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Film Review: Blindspotting

A story about survival in the face of rapid change, the limits of friendship and loyalty in a deeply screwed world…

Blindspotting opens with a montage exalting an Oakland once fondly known for its aversion to submission. Cars spinning donuts in clouds of smoke. Raiders tailgates. Birds flipped out of car windows. Scuffles on the BART. Black people. Hills, and then more hills. Hyphy music, birthed in the places on the screen, fills the theater as Mac Dre and Keak da Sneak rap playfully over a beat that makes it impossible to keep the neck still. This is not your tech bro’s East Bay. Yet here they are, everywhere. Armed with trendy food, money, appropriation, and disdain. Every time a crane rises, a slice of the old city disappears.

We meet Oakland native Collin (Daveed Diggs) 11 months and 27 days into his one year probation, moments before he witnesses a police officer murder a young black man—running away, his hands in the air, begging the officer for his life. Aside from edging too close to the curfew at the halfway house where the court has ordered him to live, Collin has been working hard to follow the litany of new rules. For his own sake, and perhaps to regain the love of his ex Val, he is on a quest to improve himself. It’s a hard feat when, other than the new “felon” designation, your new life is mostly the same as your old life.

Collin and his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) are still deeply immersed in Black culture, their black neighborhoods, the Bay of their childhood. Collin is still black and Miles is still white. Miles is still funny, loving, fiercely loyal, unapologetically committed to the gold grill adorning his grin, but also as volatile and reckless as ever. It’s all the same other than one of them has a felony on his record. As Collin struggles to keep out of Santa Rita Jail for three more days, the two best friends reckon with the blind spots that permute their deeply intertwined lives.

This story is as much about the limits of friendship and loyalty in a deeply screwed world, as it is about survival in the face of rapid change. Oakland is gentrifying and it seems no one is immune. The “transplants,” as they are called throughout Blindspotting, vacillate between contempt for the natives and fear for their property. The worst kind, the hipsters, wear the East Bay like an ironic costume. A sort of backhanded eulogy to a people that hasn’t ceased to exist just because one pretends they’re invisible. The latter puts Collin and Miles in the difficult position of resisting change, and perhaps even growth, to protect their culture and distinguish themselves from the transplants in their midst. At which point are they simply performing authenticity?

Then there’s the fact that Collin and Miles put food on the table by moving people in and out of homes in the Bay. When a fancy juice appears on the shelves of their local bodega, to accommodate the tastes of the transplants, they give it a reluctant try. By definition, they are participants in this process if not complicit. Those of us whose theaters were in places like Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, New Orleans, Oakland and the likes understand the uncomfortable tension all too well.

In a sense, both men suffer from survivor’s guilt. Quite unexpectedly, we learn what landed Collin in jail in the first place and that Miles was just as involved, even though he suffered no consequences. As deep as Miles’s loyalty runs for Collin, there are forces outside of them that renders them less than equal in the eyes of the law. Only one of them feels watched and harassed by the police. Only one of them must contend with mugshots of faces that resemble his on the television, every time an “officer-involved” shooting occurs. Only one of them can’t move furniture outside of a specific mapped area. But at least it was not Collin who was shot. Here he is, breathing, when it could have been him shot by the cop three nights earlier. In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, Collin is on his usual jogging route through the nearby cemetery when a flashback of the murder stops him. When Collin looks up, rows of Black men in black hoodies stand behind their tombstone, watching him hauntingly.

The reality of police brutality, and the inexistent accountability, is painfully relevant even as Diggs and Casal began writing Blindspotting nine years ago. Just this year, the Supreme Court took unprecedented measures to absolve a police officer of a charge of excessive force. The woman killed had a history of mental illness. When three officers arrived, she had been wielding a knife erratically, though not in their direction. Rather, she had been hacking a tree. Within a couple of  minutes of arriving, one of the police officers opened fire. No one else did. Any of us might have concluded, and in fact two lower federal courts, that the officers’s actions were not reasonable. Excessive force had been used. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court disagreed. It is in this universe, of absolute deference to the police officer, that Collin does not volunteer what he knows as to contradict the testimony of the officer whom he saw kill a man. Collin is no fool. If the rest of us are second-class citizens compared to police officers, then Black men with felony records are in the third-class.

Falling in love with Collin and Miles is easy. Diggs and Casal are longtime friends offscreen and whatever they may lack in acting experience is more than made up by their natural chemistry. Both are talented poets, lovers of hip-hop, and purveyors of perfect diction. Rhyme is peppered throughout the film, crescendoing in two unexpected—but well worth it—bursts of uninterrupted poetry.

Blindspotting is a debut film for its writers and director, which shows in some places. Diggs’s fondness for musicals shows up in a scene at the hairdresser’s that adds little to the plot and borders on the cliche. Still, the tribute to shop culture and Black women (onscreen and in the audience) is charming, and the delightful appearance by Tisha Campbell-Martin makes it easy to forgive. In some places the film could trust the audience more by, for instance, omitting  a second scene explaining the title rather heavy-handedly, adding room for more of Miles’s back story and perhaps even more of Collin’s.

Nonetheless, Diggs and Casal have created an introspective and well-executed piece that successfully broaches the challenging themes of police brutality, gentrification, trauma, and identity with levity and poetry, all the while showing off the Bay they call home. Whether you’ve set foot in a place being reclaimed by the rich as aggressively as Oakland, or not, Blindspotting is a beauty not to be missed.

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