Film Review: Blindspotting (2018)
Jesus, where do I even begin with this film. I haven’t even fully processed this movie yet, but, paired with Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, 2018 has already been a groundbreaking year for Oakland filmmakers. Directed by Carlos López Estrada (who is not from Oakland) in his feature directorial debut, and written by Bay Area native co-stars Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting is… phenomenal. And unsettling. Telling a story of gentrification, police brutality, and implicit racial bias, the film is all at once confrontational, sometimes humorous, and beautifully poetic.
Blindspotting was written over a period of nine years, in which time, Oakland, among others, has seen dramatic shifts in their sociological and physical landscape. It’s been notoriously gentrified by tech start-up yuppies who drink kale smoothies and eat at places like Aloha Poke Co. It’s resulted in massive amounts of people of color who have spent generations there, being gutted out in place of primarily white people with generational wealth who are just trying to “fix things up”. And while Blindspotting does also tackle the food-related aspects of gentrification, it’s surface level compared to the way it tackles the very real and violent consequences of gentrification on black people.
Daveed Diggs portrays Collin, a black man, who is just trying to get through his last three days of probation with as little trouble as possible. And (this is not a spoiler) when he is witness to a white cop shooting another black man dead in the streets, his life becomes immediately shaken up. It doesn’t help that his dangerously white best friend Miles, played annoyingly well by Rafael Casal, clearly has no idea that he’s white*. He sports a grill, speaks in black vernacular, and thinks he’s some tough shit because he too grew up in Oakland prior to all the gentrification of the last ten years. But his fixation on proving his Oakland-ness, his fragile masculinity, and his utter lack of awareness comes with very real consequences, not for himself, but for Collin. There is a metaphor in the film using Rubin’s Vase and blind-spotting that’s essentially about the dual nature of implicit racial bias, and that metaphor can be seen all the way from Collin’s literal narrative trajectory to the way this whole film is set up to tell not just his story, but also Miles’. I don’t see Collin as the main character here; this is a buddy film that places just as much attention to Miles as it does Collin and I don’t know how much I like that aspect. You tell me.
*He definitely knows he's white.
Feminist Frequency Radio also brought up an important point about both Blindspotting and Sorry To Bother You and that is that these films are exceedingly male; the (primarily light-skinned) women characters and their stories follow an all too common pattern of being put on the periphery of their lead male counterparts as they exploit their domesticated emotional labor to learn to grow the fuck up. But with that being said, I think Blindspotting was also nuanced in deploying a character like Collins’ girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) who tries to guide him into “goodness” by suggesting he tone down his blackness, or at least by getting rid of Miles. It’s a double-edged sword that needs to be explored and I think the film was able to graze upon it here.
Plot and narrative aside, what Blindspotting also does exceedingly well is establishing a cinematic world for their story of Oakland gentrification and racism. I love that Carlos López Estrada’s film background is in music videos because the film at times really felt like one. The opening montage shots and the colorful cinematography set up a surreal undertone that elevates the film from extraordinary to extra-extraordinary. And while it’s mostly been marketed as a comedic drama about a brutal topic, what the trailers don’t show is that the film is actually also a bit of a musical, employing rap and verse with great intention throughout the story. There is a scene in the end of the movie that is cinematically confrontational and all in verse, and it is game-changing. A friend mentioned to me that the same (white) people who raved about Hamilton would’ve gone to see Blindspotting specifically for Daveed Diggs and Jasmine Cephas Jones and would come away with an emotional and direct confrontation about race.
In that way, I think the perfect word to describe this film is: intentional. Everything from the way the characters are written to the use of verse and rap in all the conscious and unconscious spaces, from the narrative blindspotting metaphor to the carefully deployed moments of humor is done with nuance and great attention to detail. Seeing this kind of film in a small theater of a mostly white audience in a metropolitan city made for a slightly uncomfortable viewing experience, and that felt intentional too. I hope Oakland natives are able to see this film and enjoy it, but I also want the future gentrifiers of similar cities to watch this movie and learn to stay in their place.