A film review by Craig J. Koban December 11, 2018

BLINDSPOTTING jjj
   

2018, R, 95 mins.

 

Daveed Diggs as Collin  /  Rafael Casal as Miles  /  Janina Gavankar as Val  /  Jasmine Cephas Jones as Ashley  /  

Directed by Carlos López Estrada  /  Written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs

 

 

 

BLINDSPOTTING is the second film from 2018 alongside Boots Riley's SORRY TO BOTHER YOU that is set in Oakland, California and contains themes of race relations, gentrification, and how the identities of communities are all but being destroyed by corporate interests that are only in it for themselves and to make a quick buck.  

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU dabbled in more clear cut fantasy than BLINDSPOTTING in regards to being set in a fictitious, dystopian version of Oakland that featured a black man selling out to work for a telemarketing firm with nasty ties to an evil corporation that eventually goes through a spiritual and physical transformation when his eyes are opened to the injustice that surrounds him.  By direct contrast, BLINDSPOTTING seems substantially more authentically grounded and rooted in our own reality of Oakland of today, which perhaps makes this film simmer with a bit more unsettling darkness.  

Yet, both films deal head on with the oppressive power of gentrification that begins to have a suffocating effect on the city, and both are ultimately timely in the sense that they relay an impactful story of racial prejudice, class conflict, and a flawed justice system in a setting that frequently all but gets ignored in contemporary cinema.  BLINDSPOTTING is arguably the more personal film, seeing as it was written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who have been friends since childhood and who have been trying to get their screenplay made since the mid-2000's, mostly out of a desire to see their city in Oakland get some much needed silver screen attention.  Like SORRY TO BOTHER YOU before it, BLIDNSPOTTING has moments of dramatic potency and absurd comic hijinks, but both films also share a sometimes unhealthy tonal disconnect and lack of narrative cohesion that sort of holds them back from achieving true transcending greatness. 

 

 

Diggs plays Colin, a convicted felon that has to deal with finishing off his final three days of probation without getting into any trouble.  To make ends meet Colin works for an Oakland based moving company with his BFF in Miles (Casal), the latter of which is supremely hot headed and just one step away from getting into trouble with the law himself.  One night changes Colin forever when he has the misfortune of witnessing a white police officer (Ethan Embry) running down a black suspect, eventually shooting the defenseless man in the back and killing him.  Colin faces a real dilemma: He wants to report what he saw, but he witnessed the event at a time of day that would be in violation of his probation, which would put him back in the slammer.  He decides to keep his mouth shut, trying to make it through his remaining probation days and trying to re-connect with his old flame, Val (Janina Gavankar), who also works at his delivery company.  Regrettably, the weight of witnessing this brutal and racially profiled police killing begins to weigh heavily on Colin's soul, who begins to mentally unravel while dealing with the added pressures of his ticking time bomb of a friend in Miles that could explode and cause trouble for all. 

One area that I think BLINDSPOTTING exceeds SORRY TO BOTHER YOU on is in its gritty verisimilitude presenting Oakland as a city in cultural decay.  Director Carlos Lopez Estrada (a Mexican filmmaker that cut his teeth making music videos and commercials beforehand) has a sure-fire hand in terms of relaying the startling transformation of Oakland being changed before Colin's and Miles' eyes, with rich companies swooping in and littering their once mean streets with new profit motivated store fronts that are slowly eating away at the ethnic makeup of these neighborhoods.  And it's this very manner that Oakland is changing that adds further fuel to the fires that continually feeds into the pair's ever escalating unease and uncertainty for the future.  BLINDSPOTTING has a sense of environmental and atmospheric immediacy, which is thank in no small part to the film's stars having called Oakland home for most of their lives and how they've been cultivating this script for nearly ten years to get this portrait right. 

The scale of BLINDSPOTTING also feels more insular and intimate than the outrageous flights of fancy contained within SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (sorry, by the way, for the constant comparisons).  BLINDSPOTTING captures the unsettling reality of what it means to be a vulnerable black man in America that wants to do the right thing, but greatly fears unfair legal reprisals because of one's station in life.  The themes of racial bigotry are obviously tied to police corruption here, not to mention that the narrative also delves deep into the core friendship between Colin and Miles and what it means to be loyal to your buddy, even when you know your buddy is perhaps no damn good for you.  Combining these ideas with aspects of corporations monopolizing urban centers to plant their own brands in the name of progress and you have a pretty jam packed film.  BLINDSPOTTING deserves the praise it's been receiving as being an important film with a lot to say about how the modern world works and how it's broken, but sometimes it feels like there's simply too much going on here that a single and woefully short 95 minute film can contain and expand upon. 

BLINDSPOTTING also straddles between two distinct tonal hemispheres throughout, sometimes fluidly, and sometimes awkwardly.  Some scenes are played for maximum madcap comic energy featuring a plethora of gallows humor, only then to give way to individual moments of nightmarish dramatic bleakness.  There's a claim to be made, I think, that BLINDSPOTTING's ricochet-like effect, jumping from laughs to pathos at the drop of a dime, mirrors the main character's emotional implosion as the stresses of the day become to big to bare anymore.  Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily translate to a truly effective comedy or drama, though, and BLINDSPOTTING begins to feel like a much longer movie than it actually is because of its incongruent vibe throughout.  The middle sections of the story seem to be going all over the place as well, without any apparent semblance of a future plan of attack.  BLINDSPOTTING begins with promise, becomes muddled and confusing in second third, but then delivers in his final act that will definitely polarize a lot of viewers. 

This sensational climax is kind of hard to talk about without going into minor spoilers, but let's just say that the entire film culminates to an inevitable showdown between Colin and the disgraced cop that he witnessed kill the black man early on.  BLINDSPOTTING builds to a staggeringly intense peak with this nail biting confrontation (Lopez, if anything, generates suspense as good as any director in this sequence) and eventually showcases Colin, shall we say, finding a unique manner of dealing with all of his subverted feelings of hatred towards this corrupt officer of the law, which also highlights Diggs' performance as one of ferociously raw power.  I think audience members will either be completely taken in with the rather unconventional approach of Estrada constructing and executing Colin's rage-filled monologue here, whereas others might be throwing up their hands in confusion and/or frustration.  I was somewhat right in the middle; this scene is undeniably gripping and Diggs is sensational in it, but it's theatricality and momentary divorce from reality seems like it's almost edited in from a whole other different film altogether. 

Overall, though, I appreciated the core dynamic of BLINDSPOTTING.  Its story about a couple of lowlifes trying to live a life of respect in their city that's devolving and being perverted into something they despise.  And Diggs and Casal have such strong natural chemistry together (born out of their actual decades-long friendship off camera) that I would love to see them in more films together.   BLINDSPOTTING walks a ultra delicate highwire act between being a disturbing urban drama and a whimsical farce and doesn't always succeed as a result, but Estrada has nevertheless made a compelling and ambitious film filled with meaningful ideas and important themes, not to mention that it creates a stirring portrait of a complex and ever-changing city that seems ripe for social commentary.  There's a better, longer, and more coherent film to made of this multi-layered material, I think, but BLINDSPOTTING deserves props for creative audacity...and at least trying where so few other films haven't.   

  H O M E