With increasingly becoming America’s “second city” it is perhaps interesting that their Harlem, Oakland, has been going through something of a renaissance of African American filmmaking in the last few years. This perhaps goes as far back as the 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, an early Barry Jenkins effort about two African Americans living in neighboring San Francisco who spend a great deal of time talking about gentrification in the bay area. But the tread really seems to have taken off with Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station, about a real life case of police violence that occurred on a BART station in Oakland. By necessity Coogler’s follow-up films (Creed and Black Panther) have been primarily set in Philadelphia and Africa respectively but given that he went out of his way to set parts of Black Panther in Oakland I think it’s fair to say that his roots still grow strong in the East Bay. This year has perhaps where we have gotten our three points to make a trend because within a span of a couple of months we’ve gotten two movies that make a point of being set in Bump City. One was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which is admittedly a film so strange that it’s setting somewhat secondary, but it was nonetheless largely shot on location in Oakland. The next and latest film set in that city is even more vocally about its setting, the new film covering both police violence and gentrification called Blindspotting.
Blindspotting begins with a man named Colin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) being released from prison after a short but painful sentence and then flashes forward to the last three days of his probation. While Hoskins is living in a halfway home he has a job as a mover and works with his best friend from childhood Miles (Rafael Casal). Miles is a white guy but he’s Oakland born and raised and talks in the black vernacular. He could be described using a word that is a racial slur that has had an “N” replaced by a “W.” Neither Colin nor Miles appear to have ever been professional criminals but they are streetwise and can hold their own in a fight. As the film begins Hoskins has only a couple of days left on his probation when he suddenly finds himself the sole witness to a police shooting of a seemingly unarmed man. In many cases that would be the setup to a thriller with Hoskins acting as a sort of Serpico who acts as a bold witness to bring down the killer cop, but that kind of heroism isn’t going to happen here. When asked if he’s going to go to the police with this information he simply says something along the lines of “what am I going to do, report the police to themselves.” The tension here is instead about how witnessing something like that effects Hoskins’ psyche as well as the various other conflicts in his life coming to a fore.
Blindspotting is a movie with a certain theatricality to it in that it’s the kind of story where a lifetime’s worth of tensions all come to a head over the course of three days’ worth of conversations and things all just kind of come together according to theme rather than conventional plausibility. The film was written by its stars, making it something of a throwback to the era of independent films like Swingers and The Brothers McMullen where writers would make very personal projects and wear a lot of hats in getting them made. The downside of this is that this is that the script written by first time screenwriters who began their work while they were in their 20s and at times this really shows. The film wants to tackle a number of themes and it does so in a really on the nose fashion when it didn’t necessarily have to. For example, the film is largely about gentrification, which it tackles by having its characters explicitly talking about the subject and occasionally run into situations that illustrate the theme right on cue. The film also reaches something of a nadir in its climactic scene which is something so stupid that I thought (hoped) it would turn out to be a fantasy sequence, but no, it’s supposed to be real and the film had not done nearly enough to set a tone that would make such a moment work as some sort of surreal touch.
Having said that, there’s still a lot I like about Blindspotting. For one thing I thought the two main performances in the movie were quite good. Daveed Diggs is an actor who’s primarily known for his stage work (he was in the original cast of “Hamilton”) so I wasn’t terribly familiar with him but he does have screen presence and clearly connects a lot with this character he’s created for himself. Rafael Casal on the other hand was a complete nobody before making this, to the point where he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and yet he’s able to make this character who could have easily come off as a rather pathetic stereotype seem plausible and even understandable. I also found myself rather liking the way the film shoots Oakland even though obsessions with local geography can often be a rather cringey aspect of indies like this. Blindspotting is ultimately a pretty good little movie that’s bogged down a bit by a couple of misguided flights of fancy and a couple of moments that just seem really on the nose in a slightly sophomoric way. Certainly worth checking out but not exactly one for the ages.
*** out of Five