Review: ‘Blindspotting’ Walks a Tense Line in a Gentrifying Oakland
Posted July 17, 2018 5:37 p.m. EDT
Updated July 17, 2018 5:42 p.m. EDT
The opening credits of “Blindspotting” showcase the city of Oakland, California, in split-screen, offering two distinctive points of view. One side shows a vibrant multiracial culture living in a frequently beleaguered environment; the other a gentrifying city whose newest residents — young, white, startup-happy, new-money types — seem eager to embrace the area’s “authenticity,” as long as their interactions with its longtime residents do not involve any real discomfort.
Collin (Daveed Diggs), nearing the end of his probation for a felony we do not learn much about until relatively late in the movie, initially confronts the “new” Oakland via a bottle of green juice now being sold at his regular bodega. It goes for 10 bucks a pop. Feeling flush on his way to his job at a moving company, he picks one up — partly to impress Val (Janina Gavankar), his ex-girlfriend, who works as the moving company’s receptionist and scheduler. “It’s part of my regimen now,” he tells her, unconvincingly. (He takes one sip and looks as if he is about to be sick.)
Looking good to Val is one of Collin’s many concerns. Anticipating getting sprung from a halfway house, he is maintaining regular work hours and keeping his nose clean. His friends are not, it seems, completely dedicated to his cause. Collin’s best buddy from childhood and partner at the moving company gig is Miles (Rafael Casal). He is white, while Collin is black. They sometimes like to recap their days and evenings by concocting rhymes together; this element of their friendship comes into crucial play at the movie’s nerve-grinding climax.
Miles, despite having a child by the girlfriend with whom he lives, seems more devoted to being “street” than Collin is — he even wears a grill in his mouth — and when Miles illegally purchases a gun from a mutual friend for “house protection,” you just know that nothing good is going to come of it. But the movie’s first occasion of gunfire comes from the police.
Driving home one evening, nervous about making his 11 p.m. curfew, Collin witnesses a white cop shooting an unarmed black man. Near paralyzed at the sight, he is ordered to move along — but not before locking eyes with the officer (Ethan Embry). The shooting makes the local television news, distorted from the reality of what Collin saw.
One night while hanging out with Val, who is studying psychology, Collin notices in her textbook an illustration called “Rubin’s Vase,” a set of two-dimensional forms that appear to be a vase or two human profiles depending on your perception of it. The changing social sets in Oakland are, in this movie, creating not just ambiguity but distortion. And as Collin approaches the end of his probation, he seems to gain clarity with respect to the victims of police brutality. They begin to haunt him even as he fails to see the immediate ways he is putting his own life in danger.
This movie, which was written by Diggs and Casal, has an energetic-to-the-point-of-boisterous style. Its lively frequency is embedded in the writing, bolstered by Carlos López Estrada’s direction, and kept buoyant by the performers. This particular aspect of the film makes it exciting to watch but can also be confounding. “Blindspotting” often seems as if it wants to split the difference between its social concerns and its engagement level as an entertainment.
The schematic nature of the movie’s story line and the on-the-nose quality of many of its observations can add to the frustration. My first impression was that “Blindspotting” worked best as a suspense narrative, with its countdown structure, ticking off the days before Collin’s probation ends. Collin is so appealingly portrayed by Diggs — a 2016 Tony winner for “Hamilton” — that you want him to be OK. Indeed, the movie’s ultimate compassion is such that it makes you want everyone to be OK, including Miles, who often just behaves like a straight-up knucklehead.
But whatever my quibbles, the actual core of the movie is so pertinent that I have continued to think about it, hard, since I first saw it. (The same is true of another new, Oakland-set movie about race and American society, the outrageously affecting “Sorry to Bother You.”) What I took to be tonal inconsistency may actually be a form of dialectic. I unabashedly admire the movie’s aims and think “Blindspotting” ought to be seen by the widest audience possible.
Rated R for language, themes and probably violence (although it is substantially less violent than the PG-13 “Skyscraper”). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.