Race, class, social injustice. Our country has struggled with these since forever and cinema provides the means to address issues and heed the call of activism and resistance through art.
In these dangerously unstable times “Blindspotting” has led the charge and turned the camera on us. When the film came out last year, it was a striking debut for first-time filmmaker Carlos Lopez Estrada (Estrada had directed several short films and TV series before this) and it featured a strong message, albeit one that was too far below radar to be heard by the people who needed to hear it the most.
“Blindspotting” is one of the most important films of the last twenty years and one of my top five films of 2018. This marvelous piece of cinematic fire will stand as a document of the struggles faced by the contemporary black community. Because rare is the film that so precisely captures the climate of a particular epoch. Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” caught the wave of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing” captured the racial tensions in New York City in the eighties.
And with a smack and bang Lopez Estrada’s “Blindspotting” rushed unto the scene, instantly becoming a vital work of modern cinema. This film, unforgiving in its analysis of our time, takes no prisoners as it examines violence at the hands of the police, identity, cultural appropriation, and hipster gentrification in an episodic narrative that binds them together until we are forced to see them as a whole; each one an effect of the other.
Daveed Diggs plays Collin, an ex-con with just three days left on his probation. Raphael Casal is Miles, his white best friend. Miles walks a thin line between living right and getting into serious trouble (he buys a gun to protect his girlfriend and young son.) The two friends work as furniture movers in Oakland, Calif. and they resent the gentrification overtaking their neighborhood.
Diggs makes it quite clear that Collin is beyond desperate to go straight and wants to win back his ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar in a solid turn). She doesn’t trust Miles, and with good reason.
On the way home one night, Collin sees a cop shoot an unarmed black man. The incident makes the local news and the facts are completely distorted. If he manifests his anger in any way or antagonizes the police by reporting on what he saw, he could end up back in jail or even dead.
Meanwhile, the gentrification of Oakland continues apace, with ten-dollar “health” juices at the corner store and white, stuck-up, transplanted, tech “richies” getting the same Oakland neck tattoo Miles has had for his entire life. A slap in the face, as if the “yuppification” of their beloved Oakland wasn’t insult enough.
As Val is braiding his hair one evening in sort of an emotional truce, Collin notices an illustration called “Rubin’s Vase” (two-dimensional forms that appear to be either a vase or two human profiles depending on one’s perception). This gives the film its potent title, as the definition is, “When a situation or an image can be interpreted in two different ways, but you can only see one of the interpretations.”
The ever-changing social classes in the city of Oakland are creating a racial divide, ambiguity, and cultural misshaping. As Collin approaches the end of his probation, he is jarred awake by a striking clarity about all victims of police brutality. They begin to (quite literally) haunt him when he is alone with his thoughts.
As the day of Collin’s release from probation gets closer (an almost High Noon-esque real time “ticking clock”) he tries to walk the line by keeping his head down and eyes closed. Collin’s growing awareness forces him to look out at his fractured city. What he sees is beautiful but broken. His home is in need of a change.
Written by Rafael Casal (a spoken word/ slam artist from H.B.O’s “Def Poetry Jam”) and his real-life best friend Daveed Diggs (he played Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in Broadway’s “Hamilton”) “Blindspotting” is a vibrant manifesto in which reality checks are punctuated by occasional comedy.
In his role as Miles, all tatted up and sporting a gold grille, Casal is a main culprit of the film’s many comedic moments, his performance neither parody nor a cliche. Miles has got a good heart but a sometimes-soft head. Miles is likeable, but like his friend Collin does, one hope he’ll experience an awakening.
Daveed Diggs is charismatic, gifted, and quite powerful, demanding attention from the opening moments of “Blindspotting” and, like getting to know a person you’ve just met, his growth as a person is visible, he becomes more endearing as the film progresses.
Raw emotions are presented sometimes through freestyle sessions. This is no gimmick, the power of the words and the scenes they narrate is riveting. Many of these moments will stay with you long after the credits roll. When it was over, I had to catch my breath.
The film is like a lit fuse. But the desired explosion happens in not quite the way you would expect. Estrada, Casal, and Diggs surprise us at nearly every moment. Sure, “Blindspotting” is loaded with ideas and messages that are drawn with a thick marker but that doesn’t stop this film from being powerful and unique. “Blindspotting” is a film that vies for our attention and deservedly so. The Oakland it portrays is a microcosm of the country at the moment. The filmmaker forces you to not just listen, but to hear all of the film’s messages, and it is past time, yes, for this country to hear him out. “Blindspotting” is the scream that must carry through to all corners of this broken nation.
“Blindspotting” was released in summer of 2018 and is available from major platforms.
Anthony Francis is a freelance film writer who has been published in both print and online magazines. He was formerly involved with the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival from 2000-2003.