Carlos Lopez Estrada’s impressive debut feature Blindspotting (2018) effortlessly sets up the conflicts and basic narrative arc within first few minutes. Oakland native Collin (Daveed Diggs), a young black man and convicted felon, after two months in jail has to spend his one-year probation at a halfway house. Then the narrative abruptly shifts to last three days of Collin’s probation who has possibly done good to stay out of problem so far, which looks like a tough task because of his white, volatile best buddy Miles (Rafael Casal). The fact that these guys are in the car of an illegal firearms dealer, enveloped in bright purple light, purchasing a hand gun causes some distress. Miles’ disarming banter and the wacky gun dealer (also an Uber driver) who has stashed away plethora of guns inside the car does elicit awkward laughs. But we know Chekhov’s gun principle and warily wait for the hell the gun is going to bring. And let’s remember that this is set in present-day America, where young African-Americans can be shot at for sticking their hands inside their pockets, let alone carry guns. The weary and insecure Collin does have tough three days to endure.
Blindspotting, however, isn’t a uniformly bleak tale of hood with gun violence casually tossed off. Written by life-long friends, music artists, and co-stars Diggs and Casal, this is a very funny yet low-key chronicle of Collin's reintegration into a rapidly gentrifying society. The pair use comedy and heightened spoken verse to do some thematic heavy-lifting which they make sure doesn’t get lost in our blind-spots. Of course, the meaning of the title is explained by one of the characters alluding to Rubin’s vase, a popular optical illusion in which our eyes can either see a vase or two facing profiles, based on what the brain chooses to react to first.
The movie’s opening also introduces us to a vital character in the narrative: Oakland. The opening credits set to blissful operatic music reveals snippets of the Bay Area city’s life and spirit. Blindspotting’s social commentary becomes clear once we learn the boisterous central characters’ job. Collin and Miles works for a moving company, witnessing first-hand the gentrification of their neighborhood as house-flippers, hipsters and other upscale residents are taking over. Their beloved, relaunched local burger joint offers pricey good-for-naught food, bodegas sell $10 dollar green juice, and rich tech people attempt to emulate stereotypical ghetto speak, while showing off the precious coffee table that’s actually cut-down from the trunk of a very old Oakland tree. Lying beneath these guy’s bafflement over cultural appropriation are timely social problems and palpable personal conflicts.
The evening after the unsettling gun-purchasing episode, Collin has to rush to his room before the 11 PM curfew, set by the court. But before that he has to drop off the moving truck. Collin impatiently waits for the red light to change (the red light perpetually symbolizing the feelings of being stuck) and out of nowhere a black man bumps into the front of truck. A police officer (Ethan Embry) chases and guns down the unarmed black man. Collin, frozen to his seat, witnesses all this. He physically moves from that place, but he is heavily traumatized and fears the punishment his racial identity might bring one day. The best parts of the narrative are however the lived-in personal moments, like observing the intense camaraderie between Miles and Collin or Miles’ heartwarming family unit – his impertinent wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and little multi-racial son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger) -- or Collin’s tenuous connection with his ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar). There’s also more joy in the way the friends randomly burst into funny, freestyle raps.
Director Estrada employs range of stylized techniques (crane shots, split-screen format, etc) to effectively get into the characters’ psyche. For the most part, he smartly handles the narrative’s serio-comic tone, especially in the superb third-party flashback scene, revealing the reason for Collin’s conviction. The tale of hipster and burning drink starts as outright comedy, but gradually as the perspective shifts the sadness of the situation emerges to the front. The haunting dream sequence shot like music-video was another example of the film’s formal brilliance. Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner does a great job in capturing the whole spectrum of life and colors in Oakland. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal elaborately layered writing cuts through the blind-spots plaguing the characters on a personal and social level. ‘What does society (including us viewers) sees when it looks at the Collins of the world? What Collin sees when he looks at himself? What do we think of coded racism in news reports that covers police shootout of unarmed black man? What do we perceive as the ‘real’ Oakland?’ (or for that matter any gentrifying historical city), the wildly different answers to these questions Diggs and Casal think may emphasize the collective blind-spots that stops things from getting better.
Diggs and Casal’s charismatic performances bring perfect buoyancy to the proceedings in order to ingest the darker, blunt truths. Diggs naturally has broader scope in the central role and he neatly carries the narrative’s lugubrious tone. In fact, much of the acting and writing never feels rehearsed or fake that the overwrought, forced ending sticks out oddly. Like BlacKkKlansman, Blindspotting wants to vociferously declare its social message vibrating with righteous anger, despair, and resilience that it gets too melodramatic and off-putting. It didn’t land much of a blow unlike the much organic confrontation between Collin and Miles over their racial identity and the relevant lingo. Barring this misstep, Blindspotting (95 minutes) is a poignant indie which not only zeroes-in on the African-American experience in Trump’s era, but also looks under the surface of relevant social issues: such as police brutality, ruthless justice system, systemic racism, and gentrification which maintains segregation.