Talk about the success of 2015’s musical Hamilton was inescapable for months and yet I don’t think I’ve heard a single song from it. I can safely say that I cannot comment on the quality or lack thereof of the acting of the people in the show. It’s also left me curious about seeing them in other roles as the original cast was lavished with awards for their ability. One of those actors, Daveed Diggs, has been racking up roles lately, but I had been underwhelmed with what I had seen him in as he was saddled with an insufferable role on Black-ish and his role in Tour de Pharmacy was minor and mostly physical in nature. Blindspotting, however, offered a chance however to see him not only in a lead role, but in a role that he had co-written and for a film he had co-produced. It was the ideal scenario for any actor.
I’ll admit that I went into this with feelings of dread. Despite being labeled as a comedy-drama, the trailer promised serious discussions of serious issues on how terrible it is to be a black man, especially a convicted felon, in the US. As a vital as that kind of films is, I get enough of a diet of those stories daily. Thankfully, the comedy is a significant part of the film, mostly in the form of jokes about gentrification. For the low hanging fruit of gentrification comedy, they are better than most, and the way that it works the discussion of it into the drama is mostly well done. Most importantly though, it keeps the story from ever getting too dark.
Written by Diggs and his childhood friend Rafael Casal (looking eerily like a young, tatted-up Josh Homme), the film is set in their childhood home of Oakland, currently in the process of being gentrified. Diggs’s character Collin has gotten out from doing a two-month bid in prison on a felony conviction and is nearing the end of his one-year probation. He’s determined not just to make it to the end of that year unscathed, but also move on with his life. Casal on the other hand plays his character (Miles) as someone who longs for the old Oakland before all the white people came in and started taking over the city. Miles is white. Collin’s path to moving forward is complicated by his association with Miles, who despite being supportive, is also an idiot, and by an incident in which he witnesses a white cop shoot a fleeing black man in the back.
Once again, I have to reiterate, that this is not as deathly serious a movie as this sounds, with comparisons to early Spike Lee (namely Do the Right Thing) in approach being apt in the way it weaves the two types of scenes together. Even more so than Lee, the movie is fills itself with stylistic flourishes especially in the way that witnessing the shooting haunts Miles. Some of these are a bit much, but first-time director Carlos López Estrada (it’s always the first-time directors who want to show off all the film tricks they know) does have a flair for them and they do effectively take us inside Collin’s head. Other stylistic devices like Collin’s proclivity for rapping out on the nose bars about the situation are less effective. In fact, it’s a problem the film like so many of its ilk has as the dialogue trades subtlety for directly discussing the issues.
The central performances both very strong. Diggs holds down the film at the center and able to handle the wide range the role requires; the joking, the fear, the anger, the thoughtfulness. You’d never guess this was Casal’s first film role though as he takes what should be an insufferable parody of a character that you just want Collin to get rid of and makes him compelling and human. They have such great and natural chemistry with each other, one that also extends to Miles’s wife as played by Hamilton‘s Jasmine Cephas Jones, that enlivens every scene they share together.
Blindspotting is visually ambitious and ambitious in the way it wants to tackle race and gentrification. It doesn’t always do so gracefully or successfully, but it’s heart is in the right place with its message. Regardless, it’s another welcome presence in the world alongside films like Dope and Sorry to Bother You which prove that you can tell tales of modern city life and the perceptions of race without the film becoming an exercise in misery.