2018, R, 95 min. Directed by Carlos López Estrada. Starring Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 27, 2018
Once in a while, there's a film that unexpectedly defines not just a place, or a moment, or a trend, but what it means to be human in that particular context. Whether it's Do the Right Thing in Brooklyn, or the Watts portrayed in Killer of Sheep, or Friday and South Central, or Magnolia's journey through L.A.'s aspirational neighborhoods, they become cinematic landmarks. Add Blindspotting as a destination on that map, a film soaked in the Bay Area city of Oakland, but of universal relevance and compassion.
This remarkable, hilarious, political, emotional, and vital work is a collaboration between lifelong friends Daveed Diggs (currently, but not for long, best known for his double role as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton) and Rafael Casal, plus director Carlos López Estrada (responsible for several videos for Diggs' rap collective clipping.). That intimacy between the two writers and lead actors bubbles through in their pairing as Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), two Oakland natives working for a moving company. Their town is changing, gentrifying, as new condos go in, old businesses and residents are pushed out, and even the neighborhood burger chain has gone all bougie. That's where we first meet this far-from-dynamic duo, sitting in a pimped-out ride, complaining that their old hang-out has gone vegan. That said, have you tried the new potato wedges, with the umami ketchup? That's not so bad.
The line between improvement and gentrification is just one of the complicated and textured layers of interwoven discussion that these freewheeling, freestyling pals deal with. Collin (the real center of the story) is on the last three days of parole for a crime that he definitely did commit, and he's trying to stay out of trouble. But then trouble finds him when he's driving back to his halfway house, and sees a cop (Embry, in a blazing but near dialogue-free performance) shoot an unarmed black man. Meanwhile, Miles (a perpetual chip on his shoulder about being a white Oakland native, terrified of being seen as a newcomer) is trying to stay "town" while his wife Ashley (Cephas Jones) wants him to make more money so they can send their kid to preschool in Berkeley.
Police violence, racial identity, cultural appropriation, hipsters, NIMBYists, personal responsibility, gentrification. Blindspotting works because it doesn't try to separate these multifaceted questions. Instead, in a winding, episodic narrative that is still crystal elegant, it binds them together, demanding that we look at them all as a whole. A subtle but pivotal early cameo by Wayne Knight as a local portrait photographer accentuates that this is never about simplifying the issues, but about how we view them – a vital thread embodied by Collin's ex, and the delivery firm's office manager, Val (Gavankar).
Across four days and a host of locations, Collin and Miles take an odyssey across town. Whether it's just hanging out in the truck, or clearing out an abandoned house, their breezy, vibrant humor (as Miles so perfectly puts it, they have "a Calvin and Hobbes thing going on") is the audience's point of ingress to Oakland. But when their relationship inevitably fractures, that humor's loss highlights the drama. Blindspotting never shortchanges any of the heavy, heavy issues at its core. It also never falls into the trap of freshman political didacticism: when Collin and Miles look straight on at an issue, they do so as two guys who know what it means first hand, and know they can't solve the problems of the world by themselves. Instead, their journey is about how they respond, how they can overcome what is bigger than them. And those struggles are told in magnificent details, like the way Collin's knee buckles ever so slightly when he's jogging and thinking about that cop's four bullets, blam blam blam blam, or how Miles takes his grill out around customers. They are imperfect, misreading situations even with good intentions, and our eyes open up to complexity and nuance with theirs.
Funny, vibrant, insightful, tragic, achingly timely, and yet with an underlying message about empathy that is timeless, Blindspotting may be the summer's most essential movie.
Read our interview with Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, "Once Upon a Time in Oakland," March 9.