Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting is the kind of cultural phenomenon that can render an audience silent, dead serious and crippled by oft-ignored realities mere seconds after striking wide-sweeping hysterics. Always reshaping, never shying from harsh realities. I lost my breath laughing, stared speechless at bleeding-raw depictions of societal fears and felt paralyzed (even ashamed) more than once – that is the power of Blindspotting. You sit down, you shut up and you listen.
Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs spent nine years pitching and developing a screenplay that grew dishearteningly more relevant with each passing day. Almost a decade’s worth of time for correction, yet written dialogue has only sharpened its piercing sting. Casal and Diggs tumble down an incendiary rabbit hole of helplessness and unease that’s still effortlessly, invincibly “dope,” but far more vocally outraged than entertainment-driven. A sensational Ted-Talkin’ bombshell meant to obliterate comfort zones.
Estrada’s screenwriters are also his leading stars; Diggs the no-longer incarcerated Collin and Casal as Oakland white-boy thug Miles. Collin lives at a probation house and must stay out of trouble to regain his freedom, while Miles seems to find mischief around every corner. It’s hard out in Oakland for Collin, but he abides by curfews (or tries) and works a steady movers gig as instructed. Everything seems in order until Collin witnesses Officer Molina (Ethan Embry) gun down an African American perp (screaming “Don’t shoot!”) next to his truck. It’s a scene that Collin replays whether he be jogging (sees more “ghosts” above graves), passing police cruisers or just strolling the streets. Collin can either become another statistic or pursue a clean and clear path forward – if Oakland’s transforming landscape doesn’t leave him behind first.
The term “Blindspotting” comes from Collin’s ex-girlfriend/still crush Val (Janina Gavankar). It’s meant to suggest how we’re instinctually blind to what we “weren’t seeing” – Collin, for example, the Oakland native with dreads who’s trying to straighten his life out could otherwise be viewed as a career criminal. In reality, his best friend Miles is the more classic definition of a hood gangster with his new pistol and destructively short temper, while Collin abides by probation rules and drinks $10 juice blends each morning. That’s not what others see, though. That’s not what Officer Molina saw when he gunned down a man who could have easily been Collin. As Val remarks, who would lawmen shoot first if Collin and Miles were involved in some kind of altercation – the caucasian boy or his dark-skinned friend with an identifiable hairstyle?
Consider race a starting point, as Miles struggles with his own conflicts surrounding Oakland’s gentrifying neighborhoods. A tatted-up, grill-wearin’ tough guy who grew up on Oakland’s streets, now defined a “poser” by some transplant who knows not of what he speaks (Mile’s Oakland). Sensitivity gone numb, Miles now sharing the same geographical neck tattoo as some tech startup boss who “found himself” in this new idyllic city. Someone like Miles, as you expect, takes offense to his experience being belittled and ignored while privilege overtakes what used to be a full-out jungle – nothing but disrespect and ignorance shown towards those who suffered and fought first.
Casal and Diggs take everything into consideration with Blindspotting. This isn’t just some angsty plea for cheaper bottled drinks or a weak attempt to capitalize on national tragedies. By spotlighting gentrification, racism becomes part of the equation. When handling themes of disenfranchisement, poverty must be addressed. Collin and Miles, for example, are tasked with “cleaning out” a dilapidated shack previously owned by unwealthy tenants – literally throwing away their memories so wealthy realtors can erase “ugly” blemishes in favor of a marketable new prepster dream home. Scene to scene, Estrada oversees crisp transitioning between what’s taken for granted in a manner you can’t ignore. Foreign to those of us lucky enough to not quantify such change, degradation, and shackled paranoia, now openly shared.
That’s not to say entertainment is forgone. In the same way common folk sling humor to relieve stress, Blindspotting benefits from mile-a-minute jabbing between characters who do the same. A hilarious tone-setting probation violation serves as an introduction to the film’s lenient but serious tone, trapping Collin inside his bud’s pimped-out ride with six different firearms. Stakes absolutely real, attitudes sarcastic and comical. You better believe hipsters are mocked every chance Collin and Miles get – obnoxious bikes with novelty-sized wheels, Vegan burger joints, calling white bros everything from Topher Grace to Jason Biggs – and we’re allowed to snicker. Trust me. You’ll know when to burst out laughing just like you’ll be prompted to zip those lips and wake up – two elements that are extremely crucial to delivery.
Of course, you all know Daveed Diggs from Broadway’s Hamilton – and yes, he does lyricize. Casal himself an accomplished beat-poet who does the same. Maybe it’s just knockaround rhyming to kill time (“…hung up in the hood until I’m discarded…”) or maybe it’s a nightmare Collin has that turns his courtroom ruling into a red-and-blue lit music video where Miles drops bars like gunshots (astoundingly prolific). Messabout freestyling becomes the rhythmic pulse of Blindspotting, until Collin’s third act mic drop brings existence to a crashing halt. A moment so profound, so prophetically overtaking, so rooted in Def Jam’s heavyweight class, that it weaponizes song and drops a nuclear-sized truth like it’s another day at the office for Diggs. Straight fire.
Estrada’s vision is crucial when defining old-school Oakland and new-age hipsterville. Something as simple as an opening montage of side-by-side pictures that paint a comical before-and-after. Awkward dance club scenes versus local swagger, ridiculous biker dude spliced alongside an Oakland boy popping wheelies on his road cruiser. It’s the little things, but even Collin’s mama remarks about how she’s not leaving her neighborhood because “We just got good food!” Lots of Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors references, startup partiers flocking around a “rad” Uber ride for selfie opportunities – all from Collin and Miles’ perspective. The picture is painted clearly and satirically, without exaggeration. Zero deniability.
There’s no way around it – Casal and Diggs are superstars together. Casal the “entrepreneurial” grifter who can flip a run-down boat for $300 (amazing dealmaker scene) and also the immature family man who risks everything for “protection” (a frozen audience moment). Diggs the frustrated but positive-thinking ex-con with a violent past (an epic story when told by an excitable bar patron, horrifying from Val’s perspective), saved by unstoppable flows and classified by his surroundings. Both with the power to lighten up moods and drop a Spike Lee sized hammer with equal presence (their “n___” argument a standout). Supporting roles play their parts from wives (Jasmine Cephas Jones) to storytellers (Utkarsh Ambudkar), but Casal and Diggs’ explosive energies make Chernobyl look like a campfire. Chemistry class is in session.
Blindspotting is like a heavier Bodied – both tremendously unstoppable in their missions, but Casal and Diggs with more provocation. Somehow (you’ll understand after seeing Bodied). At the film’s most vulnerable, Miles looks at Collin and asks a simple, “You good?” A shaken Collin responds, “No.” Miles then cracks Collin’s juice, chokes down some nasty-ass green health sludge as a gesture of distraction, and they’re back to bantering about how the Raiders are moving to Las Vegas. Still shook, still unwell, but proceeding only as they can. Knowing something has to change, both men looking forward and to society as a means of reform. This is, in large part, what Blindspotting means to me. How we all need to stop seeing what we want, to respect cultures and circumstance, to read surroundings and not assume unearned privilege. Goddamn if Blindspotting doesn’t drill that point home fierce and furious.
Blindspotting is a force to be reckoned with in terms of experience, anger and boiled frustrations that beg anyone watching to lead the charge for change.