Monday, November 26, 2018

Movie Review: Blindspotting

Blindspotting **** / *****
Directed by: Carlos López Estrada.
Written by: Rafael Casal & Daveed Diggs.
Starring: Daveed Diggs (Collin), Rafael Casal (Miles), Janina Gavankar (Val), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Ashley), Ethan Embry (Officer Molina), Tisha Campbell-Martin (Mama Liz), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Rin), Kevin Carroll (James), Nyambi (Yorkie), Jon Chaffin (Dez), Wayne Knight (Patrick), Margo Hall (Nancy), Ziggy Baitinger (Sean 'Ziggy' Jones).

It’s hard to pin down Blindspotting – which is a wildly ambitious movie – in terms of what it is actually about. It is about race and gentrification and police violence – all in Oakland, a city that, like many, has changed so much over the years the long term residents barely recognize it anymore. It is also a film about language – the dialogue, written by its two stars, is so good because its poetic in a way we don’t often see in a movie, and leads to the films climax – which we expect will be action driven, and is instead, a long, rap infused monologue that shouldn’t work logically, but ends up working brilliantly. It’s a film that is entertaining and disturbing in equal measures – and while it leaves you asking questions more than providing answers, that is mostly a good thing.
In the film, Hamilton break-out Daveed Diggs stars as Collin – who has just gotten out of jail, and is in the waning days of his year-long probation, when he will hopefully be able to get his life back on track. His best friend is Miles (Rafael Casal) – who unlike Colin, is white, but compensates for that by wearing a grill, having a hair trigger temper, and basically, just trying to be the toughest guy on the block, even if it’s more of an act than he would like to admit. By contrast, Collin is the calm one – the one always trying to talk his friend down from the ledge. He’s also the one more likely to be stopped by the cops – something they both know, but don’t talk about (it may well be the reason why Collin went to jail, and Miles did not – when we finally hear the story of what happened).
Diggs and Casal co-wrote the movie together, and like their characters, are longtime friends from Oakland. The city has changed over the years – and the film represents this in the job the pair do together as moving me – constantly packing people up, and moving them out of the city they can no longer afford. To make matters worse, for Miles anyway, the tech bros who are moving in look a lot like he does – he even gets mistaken for a hipster more than once in the movie, which he takes great offense to, being Oakland born and bred.
Early in the film, Collin witnesses a shooting of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police. He doesn’t do anything with this – he has no proof, he was the only witness, and (probably rightly) assumes that if he, someone still on probation, were to make a fuss, he’d end up in back jail. But the incident haunts him just the same – in a series of nightmares – and it is what leads to the climax of the movie – which is the most unlikely climax of the year in many ways – but one that works.

Diggs and Casal’s screenplay here is excellent – both of them are lyricists of some kind or another, and their dialogue has a musicality to it even when it seems like they are just speaking to each other. They are doing so with heightened words. The pair play off each other brilliantly – probably nowhere better when all the things that haven’t been said between them, finally does get said – how Miles will never understand what it’s like to be black in America – something he knows, but feels shame for (he allows both Collin and his wife – who is also black – to call him something he would never call either of them). But then Miles responds – informing Collin that it isn’t easy being the only white kid on the block either – which is why he overcompensates. Collin is annoyed by the changing neighborhoods in his hometown – but Miles is apoplectic.
Blindspotting doesn’t really try and answer the questions it raises – at least not completely. The long monologue that acts as the climax does some of that, but not in a way that is preachy. You may well question the reality of that finale – and fair enough – but we’ve seen the more realistic ending of this story, and it’s not one I would prefer for this film. That ending wouldn’t being nearly as challenging as this one is. The film announces three major new talents to film – it proves Diggs is a versatile performer and writer, and gives us his equally talented co-star, Casal. And director Carlos López Estrada finds a way to mix all the tones and styles into one cohesive movie. Blindspotting sneaks up on you – and it delivers.

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