Diggs’ and Casal’s script imprints the structure of Collin’s impending end of probation, but Blindspotting presents such a complete and nuanced view of a space in time that it recognizes the arbitrary nature of such a deadline. Not only will Collin continue to be a convicted felon after his probation ends, with all the connotations and expectations such a history paints him with, but this is one small life event in a city teeming with them. Blindspotting focuses on Collin and Miles, but it understands that life is happening around them as well, that there are endless, compelling stories to be told in Oakland. Estrada brings his writers’ palpable love for the city to life by considering every location and cast member and ensuring that they’re memorable.
That said, the kinds of stories that most leap out for telling aren’t the ones of the newcomers to the city. As much as Blindspotting is a love letter to the Oakland that is and was, it’s side-eyed, at best, towards the Oakland that might be. The film has contempt for gentrifiers who want the cachet of a neighborhood staple burger joint, but who also prompt that same business to transition to selling only vegan food. The wrapper is the same, but the content is wholly different. There’s a uselessness and a sameness to the white monied culture that’s infecting the city, framed here as a battle between irony and authenticity. It’s the difference between Collin’s mother’s warm home and the sterile townhouse of a tech bro that Collin and Miles visit for a party.
That the two protagonists can both resent the influx of new citizens and profit off it through the moving company is one of many contradictions that the characters must deal with. The title comes from Collin’s ex Val (Janina Gavankar), who discusses with Collin the vase optical illusion. Some will see a vase, others will see a face, but everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong simultaneously. Stories of violence come off one way to bystanders and another to participants. Collin understands that he’ll always be viewed as a felon and it’s up to him to convince people to see a person who’s served his debt and is worthy of full reentry into society. Miles is also pertinent here, a white man who’s been wholly accepted by the black community he’s always lived in but who will never be so black that he can use the n-word. He embodies a Fox News viewer’s stereotype of a black man in appearance (excepting skin color) and temperament, but he’s also shown to get away with more than the milder Collin. The very presence of other white people makes him immediately self-conscious, especially as some of those white people appropriate Oakland culture without Miles’ immersion in it and strangers can’t determine who’s the native and who’s the newbie. The film wrestles with complicated issues like race and gentrification as much as its characters do, finding new wrinkles and resisting easy classifications.
Diggs and Casal would mark themselves as impressive talents if all they did for Blindspotting was write. The script is hyper-verbal thanks to Collin’s and Miles’ rapid-fire sparring, and coupled with Collin’s penchant for freestyle rapping which culminates in a fiery, multi-page monologue, dialogue pops off the screen at a witty and verbose clip. Their performances augment their considerable writing skills, especially Diggs. Already a known quantity for his work on Hamilton, Blindspotting hopefully functions as his ticket to the next thing that will bring him to a wider audience. He’s passionate and charming, a perfect straight man opposite Casal’s bigger acting. Though Diggs gets the most intense scenes, Casal is no hammy afterthought. His biggest task was to make his character tolerable in spite of his devil-on-the-shoulder role, and Casal does one better and makes Miles oddly charismatic.
Blindspotting wins 2018’s Oakland Cinema derby by remembering the hoary maxim about the specific and the universal. By nailing, or giving the impression of nailing to a viewer who’s never visited, what’s it like to be so familiar with a setting, the film communicates what could be lost and connects it to anyone who’s ever been skeptical of or worried about change. That this is done in an intimate drama about friendship and a psychological exploration of the ramifications of racialized police violence as well makes Blindspotting all the more notable. B+