Here’s another that has been on my radar for a little bit, but that I only got the chance to check out now owing to its release on Irish-specific streaming options. The lead’s name would have been enough to get me interested in Blindspotting of course, since I am a Hamilton fanatic (“Fanilton”? Patent pending). Daveed Digg’s record-breaking delivery of “Guns and Ships” or his “love-to-hate-him” rendition of “Washington On Your Side” will have won him a lot of time and patience from me.
But Blindspotting has enough to recommend it outside of the chance to see Diggs in non-musical surrounds. A cursory examination of its premise offers much in the way of relevant commentary on modern-day situations, not just in the American setting, but even in my own adopted city in terms of gentrification and changing social norms. The director may be on his first outing in terms of feature films, but has the kind of background well-suited to this kind of work. And, through Diggs in particular, Blindspotting was able to present itself as almost a quasi-musical, or at least a film that enhances itself through some very notable musical influences. That was enough for me: was Blindspotting another decent addition to the canon of films on contemporary African-American life, or was my faith a bit misplaced?
Collin (Diggs) is a convicted felon trying to get his life back on-track, counting down the final days of his probation. After witnessing an unjustified police shooting, he begins to suffer from vivid nightmares and hallucinations, while dealing with his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal), who reacts to the changing nature of his neighborhood by buying a handgun and becoming increasingly erratic.
Well, Diggs sure can act outside of Broadway, and he sure can (co)write too. I suppose I should not really have had any doubts. Blindspotting is a low-budget indie triumph, a wonderful portrayal of west-coast America in these turbulent times, and a forthright examination of the state of play in race relations for the same.
I think the thing that really impressed me about Blindspotting is how it manages to encompass a dual plot-line on race and identity from both a black and a white viewpoint. Diggs’ Collin is of course centre-stage, a man caught up in the cruel American legal system and now desperately trying to claw his way back out, to any kind of normalcy. His journey is one filled with heartache and dread, a gradual realisation that you can’t just go home again, not after the things that he has done and the punishment he has experienced. The film’s title describes the human tendency to focus on one aspect of an image to the detriment of seeing others: Collin is that image, and, as one character says, it hard for people to train their brains to break free of the bias.
The effects of witnessing the shooting – a very dramatically captured sequence, where Collin just happens to be the wrong place at the wrong time for too long of a moment – are obviously in the realm of PTSD, and serves as a potent reminder that for every police shooting that have become so regular they begin to seen normal, there are traumatised people left behind, be they directly connected or merely witnesses. It’s telling, and entirely fitting, that the drama of the film does not centre around Collin wrestling with the idea of reporting what he saw (he dismisses this quick, mimicking how such a phone call would go: “Yes, I’m a convicted felon, I’ll just wait here for you to put me back in jail”). If the approach of See You Tomorrow was a wish-fulfillment exercise in combating such events, then Blindspotting is more about the pain of acceptance. Instead of fighting for social justice, its focus is on the mundanity of life, which the effects of seeing the unjustified killing weighs in on. The nightmares and the hallucinations serve as a sort of short-term dramatic cipher for Collin’s larger situation, where his attempts at getting back the life he once had, be it moving back in with his mother, wooing his pre-prison girlfriend or writing down song lyrics, are all just smoke and mirrors.
The life he had is unattainable: his mother has adopted a new kid (not dissimilar to the situation in Kin), his ex, while sympathetic, is hesitant at getting involved with him personally again and the song lyrics, well, more on that in a sec. With a vital pivoting point surrounding the nature of Collin’s conviction being revealed, Blindspotting lets us know that such experiences necessitate deep and lasting change, and no amount of healthy living or burying of feelings will alter that. And that’s before you consider the inherently racist society around him, where even before his conviction Collin is limited to blue collar job opportunities and a steady stream of micro-aggressions.
And then there is Miles. It may be my own bias to say that I found his story equally, or even more, fascinating as Collin’s. Miles is a man doubly out of his comfort zone: as a white man growing up in a predominantly black area, and now as a man with a manner and language influenced by that upbringing living in an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified and, well, white. The pressure turns into classic toxic masculinity quick, with the strain of being a provider for a young family getting to him. He begins to to act out, culminating in a terrifically framed sequence where he confronts a claim that he is guilty of “cultural appropriation” owing to his manner of speaking. Miles is oft portrayed as an asshole, and a user, retaining an infuriating ignorance of how his race means he will be treated differently to Collin for the same actions. By all rights he should be the villain of the story.
But he can also garner some sympathy, as Blindspotting insures the audience understands that Collin and Miles are not just friends for the hell of it: Miles is there for Collin in ways that plenty of other people are not, even if he is, as Raylan Givens would say “born to lose”. A man who successfully sells off old hair dryers and boats on the street using the power of rap and his iffy-understanding of urban street lingo isn’t someone you can put neatly into a box: Blindspotting deserves praise for its treatment of such a storyline, that could easily have become tone-deaf in an instant.
Diggs and Casal play off really with each other, showcasing an easy camaraderie, based in their real-life friendship, in early stages before more breathlessly intense scenes later on. Between the two of them we get a really interesting examination of what it is to be black, what it is to be white in a predominantly black environment, and what it is to be friends in such a situation. Individually, the two actors knock it out of the park, Diggs especially, really capturing the essence of of latent and raw trauma for the Collin character, and Miles the terrible war between his desire to be the masculine ideal and the negative parts of that same idea. The scrip co-written between Casal and Diggs, is a fantastic effort, incorporating plenty of easy-going humour between the two leads, and easily merging that with dramatic requirements when appropriate. Suspense builds and builds, as the depiction of Collin’s improving life falls to shreds. Extended conversational moments risk falling into a late-era Tarantino trap, but more often than not fit into an early-era Tarantino mold instead: nuanced, full of character and real.
Blindspotting builds to what I would consider to be one of its only real weak-points, in a finale that straddles the line between reality and fantasy. Without wanting to give away one of the film’s more unique scenes, the sight of Diggs utilising rap verses in a very unlikely confrontation seems fundamentally off to me in a film that is otherwise painfully real: perhaps the team behind the film were going for a sort of wish-fulfillment allegory, in a stroy that does play with the idea of not being able to trust what you are seeing with your eyes. Even if so, it didn’t work for me, seeming like too convenient of an ending in a narrative sense. Blindspotting wasn’t a film that seemed like it was heading for such an easy answer and such an easy resolution. Better I thought a late scene where Collin confronts Miles’ young son over some roughhousing, only to be stunned silent when the response to his “Stop!” “is for the kid to put his hands above his head and cry “Don’t shoot!”.
Which is not to say that Diggs’ performance in that moment, and the power behind his lyrics and his delivery, isn’t incredible. Blindspotting revolves around rap, with Diggs amusing himself at different moments by rapping on what he sees around him, like he is preparing a concept album for better days. What starts out as a notable quirk turns into something decidedly more emotional and important as things go on, such as in a back-and-forth with Miles in a nightmare court scene, or in the finale, where Diggs almost breaks the fourth wall when deriding white cops who “have never felt the pressure of a n****r” even while he has “never felt the pressure of a trigger”, despite what they may think of him. The power of the poetry is not in question, even if I may question other things.
Lopez has plenty of experience with smaller projects but has never directed anything of this length or, I would wager, this intensity, but you wouldn’t know it if not told beforehand. He shoots Oakland, California with skill, style and reverence, with an eye for the little details and an appreciation for how to frame a scene. Something as simple as a panning shot while Diggs ad-libs raps on a house he and Miles are gutting can be quite affecting, and that’s before you go into the really stand-out set-pieces. For the shooting, Lopez builds tension wonderfully by just having Collin stopped at a red-light for a little too long, and holds brilliantly on the eye-contact between Diggs and the shooter; in nightmares, Collin is bathed in hellish reds as he confronts warped courtrooms with juries filled by dead black men; an antiquated but effective split-screen is suddenly used for a vital third act phone call between Collin and the ex (an excellent Janina Gavankar) who can no longer treat him the way she used to; and even if I didn’t care for the nature of the finale, that final rap is shot with verve and intensity in its use of close-ups and dead-on angles.
But I want to take the time to talk about Blindspotting’s best constructed scene, near the end of the second act, when Collin is confronted by two men who witnessed the crime that made him a felon. Seemingly ribbing on similar scenes used for humorous effect in 2015’s Ant-Man, the story is told in clipped flashback form with the two men substituting their own voices for Collin and Miles, carrying the unreal quality of someone else memories. What starts comedic rapidly turns tragic.
The beauty of the scene is how Collin, having had his requests for the two to not re-tell the tale ignored (another subtle but important example of a black man being disenfranchised in the film), is left silent, frozen, humiliated and furious, wordlessly expressing his regret and realising that everything he has been trying to do to improve himself is for naught, at least in terms of improving his image to others: for them, he will always be the angry black man who beat up a white guy outside of a bar, whether they think the event was hysterical (again, disenfranchising Collin by treating the worst moment of his life like a joke), bad-ass (just as terrible, since it treats it like something worthy of praise) or horrible (as it is seen in the eyes of the Val character, who finds her desire to no longer be involved with Collin romantically enunciated by other people when she isn’t capable of doing so herself). It’s one of the very best directed, written and performed scenes of the year.
I was very impressed by Blindspotting, coming from a director with little experience of features and a central actor who has never had to carry a production of this type. Diggs is wonderful, as is Casal. The film tells two very important individual stories and its commentary on police shootings, the struggles of ex-cons, masculinity in the modern world and mental trauma is thought-provoking at all times. As much as all that, it is simply timely: the film captivates with its sparkling script, replete with a heady mix of drama and comedy. Entertaining and engaging, the people behind Blindspotting are ones to look out for again in the future. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).