SXSW Film Festival Review – Blindspotting
Oakland is having a moment on the big screen. The setting of several key scenes in Marvel’s Black Panther, the city affectionately known as “The Town”–often in the shadow of its sister city San Francisco to the west and the booming Silicon Valley region to the south–will finally get its long overdue love letter with Blindspotting. Fittingly, the place where the Black Panther Party was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in October of ‘66 is the backdrop for a film that comes in the midst of an important national discussion centered on our preconceived notions of racial identity, masculinity, and the politics of locality.
Originally developed nine years ago by first-time screenwriters, lifelong friends, and Bay-area natives Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting will find audiences at a time when Oakland itself is undergoing a metamorphosis, with old neighborhoods being torn down and rebuilt brick by brick, and a new wave of residents moving in. And as the film playfully muses, nothing is the same after hipsters invade. Conflicts of identity abound, Diggs, Casal, and director Carlos Lopez Estrada, in his feature film debut, elevate a universal story with a confidence and pride that leads to a humorous, gritty, and at times surreal visual and linguistic depiction of their city.
Though the changing Bay Area is an integral element to the story, Blindspotting is a heartfelt character-driven dramedy. The films begins as Collin (Diggs), a convicted felon, is finishing up his final days in a halfway house. He’s been given a job driving a moving truck by his ex-girlfriend and works alongside his best friend Miles (Casal), a hothead with a penchant for putting Collin in unwanted situations. Late for his curfew one night, Collins witnesses an all-too-common scene of police brutality as a white cop guns down an unarmed black man. Without any recourse, Collin moves on, but bouts of anxiety from witnessing the shooting follow him like a stormcloud.
It’s in these moments of internal panic or moral quarreling where Blindspotting blossoms into a vehicle that should get Diggs into awards discussion and land Casal– known primarily for his music and poetry but is a standout in his first acting credit here–on lists of breakout stars to watch. Even with the layers of personal strife and racial inequality pushing the film forward, Diggs and Casal find plenty of time to showcase the wit and charm of the city as projected through the regional slang of the Bay Area. The actors’ chemistry, given their personal connection, is palpable in both comedic and emotionally distressing scenes.
Similarly, this film will likely be remembered for its experimentation with form. Diggs and Casal are versatile performers who shine in scenes that pop with spoken-word riffs or poetic-verse. There are mid-scene interjections of lyrical expressionism that add a fantastical dimension to the film. Nowhere is that more evident than in a scene that depicts one of Colin’s nightmares. The scene turns into music video eye candy, vibrant in color and meaning as Casal and Diggs flex their hip-hop muscles. Though at times a bit distracting from the plot, the lyrical detours are a joy to watch and give the film an alternative avenue to speak its peace.
Blindspotting’s commentary on how we view race is best delivered through the lens of Colin and Miles’ relationship. Part of Colin’s frustration with Miles is that even though they both grew up in the Bay, the color of Collin’s skin inherently puts him in a tougher position than his white friend when the law gets involved. Miles, on the other hand, is going through an identity crisis of his own as he sees his street cred rapidly deteriorate as Oakland gentrifies and his neighbors start to look more like him, which leads him to lash out at several points in the film. Despite the obvious bond their share as childhood friends, Collin has to decide whether he can ever truly move on with his life if Miles is still pulling the same sophomoric nonsense that could land Collin back in prison.
It’s been five decades since the Black Panther Party first congregated in Oakland and many of the same issues still persist. Blindspotting has to make its uncomfortable peace with that, but it pushes us to consider how to take smaller actions in our own lives, whether that’s leaving the past or a good friend behind if it means you can move forward. The duality of a film that feels uniquely tied to Oakland, yet could resonate for folks living in any big city being swarmed by transplants or troubled by a contentious relationship between the police and its citizens, is an achievement. But what makes Blindspotting a memorable film is that despite all its macho posturing, it reveals the true value in self-awareness and accepting vulnerability. And like any worthwhile movement with the mission to empower, the film unapologetically shoots from the lip with a lyrical style and flair that is as entertaining as it is profound.