the history of the city they live in or the people they share that city with. These are the entitled people of vegan meals, green vegetable shakes, and whatever they feel like shamelessly appropriating from other cultures.

(Side note: Portland often comes up as a recurring shorthand for all the rich white hipsters coming down to ruin Oakland. I’d like to speak on behalf of my city, because — and I cannot stress this enough — Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen do not. Trust me, we hate the “Portlandia” stereotypes and exaggerations more than anyone else. Secondly, Oakland, we’ll stop sending our self-centered new-age douchebags down to your city just as soon as you get Los Angeles to stop sending theirs up to us. Deal?)

Our two main characters — especially Miles — treat yuppies and “New Oakland” with utter disdain, but is it really any more phony, self-centered, or pretentious than all the macho gangsta posturing bullshit?

Consider that “old Oakland” was built on drugs, guns, and shouting out “FUCK YOU!” to the harsh and uncaring world. That’s all well and good until adult responsibilities come in and one’s actions can cause serious hurt to those who depend on them. There comes a point in the course of growing up when we need the green veggie shake more than we need another gun that could accidentally go off.

It’s the timeless conflict of security versus excitement. The white yuppie lifestyle may be boring and edgeless, but at least it’s safe. That said, “old Oakland” still has more diversity, deeper history, and a fiercely defiant streak, all of which are worth preserving against the encroachment of gentrification.

My personal favorite example of all this conflict is the one that started it all: The incident that got Collins sent to prison in the first place. Here we have the rich and entitled directly confronting the poor and scraping by. It’s a pretentious white man versus a hardened black man. Blissful and unsullied ignorance directly insulting someone who’s seen enough shit to know better. Countless disparities in race, class, and culture all colliding into a perfect storm. There are so many layers to this clusterfuck that I don’t want to spoil anything more about it, I just want you to see it all for yourself.

Getting back to our main characters, the primary recurring thread is of Collins learning how to make a new life for himself. Sure, he’s been out of prison for a year, but he still has to figure out who he’s going to be, what he’s going to do, and how to make a life for himself when his parole is up. Where is he going to live, when he’s out of the halfway home? What will he do with his time when he’s free as a bird? How can he find another job or a place to live when he has to spend the rest of his life branded as a convicted felon?

Still, at least he’s lucky enough to be alive. As a black man, it’s a mercy he wasn’t shot on sight back when the incident first happened.

Which brings us to Miles. This guy is a bastard, plain and simple. He’s a loudmouth, he’s confrontational, and he’s always pulling some scheme to make money. That said, he does look after the ones he cares for, and he has the charisma to get himself out of just about anything. Though of course, it helps that he’s white.

As the plot unfolds, we see that Miles has been shaped and heavily damaged, growing up white in a black city. He’s got grills, he’s heavily tattooed, he’s always armed… basically, he feared the stereotypical dangerous black man to such an extent that he became a reflection of it out of self-preservation. So it is that even though he really did grow up in the ghettos of Oakland, he still comes off as a phony, hypocritical culture vulture.

Moreover, Miles is the white working-class guy always starting shit, and his best friend is the black ex-convict trying to keep his head down and get his life on straight. So it is that Collins keeps getting the blame and taking the consequences for the shit Miles did.

Miles is the dangerous asshole that everyone thinks Collins is. How fucked up is that?

If we take this a step further, it’s potentially more disturbing. What if the white racist cops are just people like Miles, posturing too aggressively in response to the “gangsta” black culture, which was itself formed in response to oppression from white America? What if the current epidemic of racially motivated murders is simply the natural end result of a horrible feedback loop?

While this is absolutely Daveed Diggs’ show and I can only hope it gets him far more work and recognition — as an actor, a rapper, and a force of nature on either side of the camera — the truth is that every single performance here is sublime. Rafael Casal turns in some powerful work, especially in that heartbreaking third act. Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Ethan Embry are all fantastic supporting players as well. Tisha Campbell-Martin, Kevin Carroll, and Wayne freaking Knight all put in brief yet delightful and memorable appearances. Even in the cameo roles, we get walk-on appearances from the likes of goddamn Watsky!

Last but not least, I want to heap a ton of praise onto first-time director Carlos Lopez Estrada. His use of color here is astounding, and the whole movie is packed with gut-punching visuals to show exactly what mental and emotional suffering Collins is going through. There’s one particular sequence of black men standing in a graveyard that will take your breath away. It’s incredible how Estrada knows exactly when to use extreme close-up, when to tilt or move the camera, and when to bring the action to a dead stop, all for maximum impact. This guy needs a mainstream franchise ASAP.

Blindspotting packs a shit-ton into 90 minutes. In addition to the jaw-dropping performances and the inspired direction, we get viewpoints and perspectives every which way about race and class in America. There’s a ton of great stuff here about living as a black man, living as a convicted felon, living under the constant shadow of gentrification, and living under constant threat of unprovoked police brutality.

I cannot possibly recommend this film enough. Definitely go see it.