While rough around the edges, director Carlos López Estrada’s debut feature film Blindspotting—written by stars and longtime creative collaborators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal—is unapologetically itself, oozing Oakland swagger and personality from every frame as it oscillates wildly between making you laugh and making your blood run cold as the grim realities of things like police brutality, gentrification, and systemic racism set in.
One could be forgiven for not assuming much about Blindspotting based on its official description in the Sundance Film Festival’s programming guide: “A buddy comedy in a world that won’t let it be one.” Doesn’t that pique your interest? It’s one of the few understated things in the film, which often features its leads waxing poetic and occasionally rapping about the changing face of their city. Blindspotting tells the story of Collin, a man who is serving the final days of his probation for a crime he’d prefer to forget, and Miles, Collin’s ever-present, smooth-talking, violence-prone childhood best friend. In their own words, they have kind of “a Calvin and Hobbes thing going on,” assuming that Calvin and Hobbes grew up on the rough-and-tumble streets of Oakland.While times and the city around them have changed, they have not. Case in point: Miles has a young son and lives with his girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), but buys a handgun on a whim, waving it around like it’s no big deal. Collin is living at a halfway house and working with Miles at a moving company, a job that his ex Val (Janina Gavankar), the company’s receptionist, arranged for him.
Collin will have to make some serious changes to his lifestyle if he doesn’t want to go back to jail, but the world around him seems to be doing its damnedest to put him in one compromising position after another. In one shocking scene early on, Collin witnesses a brutal act of police violence that a white cop perpetrates upon on a black man. Frozen in fear and shock, Collin eventually drives away from the scene of the crime, but realizes the bleak truth of the matter is that there’s not much he can do about it given his criminal record. “You are a convicted felon,” Collin’s halfway house supervisor advises him later on. “You are that until proven otherwise. Prove otherwise at all times.”
Gentrification weighs heavy on the minds of our heroes and their families as well. It manifests itself in ways both innocuous and insidious, ranging from $10 green juice becoming a staple at the neighborhood convenience store to wealthy developers buying up dilapidated properties to sell them to wealthy tech bros. Collin, Miles, and their families are caught in a creeping tide of a cultural and economic shift from which there is no escape. “Why he gotta be bilingual? He already biracial,” Miles asks, wondering why they have to send their son to an expensive private preschool in Berkeley. Rapidly ballooning living expenses and diminishing job prospects—particularly for blue-collar employees like Collin and Miles—are very real problems, and ones which they, like millions of Americans being forced out of their neighborhoods, may not be equipped to handle on their own in spite of their best efforts.
The film has an awful lot on its mind and handles most of its subject matter deftly, but sometimes bites off more than it can chew. Much of the film feels as though it has been dialed up to 11—and perhaps that is to reflect Collin’s increasingly unstable mindset—but it could have benefited from more moments of stillness. Although its pacing can feel a bit uneven at times, Blindspotting is a relentlessly charming and thoughtful movie, elevated by a tremendously talented ensemble cast and killer sound design that you’ll feel in your bones. Whatever structural flaws from which it suffers, it feels urgent in its subject matter and its delivery. At the end of the day, Blindspotting is well worth your time, and it is undeniable proof that Daveed Diggs is our next great movie star. All hail the king, long may he reign.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos
Images: Courtesy of Sundance Institute; Blindspotting
Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter ( @DanCasey).