Film Review: Blindspotting

Broadway’s Daveed Diggs delivers a love/hate letter to his gritty but rapidly changing hometown.
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Blindspotting takes its name from the invented word of one of its characters, a student cramming for a psych final. How do you explain the effect behind the “Rubin’s vase experiment”—that picture that can either be perceived as a single piece of pottery or two facing profiles? Blindspotting, she says—our ability to stubbornly not see something.

It’s a word this movie applies to life.

What do you think about gentrification? About cultural appropriation? About the police? About race? There are different opinions, the film acknowledges, and they need to be examined. But too often we only see what we’ve been taught to see, are expecting to see—and everything else falls into our blind spot.

It’s the serious message behind a sometimes anguished, occasionally melodramatic, often very funny movie from Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who co-wrote and co-star. Fellow rappers and longtime friends from Oakland, they’ve spent most of this decade working on a script about that Bay Area city—their love for what it was and worry about what it’s becoming.

Then Diggs suddenly became a name, thanks to his Tony-winning turn in “Hamilton,” and the passion project started picking up speed.

The film itself, directed by frequent music-video auteur Carlos López Estrada, never slows down. It starts with a split-screen credits sequence that, at first, feels like empty flash. But then you see it’s laying out its theme, showing images from different angles, different viewpoints—new townhouses and tumbledown shacks, hipsters and homeboys, Whole Foods and bodegas.

Which one do you see as the real Oakland? That depends on your own blind spot.

Collin and Miles move through both worlds, literally. Minimum-wage schleppers, they help clean out abandoned houses in the flatlands, ferry things to new homes in the hills. And yet, both of them are standing still. The excruciatingly cautious Collin is finishing a one-year probation after a brutal bar fight. Miles has a family, but he remains in love with juvenile, let’s-bust-stuff-up nihilism.

The two have been lifelong friends, and the fact that Collin is black and Miles is white never mattered. But should it? Collin begins to wonder. Because he knows that if he does let Miles pull him into real trouble, it’s not Miles who’s going to pay the price. And Collin can sense that night of reckoning coming very soon.

Blindspotting explores all this, sometimes a little overdramatically but always with flashes of humor and a real feel for the streets. It reminds us that “the hood” is nothing but short for neighborhood, a place where people nod to each other in the morning and watch each other’s backs at night. It’s a constant haven, and any change is carefully watched.

That the corner store still sells “loosies”—single cigarettes—for a buck? That’s a good thing. That the local burger joint has now gone vegan? That, perhaps, is not.

Collin and Miles bounce from one strange situation to another—hustling used curling irons at a beauty shop, hauling oversized photographs for an eccentric artist—as the film hurries to keep up. The friends never stop moving and never stop talking either, occasionally bursting into furious, freestyle raps. But it never sounds fake or rehearsed. It feels as if this is how these people would really act—life as a constant performance.

Casal and Diggs have both lived these roles for years, so it’s not surprising that they never deliver a false moment; it helps that the camera loves Diggs’ big, expressive features. The supporting cast is strong, too, with Jasmine Cephas Jones particularly good as Miles’ partner, and Margo Hall a caution as Collin’s no-nonsense mother. (The only occasional weak spots are the story’s cartoonishly clueless yuppies, who ring about as true as the white neighbor onThe Jeffersons.”)

But director of photography Robby Baumgartner is good at capturing the rich colors of Oakland’s nighttime neon and old Victorians, and the director keeps things busy, eventually returning to the split-screen format to re-emphasize the movie’s point about point-of-views.

Crime, racism, the inner city—we all have blind spots when it comes to those subjects. But if all we ever see is what we want to see, how will we ever see a way to make things better?

Editor's note: An earlier version of this version misidentified the actress playing Collin's mother.