SXSW 2018 Review: BLINDSPOTTING Radicalizes The Gentrified

A vibrant, wild three days in a radically changing Oakland.

Collin (Daveed Diggs) has three days to go until his probation is up. Sitting in the back of a tricked out ride while his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) smokes up with the driver Dez (Jon Chaffin) before they start pulling out a cache of guns that're hidden everywhere (from the seats to the goddamn passenger side visor), it becomes readily apparent during the first five minutes of Blindspotting that the nearly free man will probably have to make some tough decisions soon regarding who he chooses to spend his time with. Collin's determined to stay straight and clean, even as they get out of the car and Miles starts harassing an employee at the grand opening of the newest KwikMart. The kid’s just telling him that if he wants meat in his burger (as opposed to a vegan patty), that Miles has to make that request upon placing his initial order. But why the fuck would he need to specify "meat" in a hamburger? It's a fucking hamburger

Blindspotting is first time feature director Carlos López Estrada's attempt at crafting a Do The Right Thing for the Millennial gentrification age. His vibrant, kinetic vision of Collin and Miles' Oakland, California neighborhood is one of continuous change. While the bodega next door to Miles' house still sells squares ("loosies" - or single cigarettes - to us East Coast folk), it's also got a cooler full of some green concoction that goes for $10 a bottle next to the counter. Being the motor mouth that he is, Miles can't help but bitch about the ever-evolving landscape that used to be his hometown, but Collin seems slightly more at ease with the evolution. After all, he's the one snagging one of those overpriced juices, just to impress his "healthy living" ex, Val (Janina Gavankar), when they get to work at the local moving company (where she manages the front desk). While the hipsters keep buying up the old properties with their tech job money, these two goofs are stuck in the same old apartment and halfway home, trying to make sense of a 'hood where, frankly, they don't quite fit in anymore. 

One thing that hasn't changed, despite the influx of white kids wearing Harry Potter glasses? Cops still shoot unarmed black men in the back if they don't stop running. This is an atrocity Collin witnesses first hand while driving the truck home by himself one night. Officer Molina (Ethan Embry) plugs multiple bullets into a fleeing suspect - a haunting, brutal instance of violence that's burned into our boy's memory, before being shuffled off to bed by Molina's brothers in blue like nothing ever happened. When he tells Miles about it the next day – in front of his kid, who also gets pamphlets at school regarding "how to talk to the police" – his bestie chalks it up to being just another moment of police brutality in Oakland. When the news reports the crime later that night, Miles can't help but throw his hands up when the broadcast uses a photo of the suspect in a prison jumpsuit as they relay the story. Of course, they're going to paint him as the "bad guy". That's just how they do. 

Using a countdown that frequently appears onscreen (adding a sly sense of structure to this otherwise freewheeling endeavor), we're with Collin every step of the way, as the minutes tick off the clock toward his probation ending. After he witnesses the brutal crime, we also wonder if these bold, black legends don't also represent a closing window, as Officer Molina may be returning to find a reason to toss the kid back in jail before he can testify against him in court (or, worse yet, also put four bullets in Collin's back). 

Minor Spoiler Alert: he doesn't, because Blindspotting isn't that sort of movie. In fact, Diggs and Casal's screenplay treats the moment more as an illustration. Despite the transmuting landscape, some horrid attitudes and actions are always going to remain. At its core, Estrada's picture is a buddy comedy, observing as these two goofballs find ways to amuse themselves in a hometown that may no longer feel like "home". It's a rather bold choice: refusing the obvious catalyst for drama to instead focus on the interpersonal conflicts that arise between an interracial set of besties (Collin's black; Miles is white) and how their viewpoints are affected by their socially kaleidoscopic environment.

The bulk of Blindspotting’s power comes from Diggs and Casal, who deliver two electric, thoroughly lived-in characters that we love hanging out with for 90 minutes. Diggs is already something of a star – having earned a Tony for his double-duty as both Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in Hamilton – but lends the movie its moral center via Collin's tender, conscientious heart. Watching him try and reconcile with the judgmental Val results in some of the movie's more moving moments - but is Val disapproving because she's "uppity" (or worse – a bitch – according to Miles)? Or is Collin just that much of a consummate fuck up? That's the driving motivation that keeps Diggs' turn feeling so fresh and real; he's always full of doubt regarding his ability to atone for past mistakes. 

However, Blindspotting was apparently Casal’s baby to begin with, and he lends the movie a machine gun rhythm that isn't quite that of a musical's, but transitions naturally into spoken word verse whenever these characters have something they need to get off their chests. Casal hails from a poetic background, having performed on HBO’s Def Poetry earlier in his career. Here, the charming real-life besties are tested because Miles is resistant to the new faces that are invading Oakland, bringing their hipster nonsense, meatless burgers, craft beer and juice cleanses along with them. This is where Estrada (not to mention Diggs and Casal) milks the movie for as much drama as humanly possible. Collin is probably OK with his identity changing, while Miles – a white dude who "talks black" – is close to becoming the stereotype his best friend wishes he could avoid. The two have clearly got one another’s backs, but we're waiting for them to blow up at each other the whole time. 

Yet Blindspotting is just as much Estrada's showcase as it is the two leads', the young director employing every visual gag in his magician’s bag. Split screens, color saturation, hip hop cues, tracking shots - each scene is a rather marvelous miracle of invention, with the former TV director seemingly discontent without layering on a boatload of style at all times. While it can become a little overwhelming, Estrada is also wise to pull back at just the right moments and let scenes play out, without the aid of any wide lenses or trick editing. The end result is a rather intoxicating work of pure ambition that isn't afraid to trip over its own aspirations (as it sort of does during a climax that involves a little too much rhyming coincidence for its own good). Blindspotting is the announcement of some major talents, pulsating with life and a distinct point of view - wild, weird, and totally wonderful.

Blindspotting will continue to screen at SXSW Wednesday, March 14th, at the Alamo Lamar (8:45 PM).