In the Sundance breakout, “Blindspotting,” the most powerful in a movie full of gut punches, Collin (“Hamilton” Tony-winner Daveed Diggs) walks down a dark Oakland street. A police cruiser rolls up, shines the spotlight on him and trails alongside for what seems like eternity. It’s excruciating to view, more tense than watching Tom Cruise dangle from yet another flying helicopter, or any other action scene from a sea of big-spectacle summer blockbusters. No, this is full-on tension rooted in reality. Collin is not doing anything but walking home. He’s guilty only of being a young, black man in today’s America. That’s the gist of what deep down is a buddy-comedy cut with dramatic asides addressing hot-topic issues of race gentrification, police brutality and class.
It’s a culmination of a decade-long passion project conceived by Oakland natives Diggs and his real-life BFF, Rafael Casal. They share in writing, producing and starring in a story about Collin (Diggs), a furniture mover trying to make it through the last 72 hours of his probation. The main story begins with Collin witnessing a white police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man. What he sees haunts him the entire movie, and forces Collin to meet head-on his rapidly changing city while also re-examining his life and his relationship with his white, troublemaking best friend from childhood, Miles (Casal).
Coming on the heels of “Sorry to Bother You” from another Oakland native, Boots Riley, “Blindspotting” is the second movie this month to showcase the Bay Area. Both films are two of the most provocative and inventive movies I’ve seen this summer, with loads of style and substance. Oakland, also home to “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, is having a cinematic moment (similar to what happened in Mexico City a generation ago when Alfonzo Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro G. Inarritu emerged before all going on to win Oscars) and clearly, we’re all the luckier for it.
Diggs and Casal smartly limit their story to a three-day span, and the ambitious script tackles A LOT in that short window, almost too much. Many themes are jammed in, and the mix of comedy and drama doesn’t always congeal. You’ve got the police shooting and Collin’s jarring hallucinations that result. There’s also the issue of gentrification, which has movers Miles and Collin crossing paths with the hipsters taking over their city. Miles, who’s never without his signature grill, is your typical hustler, always scamming for his next payday. His come-to-Jesus moment occurs when his young son gets his hands on his gun. Some of the details are also a bit too on the nose. For example, Miles and Collin are both men in transition who also happen to spend their days as movers.
It’s the powerful performances, however, that overcome any of the script shortcomings. Diggs and Casal rap when their characters have something particularly profound or emotional to communicate. And, if you’ve seen the rapid-fire delivery of Diggs in “Hamilton” or Casal on HBO’s Def Poetry, you know the rhyming is fierce. It’s also refreshing to see two female characters given the most intelligent things to say. Janina Gavankar is Collin’s ex-girlfriend who works at the moving company while seeking a degree in psychology. She is Collin’s moral compass. Jasmine Cephas Jones, also a “Hamilton” alum, plays Miles’s wife, who’s trying to better their situation and send her son to a posh preschool. The movie could have used more of both actresses, as they elevate their cookie-cutter parts far beyond merely propping up the male protagonists.
To balance the film’s bold intensity, “Blindspotting” tries too hard to be funny. The main characters possess a particular brand of bro-banter, and there’s one funny scene where Collin and Miles learn their buddy’s pimped-out, purple ride is actually an Uber. But some of the other comedic flourishes fall flat. There’s a running joke about $10 kale juices and cringe-inducing moments showing hipsters trying to act like they’re from the area. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before.
First-time director Carlos López Estrada doesn’t always smoothly handle the tonal shifts, and the climax is totally contrived. What saves the movie, and the climactic scene in particular, is the raw power with which Diggs acts. He’s a marvel, not only on stage, but screen, too. He draws empathy as a young man on the cusp of a new beginning in a society that doesn’t care to give black ex-cons a new lease on life.
“Blindspotting,” by the way, is a psych term for two people seeing the same thing two different ways. The dual nature of perception weighs heavily on the viewers, forcing us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s not always comfortable. But, there is a lot to take away from a movie that has plenty to see and say.