It’s 2018 and the Bay Area city of Oakland, California is certainly having a “moment” in film. Earlier this year, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther set several scenes there to showcase the black neighbourhood that Killmonger came from. We now have Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (starting to open wider across the US and hopefully getting European distribution in place), set in Oakland and particularly highlighting the art scene which Tessa Thompson’s character is involved in. And opening to a limited release today in the US (20th July) and wider on 27th July, we have Blindspotting. Blindspotting is ostensibly a buddy comedy about two childhood friends; Miles (Rafael Casal) and Collin (Daveed Diggs). Collin is on the last three days of his probation and must stay out of trouble to ensure he does not get sent back to prison. Miles is unpredictable and risk-taking and his recklessness could lead his friend down a dangerous path.
The trailers focus on the lively, funny aspects of the film and there certainly is plenty of humour packed into the fast-paced dialogue (my favourite joke was a Fantastic Four reference, bizarrely). However, Blindspotting is way quieter and more thoughtful than it appears at first and is one of the most complex and complicated films I’ve seen this year. Like the city itself, these characters have many sides to them and nothing is ‘black or white.’ Miles is a white working-class man who has grown up in a predominantly black neighbourhood. In order to survive, he has adopted a persona that includes tattoos and a gold grill on his teeth and he also uses violence, drugs and guns as coping tactics. Collin is also struggling with his identity as a felon in a city where the police can shoot black men and get away with it. Collin witnesses such a shooting near the start of the film and this is the catalyst for much of what is to follow.
One of the major themes of the film is the changing city of Oakland which is going through an identity crisis of its own with the influx of new people (mostly white and wealthy). Miles spends much of the film raging against hipsters, who have brought $10 green juice to his corner store and vegan burgers to the Kwik Way (the local fast-food place). It feels even more urgent that we have STBY and Blindspotting to capture the city now, before the old city is gone all together. All of the characters have conflicting reactions to the gentrification of the city. Collin’s Mama Liz’s apartment is adorned with Black Panther pamphlets and art depicting Angela Davis but she says she won’t move out of the neighbourhood “just when it’s got good food.” Collin’s ex-girlfriend Val is trying to improve herself with a psychology degree and it is from her use of slang to remember psychology terms that the title of the film comes, referring to our implicit bias and the fact it takes work to see another perspective.
The artistic side of the city comes through in Blindspotting in several different ways. One is that it has a theatrical and musical feel, which makes sense given both Casal and Diggs’ backgrounds. There are dream sequences which feel like music videos, which is an extension of the collaboration between director Carlos Lopez Estrada and Diggs’ hip-hop group clipping. As well as using heightened colours and effects, writers Diggs and Casal crank up the language, building on Casal’s background in verse, spoken-word and performance poetry. There are times when the characters seamlessly transition into speaking in verse and times when it is highlighted, such as when Miles uses it as part of his salesman patter. This all builds to an astonishing climatic scene, which will definitely have you looking up Daveed Diggs’ rap videos, if you were not familiar with them before.
I am incredibly excited that not one, but two films (and possibly with the release of Spike Lee’s Blackklansman, we will have a third) have come along that are dealing with such contemporary themes, that acknowledge that something is rotten in the states of America. Blindspotting takes on gentrification, Black Lives Matter, masculinity and much more through being an incredibly funny comedy through a heightened, theatrical style which uses language in a unique way; whilst also being a poignant drama on themes of identity, perception and society with multi-faceted characters in a complex city. It is so, so much more than the trailers would have you believe. I urge you to seek this film out and let it encourage discussions and questions that you may not have considered before.
Directed by: Carlos López Estrada
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones