The best films teach you how to watch them within the first few minutes. Blindspotting is no exception.
The film gets off to an exhilarating start, with split-screen images of Oakland, California, unspooling to the tune of a soaring aria. It’s a vibrant, contagiously joyful mosaic of street life, parties but soon a disparity sneaks in: a shot of an African-American kid popping wheelies comes up alongside a white guy riding a bespoke penny-farthing bicycle.
A few moments later we see Collin, the hero of Blindspotting, played by the Tony-winning Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs, being released to probation, impassive while he listens to the judge’s instructions.
The film gets under way in earnest when Collin is three days away from having his probation lifted, as he sits in a car with his hot-headed best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) and the car’s driver. What starts out as a Linklater-esque slice of guy-life turns into a comic routine worthy of the Marx brothers, albeit with a decidedly foreboding subtext.
Here’s what we’ve learnt: Blindspotting will be a tale of Oakland, but also a tale of two cities; we will immediately be on the side of Collin, who although he’s a felon evinces a soft-spoken, gentle manner that is irresistible.
And Miles, a tattooed white guy sporting a gold-toned grill, a mouth full of casual racial epithets and abiding resentment toward the gentrifiers colonising his town, will be the most outlandish source of the film’s frequently uproarious humour. But he will also, most likely, be the source of Collin’s undoing.
Whether and how that precisely ensues forms the structural spine of Blindspotting, directed by Carlos López Estrada from a script written by Diggs and Casal.
As the movie counts down the days until Collin will be released from his halfway house, we follow as he tries to keep on the straight and narrow.
When Collin witnesses the murder of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer, he’s pulled into a vortex of grief, guilt and unresolved trauma. While self-preservation dictates keeping his head down, his nagging self-respect suggests otherwise.
As a parable of social mobility and selling out, Blindspotting shares thematic DNA with the recent comedy Sorry to Bother You, also set in Oakland.
When Collin and Miles go to their moving job every day, they stop by the bodega on the corner, which now sells $10 green juice alongside $1 “loosies”.
Miles hates it but Collin isn’t so sure; he’s not reflexively opposed to change if it means better health and prospects. When Miles predicts that Collin will soon be wearing suspenders and riding a Vespa to the Whole Foods store, Collin murmurs that they do have good produce.
What starts as teasing, playful barbs grow into more high-stakes tensions as the plot of Blindspotting takes form. For every amusing sequence skewering cultural appropriation, bourgeois posing and racial cluelessness, there are chilling moments of violence or would-be violence.
Punctuated by Diggs and Casal delivering improvised raps, the movie often plays like a modern-day musical.
The title is inspired by Collin’s ex-girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), who is studying psychology and uses the term as a way to remember Rubin’s Vase, a visual exercise in which the viewer either sees a vase or two faces in profile. Seeing both at once, she explains, is “hella hard”.
It’s difficult to fit this many ideas into a relatively brief, often light-hearted movie. Collin and Miles’s encounters with neighbours and clients occasionally feel too obviously like they’re standing for something, and the film’s harrowing climactic scene depends on one whopper of a coincidence.
But for the most part, Blindspotting is a remarkably vivid, seamlessly flowing examination of modern life that is willing to take on not just capitalism, structural racism and contested social space.
As it becomes painfully clear to Collin that Miles’s impulsivity will land him back in jail, or worse, the dynamics of their friendship come under scrutiny, but it goes both ways. Miles might be able to get away with more because he’s white, but in his view, Collin is afforded immediate credibility because he’s black.
Just as Oakland itself is a gloriously ambiguous melting pot, nothing is precisely black or white in Blindspotting, a spirited, thoughtful, thoroughly entertaining valentine to a city and its still-unfolding history, and a bracing reminder that two things can be true at the same time.The Washington Post