Movie Review: ‘BLINDSPOTTING’ an impressive hip-hop-inflected tour of Oakland, with powerful themes

Preston Barta // Features Editor

BLINDSPOTTING

Rated R, 95 minutes.
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Cast: Daveed DiggsRafael CasalJanina GavankarJasmine Cephas JonesEthan EmbryTisha Campbell-MartinUtkarsh Ambudkar and Wayne Knight

Some issues are too difficult to narrow down, despite our media’s best efforts. But there are matters that shouldn’t get the short end of the stick. They deserve a story — a real story, one that allows people to communicate with each other in ways that defy the articulation of human language.

BLINDSPOTTING, a passion project co-written by HAMILTON breakout star Daveed Diggs and lauded poet Rafael Casal, is one such powerful story that is bound to generate a dialogue. Through its profound examinations of gentrification, race relations, police brutality and trauma, we get a film that both comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. It stylishly cruises down all avenues of life, happy or sad, and serves up a sampling of magical realism through its hip-hop-inflected tour of Oakland, California.

The comedic drama puts us in the shoes of Collin (Diggs), who, after serving two months in jail, longs for a life before his time in a halfway house. At least he works with his best friend, Miles (a terrific Casal). They drive around their gentrifying hometown, disposing the junk within foreclosed homes to make room for wealthier tenants who plan to knock it down and make it unaffordable. Their job tests their emotions, as they discouragingly watch their own stomping grounds take a shape they no longer recognize.

“I think Oakland and a lot of cities are changing very rapidly. That is neither good nor bad. That’s progress — that’s how it happens,” Diggs said during an interview at BLINDSPOTTING’s regional premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. “The tricky thing comes when a city’s development and influx of new people start to ignore the foundation in which it was based on — in fact, try to actively start pushing out the people who created the environment that drew people to the place.”

Diggs and Casal discussed how they don’t spend a lot of time in Oakland anymore, but they are shocked when they return to find neighborhoods they grew up in to be so drastically different from what they remember. Families and friends they once knew no longer live there.

BLINDSPOTTING writer/actor Daveed Diggs, director of SXSW Film Janet Pierson, director Carlos Lopez Estrada, and writer/actor Rafael Casal at the SXSW premiere. Courtesy photo.

“There are real-life consequences of these things, and we wanted to show that in the film,” Diggs said. “My favorite discussion of gentrification in the film is when Miles and [his girlfriend] Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) are trying to figure out where to send their kid to preschool. That’s a direct result of an influx of people and there being a different class of schools that cost more to go to. That is a product of gentrification that we don’t talk about.”

In addition to gentrification, BLINDSPOTTING also expertly weaves together themes of race relations and police brutality, both of which play a key role in the film. Early on in the story, Diggs’ character witnesses the murder of an unarmed black man by a police officer (Ethan Embry). It’s a scary and brutally honest sequence, but what remains most unnerving about it is how normal it is to Collin.

“We didn’t set out to write a movie about issues; we set out to write a movie about people. Our goal was to capture Oakland and portray the city and its people as honestly as possible. We also wanted to make people complicated and treat them as the human beings they are,” Diggs said. “I think if we held a mirror up to ourselves, we would notice that we all are dealing with similiar issues. As long as we can relate to the characters and their situations, there’s no reason not to include all these themes in one story.

The film’s biggest and most crushing moments come in the form of lyrics. You could cheaply label the film as a rap musical of sorts, but it manages to successfully integrate the language of Oakland’s streets into its lyrics.

“We always knew that verse coming out of dialogue would be the plan. We didn’t want to have musical numbers,” Casal said. “I think in one of the early iterations we were going to use ambient noise to use anything that felt remotely rhythmic. There are only two moments in the film that do that. We wanted to stack verses in as many heightened ways as we could, because the Bay area is a slang-driven place. It’s a characteristic of the region, and we wanted to incorporate that.”

BLINDPSOTTING opens your eyes to social issues in a way that hasn’t been done on screen since Spike Lee’s 1989 film DO THE RIGHT THING. It’s slick, funny and sincere, and one of the year’s very best. Seek it out.

[Grade: A-]

BLINDSPOTTING is now playing in select theaters. Check your local listings.

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