Not your average buddy comedy: Blindspotting, A Film Review

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In the age of social media call-outs, we see privilege and racism being named daily, at least from a distance. It remains daunting to speak to someone you know, especially a best friend, about race and its role in your lives. The 2018 film Blindspotting, set in Oakland, California, tells the story of a lifelong interracial friendship and the unnamed power dynamics within it. The film stars its co-writers and co-producers Daveed Digs (of Hamilton and Black-ish) and Rafael Casal, and was directed by Carlos López Estrada.

Blindspotting,¬†according to its Rotten Tomatoes page, is a “buddy comedy with seething social commentary.” Buddy comedies usually highlight the main two friends’ differences: the short one and the tall one, the jock and the nerd, and in Blindspotting, Collin is black and Miles is white.¬†Diggs and Casal, and by extension their characters Collin and Miles, have an unmistakable chemistry. Casal and Diggs wrote the screenplay over the course of nine years, which surely contributed to their rich performance as friends since childhood. At their best, the characters weave together difficult conversations with lighthearted jokes and rap riffs. They check in on one another as a reminder that no matter how hard it gets, they’ll be there. Their performances also depict the exhaustion of long friendships and the heartache that comes when one friend wonders if the relationship is good for him.

Central to the film is the fact that, despite their close friendship, Collin and Miles’ racial differences creates distance in their lived experiences. A year ago, Collin was convicted of a felony and is now living in a halfway house with an 11pm curfew. When the film begins, he has three days left of probation and he’s planning how he’ll spend his time afterward — living with his mother until he can afford to live alone, taking shifts outside his restricted radius, and becoming close again with his former girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar). There’s hope, but there’s also a lurking fear that he won’t make it to the end of his probationary period. Each morning, the screen flashes with the number of days left. The constant imagery of clocks and time sheets serve as a reminder that Collin is still serving time, that the clock is ticking down, and that’s there still time for him to screw up his probation.

This sense of time does not affect Miles — he loosely acknowledges when Collin needs to get home for curfew, and Collin is the one who always punches out both of their timecards. Even while Collin begs Miles not to cause trouble until after his last three days, Miles acts like it isn’t a big deal. When Miles buys a gun, Collin asks him not to tell him when he has it on him, for plausible deniability, but in response, Miles whips out the gun to make a joke. Miles tells Collin it’ll all work out, because he has Collin’s back. As a white man, Miles does not experience the same stakes as Collin — he’s not told to change his look so as to not “look guilty,” and he does not feel the ever-presence of police cars.

Blindspotting¬†portrays a deep love for Oakland while also exploring the city’s gentrification and shifting demographics. For work, Collin and Miles are professional movers, and they gain a peak into the Oakland-grown lives people are packing up. The film opens with a montage of street performers, kids playing, festivals, and other displays of joy in Oakland. This is contrasted with film scenes of $10 green juices, tech bros who audibly lock their car doors a few too many times, and a sense of white apathy about the community — most noticeably portrayed when a group of 20-somethings blindly walk by a memorial for a man killed by a police officer. Both Collin and Miles feel the encroachment, and react in different ways. Collin turns inward, reflecting on the changes and focusing on bettering himself. Miles becomes increasingly antagonistic toward the gentrifiers. He not only grieves the loss of his hometown, but reacts to his fear that as a white man, he won’t be seen as “Oakland enough.”

One night, on his drive home to the halfway house, Collin witnesses a police officer shoot a black man running away and pleading “Don’t shoot.” When police cars begin swarming the area, they tell him to continue driving, and because it is close to curfew, he goes straight home. While viewers may expect him to tell the police, the media, anyone, what he saw, it is immediately clear to Collin that it isn’t an option. He’s black and he’s a felon — the way he sees it: At best, he will not be listened to; At worst, he’ll return to prison or become the subject of police violence. He doesn’t process the trauma, and doesn’t discuss the event with friends, and the shooting takes toll on him by manifesting in his visions and dreams.¬†

While Miles feels like he lives a similar life to Collin — they are both from Oakland, they work together, they have each other’s backs — he does not grasp the fact that his white body will never be viewed the same as Collin’s black body. Miles asserts himself at every chance: he’s always ready to fight and teaches his black son Sean to flex and yell “I’m a tough guy!” While Collin has a clear understanding of what he can lose, because he’s been there, Miles will always have the protection of his white skin. This rift makes it dangerous for Collin to hang out with Miles, and as Val puts it, “He’s going to put you back in jail or get you killed.”

The film’s beautifully fluid camerawork depicts both the vibrancy of Oakland’s streets and the deep inner life of its characters, which makes the film feel both individual and immense. It is a story about Collin – his black identity, his friendships, his city, his life after conviction. However, as we see Collin struggle with his story and try to push beyond it, we also see the larger stakes that gentrification, assumptions about black masculinity, police violence, and interracial relationships can have on the community as a whole.

Despite its massive themes,¬†Blindspotting¬†is funny and intimate and a joy to watch with a number of turns. One of the Sundance’s biggest films of the year, its central friendship and ode to Oakland make it a don’t-miss movie.

Blindspotting is playing now at Kendall Square Cinema.