Is Oakland becoming Hollywood North? Hitting theaters just two weeks after Boots Riley’s indie sensation Sorry to Bother You, Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting is steeped in the sights and sounds of the Bay Area city grappling uncomfortably with gentrification. The two films represented a bit of a mini-trend when they both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. And if Estrada’s dark buddy dramedy doesn’t quite have the same virtuoso flair and wild originality as Riley’s film, it’s still a timely meditation on what it means to be black and presumed guilty in America. It deserves an audience wider than the arthouse circuit.
Co-written by and costarring Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, the actor who won a Tony Award for originating the roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in Hamilton, Blindspotting is the story of two best friends who seem to be growing in different directions. Diggs plays Collin, a twenty-something African-American who’s just finishing up probation for a crime it appears that he didn’t commit after serving two months in jail. Collin is trying to steer clear of trouble – something that Casal’s white, hair-trigger-tempered Miles doesn’t make easy. The two, who still have the easy, playful back-and-forth of guys who’ve been able to finish each other’s sentences since childhood, both work as furniture movers.
Then, one night, with just three days left on his probation, Collin witnesses a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man in cold blood while stopped at a red light. He’s rattled and haunted by the incident, but knows he’s in no position to do anything about it since he would wind up back behind bars. He has every right to be paranoid and fearful.
Collin’s dilemma is set against the backdrop of a city that’s changing before his eyes. White millionaire tech types are moving into to his old, once-impoverished neighborhood bringing artisanal coffee shops and pressed juices with them. And he and Miles lament their alienation and disintegrating sense of place occasionally through freestyle rap arias that wouldn’t sound out of place in Hamilton (these moments work a whole lot better than they you expect them to).
Over 95 minutes, Blindspotting builds tension like a simmering cauldron on the verge of boiling over. Its themes of racial prejudice, class conflict, friendship and loyalty find a voice that’s both disarmingly funny and heartbreakingly tragic. But while Casal and Diggs’ occasionally melodramatic script overflows with a lot of ideas – probably a few more than it can comfortably shoulder, especially in its clunky middle section – its sucker-punch force is undeniable. B