Sunday, August 05, 2018

Blindspotting / **** (R)


Collin: Daveed Diggs
Miles: Rafael Casal
Val: Janina Gavankar
Ashley: Jasmine Caphas Jones
Officer Molina: Ethan Embry

Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Carlos López Estrada. Written by Rafael Casal & Daveed Diggs. Running time: 95 min. Rated R (for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use).

Facebook is a dangerous place to hang out lately. There are few places onlineor certainly in the physical worldwhere our cultural divides are more clearly displayed out in the open. And yet, many of us can’t quit it. Despite all the political vitriol found there and thought manipulation I see enacted on intelligent people on a daily basis, I still like the contact I get with distant family members and acquaintances. I enjoy seeing pictures of the smaller moments that define most of our lives. I love laughing at pictures of Corgis being dogs while their owner project human presumptions upon them. I also enjoy those challenges that ask you to look at a picture until you can see an image within it that isn’t at first obvious, or the games that ask you which words you see first in a grid of letters. These challenges often claim that what you see first reflects your outlook on life or some such thing. The new movie Blindspotting, written by lifelong friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, offers a glimpse into a culture many of us might not be aware of along with showing its characters that the way they see their life does not necessarily match what others see and vice versa.

The film takes place in Oakland, California, where Diggs and Casal grew up. The city is very much a character in the movie, and the film also functions as a sort of love letter to the much beloved city of its residents. Remember that the residents of this city are willing to dress up in black leather, spikes and full make up every week to support a football team. The move to Vegas must be a blow to such die-hard fans. Much is made about the now mostly absent oak trees that once populated the city to give it its name.

The story follows Collin (Diggs), a felon who served a short sentence on an assault charge and has been released on parole. Most of the film’s events take place during the final three days of his yearlong parole sentence. The terms of his parole require him to hold a fulltime job, remain within the county limits, have no contact with drugs or guns, have no altercations with law enforcement and adhere to an 11 p.m. curfew. He drives a moving van, working with his lifelong best friend, Miles (Casal). Collin is black, Miles white, but the two are very much brothers of environment and culture. Very little is made about their difference in skin color throughout the film, because their environmental background of growing up together in an Oakland neighborhood defines them more than any other aspect in their lives. However, in a scene late in the movie, they must confront their racial differences due to an incident that cannot allow them to deny their difference in skin color.

More so than race, however, the film is about cultural appropriation and how the growing acceptance of different cultures among a much more diverse population is forcing us to recognize the very nature of the things that divide us; and even more reluctantly, illustrates how we must let go of those differences that define us in order to allow for a more complete understanding of each other. In one scene, which is filled with more layers than I can go into in this basic review, Collin and Miles attend a party of a white CEO of a small company that has helped bring jobs and prosperity into their Oakland neighborhood. He stops them from putting their drinks on a coffee table in his living room that he proudly points out was made out of a very old trunk of one of the actual oak trees from which Oakland’s name is derived. He is oblivious to the insensitivity this shows to the culture of the area he has adopted as his home in the face of those who have lived their entire lives there.

An early scene depicts another form of cultural appropriation that anybody who has a childhood hometown can relate to. The two leads have shown up to the grand reopening of a local fast food establishment to find that it no longer resembles the landmark they grew up loving. Instead of the classic burger formula they remember, the restaurant now offers vegan burgers and a variety of other changes that spoil their memories of the past. Anyone who returns to their hometown after years of being away can relate to the effects progress has on their deep felt memories. Geography changes, formula’s change, branding changes, all to cater to a wider palate of tastes and acceptance; and despite how progressive it may be, we have nostalgic affection for what we know. It hurts to see what we love change.

Much of the film’s action centers on a shooting Collin witnesses on his way home for curfew on the night of the restaurant reopening. Police shooting young unarmed black men is a story dominating our news cycle lately, and the one depicted here shows how these incidents can unnerve black men across the country. Diggs & Casal don’t delve too deeply into the shooting itself, as it is their intention more so to explore the effects of such incidents on the psyche of the society within which they take place. Collin is in a situation that allows him little options because of his parole, but his lack of options are really a result of much more than just his parole. His skin color, his hairstyle, his background and even his friendships limit those options. They’re limited by a culture that both worships and fears guns, that many feel requires guns and yet offers no safety for our most vulnerable from them. And while our society makes progress even in a political environment that is promoting racism, even the progressive side of that movement fears certain skin colors and appearances.

Diggs rose to stardom originating the roles of Marque de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original cast of the mega hit musical Hamilton. His improvisational rap style is what drew Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to him and drives his experimental hip-hop group, Clipping. He and Casal employ this hip-hop style throughout their screenplay to drive home the thematic elements of the film. They wisely don’t overuse it, however, working it into seemingly spontaneous moments in the action. Their script might sound a little heavy, but they do a good job filling these character’s lives with natural humor; and their own chemistry is so natural it might only have been able to be achieved by actors who were lifelong friends to begin with. Although Casal hasn’t had quite the visibility as Diggs in his acting career, both bring powerful performances to their roles without a hint of heavy-handedness.

The direction is by music video director Carlos López Estrada, who lovingly captures the spirit and atmosphere of Oakland as a real place where people live and work and respect where they come from. Sometimes his direction is heavily stylized, such as in the dream sequences and the remarkable opening credits sequence where he compares and contrasts the old and new Oakland, depicting its physical progress in a split screen that smoothly transitions the inner city environment into the multicultural city it is today. He also cleverly builds Collin’s growing anxiety over witnessing the shooting and his approach to freedom from parole with a subtle daily routine that builds to a blatant representation of the black inner city experience of a mounting body count in a graveyard he takes a morning jog through everyday.

Blindspotting is a powerful film that somehow doesn’t feels as powerful as it is while you’re watching because of the skill with which the filmmakers make their audience feel and understand the way of life in Oakland. Estrada, Diggs and Casal make a profound impression with what is for all of them their first feature. These are artists who have something important to say, and we should all take note and listen. Their voices aren’t formed from anger, but rather from love. There is anger there and a blazing fire underneath what is an attempt at understanding. Their intentions are clear and they are masters of their crafts. These are artists I will highly anticipate learning from again.

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